Best Fingerpicking Guitar - 6 Vital Stats You Need to Know Before Buying
+ 5 Great Fingerpicking Guitarists
Before we go looking for the best fingerpicking guitar, let's look at what fingerpicking is.
The technique of finger-picking, or fingerstyle, involves plucking the strings directly with the fingertips or fingernails. The technique is used on both nylon and steel string guitars. Classical and flamenco are traditionally played on nylon strings, while genres like rock, blues and country are usually played on steel strings. Some players use a thumb pick, or finger picks, but that's somewhat rare. Regardless, it's the multitasking plucking fingers that define this style.
In fingerpicking, bass notes are played with the thumb while the upper notes are plucked with the other fingers. Just how many bass notes and treble notes are played with which fingers is what differentiates the many schools of fingerpicking.
In classical guitar, the thumb, index and middle fingers are all used for plucking. In flamenco, the thumb pulls double duty, being used for both single notes and strumming. Alternating bass method has the thumb playing rhythm with the index, and sometimes middle, finger picking out the melody. Then there's the very smooth Piedmont school of fingerpicking, where only the thumb and index finger are used. And the Travis picking method employs a pre-set right hand pattern, while the left plays standard chords.
There is no single type of fingerpicking that is used in every situation and each style has its own sound. (I've provided a lot of examples via links on this page. All links will open in a separate tab.)
There are, however, common things to look for that make some of the best fingerpicking guitars. If this is a style you're interested in, whether you're already playing it or looking for something for beginners, read on and I'll help you find a great fingerstyle guitar
Certain top woods favor fingerpicking styles of play. Lighter, more responsive woods that provide plenty of resonance are what you're looking for. You want something that captures the clarity of the individual notes while not leaving them sounding isolated. As always, a solid wood top is preferable to a laminate to get the best sound.
Spruce is especially good as a top wood for some of the best fingerstyle guitars, for maintaining that clarity I mentioned. Sitka and Engelmann spruce varieties in particular have excellent quality resonance to make sure those individual notes and the naturally lighter playing method can still be easily heard.
Cedar is another great wood top for the best fingerpicking guitars. It's less dense than spruce and this softer nature adds more tonal warmth to the notes produced. Being a lighter wood makes it directly compatible with the lighter playing fingerstyle.
Chet Atkins was a fingerpicker extraordinaire. He helped introduce electric guitar into popular music in the 1950s. Yet it was his amazing fingerpicking that resounded on the steel-string acoustic. He lent his models to Gretsch from 1955 to 1980. His signature line does include electro-acoustic nylon string guitars, but there are steel-string acoustics available in the form of flat-top guitars and archtop guitars.
One of the modern guitar models from 1999 is the Gibson Chet Atkins SST Natural. This is a modern steel-string guitar that actually was made to be more of a descendant of the nylon-strung guitars.
You can find this master guitarist's complete discography here.
Fingerpicking Style - Country
Small body, lighter weight guitars are generally preferable for most fingerpicking players. This favorable anatomy has to do with comfort more than sound. Honestly, your hands are going to be so busy, the last thing you want to be struggling with is reach, or comfort. Even normally full-size players sometimes, choose a slightly smaller profile when they're fingerpicking for these reasons.
In steel string acoustics this can be a drop to something like a Big Baby Taylor, a ¾ size for some, or even a parlor guitar in certain cases. And classical and flamenco guitars (nylon strings) are already a smaller body-size than a dreadnought.
For a quick rundown of acoustic guitar shapes and sizes, check out this chart.
If you're fingerpicking an electric guitar, yes – it's possible, size is less of an issue as the bodies are already smaller and easier to manage. String and fret spacing is the bigger issue here. (See below.)
Etta’s two-finger style (thumb and index finger) of playing guitar follows in the tradition of other great Piedmont guitarists. Known for her beautiful arrangements and driving rhythm, Etta’s guitar repertoire ranges from late 19th-century parlor music to intimation of blues music styles that would define the post-World War II urban electric blues that became popular in Chicago and Detroit and gave birth to Rock ‘n Roll.
Etta continued to perform well into her 90’s, passing away on September 23rd, 2006 at the age 93. – From ettabakerproject.com (links to video page)
Fingerpicking Style - Blues
Speaking of string spacing…
The consensus of many professional fingerpickers is that a 1¾" nut is an ideal size. The nut it the bit of bone (or plastic) at the top of the fretboard, just below the headstock, that the strings pass through. This size allows for sufficient string spacing for most hands to comfortably fingerpick a guitar. Though also check the string spacing over the sound hole, where you'll be plucking.
And while we're hovering around the neck, a radiused (slightly rounded) fretboard is another nice comfort feature to look for when you're going to play fingerstyle.
