Fingerpicking vs. Flatpicking – What to Learn First on Guitar


fingerpicking vs flatpicking

Beginners new to the world of acoustic guitar playing often wonder where to start. Deciding whether to learn fingerpicking (also called fingerstyle) guitar playing or flatpicking can seem particularly daunting.

But never fear – we’re here to help make that decision as painless as possible. In this post you’ll learn everything you need to know to decide whether learning fingerstyle or learning flatpicking first is right for you.

Fingerpicking vs Flatpicking Guitar... x
Fingerpicking vs Flatpicking Guitar: What to Learn First

Keep reading to learn

  • Key differences, examples, and a brief history of each picking style
  • Which musical genre uses which style of picking
  • How to choose which picking style is best for you

Let’s jump right in!

Key Differences Between Fingerpicking and Flatpicking

Before you can decide what style of acoustic guitar playing is right for you, it’s important to understand the key differences between each style of picking.

Both fingerstyle and flatpicking style guitar have their advantages, and a distinctively different sound. Understanding the key differences between each picking style will help you choose which style best suits your personal style and your guitar goals.

Fingerpicking vs Fingerstyle Guitar

Fingerpicking is when you play or pluck the guitar strings using your fingers, rather than a pick or plectrum. Fingerpicking is sometimes also referred to as fingerstyle, thumb picking, alternating bass, or pattern picking.

Fingerpicking is very popular on acoustic guitar, but not as popular on the electric guitar. Advanced fingerpicking guitarists sometimes even use the body of their acoustic guitar percussively. This can be done by tapping rhythms on the body, as well as many other techniques. John Butler is a great acoustic guitarist to study to see an example of percussive fingerpicking playing.

With fingerpicking technique, your individual digits play notes on the guitar instead of the hand working as a single unit (as it does when playing with a pick). This allows for one of the greatest advantages of fingerstyle playing: the fact that it allows a guitarist to play several musical elements (bass notes, melody, chord progessions, percussion, etc) simultaneously.

Popular Musical Genres That Use Fingerpicking/Fingerstyle Guitar

Fingerpicking is widely used in the world of music.

Here are some of the most popular musical styles that make frequent use of this guitar playing technique:

  • Folk
  • Country
  • Classical
  • Flamenco
  • Bossa Nova
  • Country blues
  • Chicken pickin’
  • Acoustic blues

James Taylor is a great example of an extrememly popular acoustic guitarist who uses fingerpicking and fingerstyle guitar playing. His music spans and incorporates several popular musical genres including folk, country, and blues.

Here’s an example of James Taylor playing ‘Country Road’ using fingerpicking:

(pay attention to his right, rhythm-playing hand)

Pros and Cons of Fingerpicking/Fingerstyle Guitar

We’ve discussed what fingerpicking is and even seen a great example, but what are its benefits and downsides?

Here are some of the pros and cons of fingerpicking:

  • You don’t have to carry a pick – but if you choose to play with your fingernails, you have to maintain them at the proper length
  • You can play non-adjacent strings at the same time. This allows you to play low bass and high treble notes, or double stops, simultaneously.
  • You can play multiple independent musical lines and rhythms at the same time – lending it well to solo performances without accompaniment
  • You don’t have to worry as much about damping/muting with your fretting hand, because you can pluck only the strings that are required
  • A wide variation of strokes and strums is possible, meaning a greater range of dynamics and rhythms can be achieved
  • Typically, less force is applied to the strings than with flatpicking, leading to lower volume when playing acoustically (this can be either a pro or con depending on context).

Flatpicking

Flatpicking is when you use a pick or plectrum to strike the strings, rather than your fingers. While “flatpicking” as a term is most commonly used in bluegrass and appalachian music circles, I’m using it here to refer to any kind of guitar playing that makes use of a flat pick. Rock and jazz guitarists, for example, most often play using a flat pick, though they are unlikely to describe themselves as “flatpickers.”

While the flat pick is used commonly today in rock and jazz music, the technique was pioneered in bluegrass renditions of fiddle tunes. Thus flatpicking has a long rich association with acoustic guitar playing and traditional bluegrass music. Doc Watson and Clarence White were some of the very first extremely popular flat pickers, emerging in the 1960s.