For once, players with small hands are at an advantage. They may even opt for a smaller nut. However, if you're a player with smaller hands and you've got an accommodating guitar, you may already be set up perfectly for fingerpicking.
Of course, if you've got larger hands, or especially thick fingers, you're going to want that 1¾" nut, or possibly larger.
Paco De Lucía
Paco De Lucía was a Spanish virtuoso flamenco guitarist, composer and producer. A leading proponent of the new flamenco style, he helped legitimize flamenco among the establishment in Spain, and was one of the first flamenco guitarists to cross over successfully into other genres of music such as classical and jazz.
De Lucía was noted for his fast and fluent picados (fingerstyle runs). A master of contrast, he often juxtaposed picados and rasgueados (flamenco strumming) with more sensitive playing and was known for adding abstract chords and scale tones to his compositions with jazz influences. – From Wikipedia
And here's a video for you enjoyment.
Fingerpicking Style - Flamenco
Speaking of the action…(okay, maybe I wasn't, but I needed a segue.)
The action is the distance from the strings to the fretboard. Depending on how the guitar feels when you play it, you might have room to lower the action a bit, which could make it easier to fingerpick.
Classical guitars traditionally have high action, which leaves room for this change. Flamenco guitars start with lower action, so this adjustment may not be available. And steel string acoustics and electrics vary according to model. Consult with your local guitar tech or luthier before making this modification, or have them do it, so you don't end up with excessive fret buzz.
Andrés Segovia, the legendary virtuoso classical guitarist, brought modern elements into his playing. His fingerpicking was done by both the flesh of his fingers and the nail of his right hand.
According to metronomeonline.com, the first joint of his plucking finger would give way to the string and momentarily reverse so as to bend the string backward. A true artist, he played so his finger flesh would only hit the string to roll and release it, allowing the nail to add a snap.
Check out this virtuoso when you get a chance.
Fingerpicking Style - Classical
Brands and Models
I already mentioned the Big Baby Taylor, or you might consider Taylor's GC3, a small bodied Grand Concert if you don't want to completely downsize. And you can't go wrong with a Martin OM-1. It's certainly one of the best acoustic guitars for fingerstyle. Taylor and Martin are two of the leading acoustic guitar manufacturers and neither is resting on their laurels. They make fine quality guitars
But don't overlook the beautiful Washburn Comfort 20 Series with its built-in beveled armrest and solid Sitka spruce top. And the Takamine New Yorker Series while being their smallest full size guitar has a wonderful solid cedar top for some of the best sound. The P3NY is particularly nice, if you've got the budget. The Guild OM-150CE is also worth a good look.
I'll get some full reviews of some of these guitar models soon.
Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits fame, is famous for bringing his exquisite fingerpicking to rock music. His technique is based around the use of his fingers, (he doesn't use a pick). Most of this plucking style is also quite unorthodox. Watch by focusing on the way he applies the plucking technique of his right hand's thumb, index and middle fingers. Some occasional use of the ring finger is also a part of the technique.
Mark's style uses a unique vibrato and lots of it - almost anywhere and everywhere he can, including chords. - From ultimate-gitar.com
In this video, Mark talks about his unique playing style in great, and inspiring, detail.
Fingerpicking Style - Rock
Fingerpicking on an Electric Guitar
Yes, if Mark Knopfler, Etta Baker, Justin Johnson and Chet Atkins, have anything to say about it, it's perfectly fine to fingerpick on an electric guitar. From country to blues to rock, fingerpicking is alive and well for performers in almost every genre. (Those are all video links in the first line.)
Part of the trick to fingerpicking on an electric guitar is using a lighter touch. Thinner strings and lower action make it easy to acquire a nasty buzz if you play too hard. If you're coming from an acoustic fingerpicking background, especially steel string acoustic, this will take some adjustment. Also, getting an even sound out of that lighter touch is a bit more of a challenge since the strings on an electric are so much more sensitive.
Another challenge to fingerpicking on an electric guitar is the neck width and string separation. These are generally narrower on an electric, so you have to be even better and more precise to fingerpick and electric guitar well. If you're choosing an electric guitar for fingerpicking, aim for a wider neck to make things a little easier.
If you have problems with too much sustain making your fingerpicking sound muddy on an electric guitar, consider getting lower sustain strings, or trying different amp and pickup settings. This may take some experimentation and practice to get right. Keep at it, and don't forget to lighten your touch.
Fingerpicking is an impressive style of guitar playing to take on. It takes a lot of practice and dedication, but the effects you get can be uniquely outstanding. It's not a style for everyone, but if it suits you, you will stand out in whatever genre you choose to play. Finding the best fingerpicking guitar for you will get you on the road to success.