In the 70s and 80s, flatpicking was taken to a whole other level by guitarist like Tony Rice and Norman Blake. Tony Rice in particular has probably been the most influential bluegrass, flatpicking guitarist of the last 50 years. He has arguably exerted the most influence over the ‘new wave’ of flatpicking acoustic guitarists – players like Bryan Sutton, Andy Falco, Billy Strings, and Chris Eldridge.

Crosspicking

I wanted to briefly touch on crosspicking. It is a flatpicking style that most closely resembles the sound of fingerpicking or fingerstyle guitar. In crosspicking, the flat pick is used to play a three-string patten in a syncopated, rolling style that imitates the fingerpicking or fingerstyle guitar playing technique.

Crosspicking was actually inspired by a banjo playing technique (originally played using fingers) called a banjo roll. Perhaps because of this heritage from the banjo, crosspicking is most common in the world of bluegrass music, though you will occasionally hear it in some other acoustic styles, and even electric music. For an example of crosspicking on electric guitar, check out King Crimson’s guitarist Robert Fripp. He has been known to use crosspicking in this band’s progressive rock music.

Popular Musical Genres That Use Flatpicking

Flatpicking, or playing with a pick, is widely used in the following musical styles:

  • Rock
  • Jazz
  • Metal
  • Bluegrass
  • Gospel
  • Folk
  • Blues
  • Country

I’d be remiss to showcase anyone other than Tony Rice as an example of prime flatpicking. While Tony plays primarily bluegrass music, his playing incorporates elements of jazz, blues, and folk as well.

Tony’s playing on this song ‘Freeborn Man’ is an excellent example of the fast, dynamic, and expressive sounds that flatpicking is capable of:

Pros and Cons of Flatpicking

We discussed the benefits and disadvantages of fingerstyle playing, so it’s only fair that we apply the same lens to flatpicking.

Here’s some of the pros and cons of flatpicking

  • You’ll have to remember/carry a pick in order to play your instrument
  • Generally, you’re able to produce more volume and louder pick strokes than with your fingers, particularly on an acoustic guitar
  • It’s easier to play long, flowing, complicated lines and leads. Flatpicking is definitely better for guitar solos and lead guitar
  • It’s easier to play faster rhythms and rhythm in general, as you only have to learn up and down strokes, rather than patterns for each individual finger
  • You can imitate the sound of fingerstyle playing using crosspicking, but the opposite is not true: ie you can’t really imitate the sound of a flatpick while playing with your fingers, especially not for long leads/solos

How to Choose Whether to Learn Fingerpicking or Flatpicking

Now that you know a little more about the history, popular players, and styles of each of these techniques, you should be able to make a more informed choice. But if you’re still wondering whether to learn fingerpicking or flatpicking, I have a couple more pieces of advice that should help you pull the trigger and start learning one of these awesome styles!

Ask Yourself What Style of Music You Want to Play

What style of music do you listen to, or enjoy playing the most? Answering this simple question can make a huge difference in helping decide whether to learn flatpicking or fingerpicking first.

Are you a folk fan who loves James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel? Fingerpicking might be best for you. Maybe you love the country blues of Missisippi John Hurt – again, you’d want to lean toward learning fingerpicking first.

Perhaps on the other hand all you’re interested in is bluegrass music. If that’s the case, you can’t go wrong starting out with flatpicking. And with crosspicking, you can even approximate a fingerstyle sound using your flatpick.

If you want to play electric guitar – whether it’s jazz, rock, blues, or metal, I’d advise you to start out with flatpicking. It’s used much more commonly in electric music of all varieties.

But the key takeaway from this section is to find out what kind of music you want to play, and what kind of guitarist you want to be. If you can get an idea of that, it’ll make your decision much easier. If you have favorite guitarists you aspire to sound like, find out what picking style the use and go from there. You should be able to tell by listening to their music, watching them play, and reading up about them online.

Experiment With What Feels More Natural to You Right Now

Maybe you started playing guitar already, and you already play with either your pick or your fingers. If not, try both. Which feels more natural to you? Honor your experience and your natural inclinations.

If fingerpicking feels more natural, and you enjoy the genres and guitarists associated with that style, than stick with it. Maybe you’ve already started flatpicking and it feels perfectly natural, or you’ve already grown accustomed to it. Keep going!

It’s important to trust your instincts, especially when you’re first starting out on the guitar. At the early stages, you want to stay motivated and keep practicing so that you can improve, because playing becomes more and more enjoyable as you get better. But to make the beginning stages easier, it may be a better choice to double down on whatever style already feels good and is working for you, rather than forcing yourself to learn something that feels awkward, since you’re also still just trying to get familiar with starting to play the guitar in general.

What if you’re an electric guitarist looking to transition to acoustic music? Or you want to be versatile on both the electric and acoustic guitar? In that case, it’s best to pursue flatpicking. This is because flatpicking is used widely in acoustic music, and almost ubiquitously in electric music. By starting your guitar playing journey with flatpicking, you’ll be in a good position to pursue either electric guitar playing or acoustic guitar playing further.

…But what if I love both fingerpicking and flatpicking?

This is a good question, and it highlights one of the most important points I want you to take away from this article.

The question of whether to learn fingerpicking or flatpicking doesn’t have to be an “either / or” question, and in fact, it shouldn’t be. The fact of the matter is – you’ll have plenty of time to develop and use both styles on your guitar journey. In fact, while most guitarists are stronger at one style than another, they usually have some skill and proficiency in both fingerstyle guitar and playing with a pick.

So the best approach is to learn both. Eventually. So don’t stress over which is best, and instead focus on which to pay more attention to right now depending on your current goals and tastes. You can even start out learning some of both, if you really want to. However, for most newer guitarists it’s probably best to develop skill in one picking style before starting to experiment with the other one. Just remember that these two styles are not exclusive, and you don’t have to pick just one for the rest of your guitar playing career.

How to Learn Fingerstyle Guitar

The best way to learn more about fingerstyle guitar is by getting mentored by a true master, someone like Martin Taylor:

Martin Taylor specializes in solo/small ensemble fingerstyle guitar, like on his duet album with Tommy Emmanuel

Martin is also passionate about teaching fingerstyle guitar. If you’re looking to learn fingerstyle guitar from a true master then I highly recommend his ArtistWorks course:

Online fingerstyle guitar lessons martin taylor
Learn Fingerstyle Guitar from Martin Taylor

In the course, Martin’s students enjoy unlimited access to:

  • hundres of fingerstyle guitar lessons online, at your own pace
  • Complete tablature
  • Mp3 play along tracks and jam tracks

So to learn fingerstyle guitar from one of the best players of all time, I recommend checking out Martin’s course here.

How to Learn Flatpicking Guitar

Want to learn flatpicking? You can do no better than to learn from master flatpicker Bryan Sutton:

Bryan Sutton has an entire bluegrass guitar course out now where he teaches you how to play bluegrass step by step. It has tabs, video lessons, and more… all from one of the very best players on the scene today.

Online bluegrass guitar lessons bryan sutton
The Best Bluegrass Guitar Course – ft. Bryan Sutton

So if you want to fast-track your learning and get insanely good at bluegrass guitar… I highly recommend picking up Bryan Sutton’s bluegrass guitar course on AritstWorks.

You can read more about it here.

The Next Step

Now that you know whether to pursue flatpicking or fingerpicking, do you need some help choosing your first acoustic guitar?

One of our favorite model for beginning acoustic guitarists is the Yamaha FG830:

The Yamaha FG830 is a great, affordable choice for beginners. It was actually my very first acoustic! So I’m proud to recommend it.

The FG830 combines top notch spruce and mahogany woods, excellent machine heads, and a wonderful rosewood fretboard to produce an excellent choice for the aspiring acoustic guitarist on a budget.

If you’d like a more detailed look at our favorite guitars for new acoustic guitarists you can check out our article on the top 10 best budget acoustic guitars for beginners. We look at a variety of models and brands, so you’re sure to find something that fits your budget.

Thanks for reading! And as always, happy picking!

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Fingerpicking vs Flatpicking Guitar

  • Learn which picking style is right for YOU by exploring examples, history, and popular players of each style.
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Corbin Buff

Corbin has played guitar for over a decade, and started writing about it on Acoustic World in an effort to help others. He lives and writes in western Montana.

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