The Importance of Good Hand Position for Fingerpicking Guitar

In the following short guide, I’m going to demonstrate the correct fingerpicking hand position, explain why this is so important, and answer some common questions surrounding the position of the picking hand when playing in this style. 

Below is a quick rundown:

Perfect your fingerpicking hand position by giving a “thumbs up” with the picking hand and then resting your thumb (straight out) on the 6th string. The index finger rests beneath the 3rd string, the middle on the 2nd, and the ring finger on the 1st. These fingers should be perpendicular to the strings. Ensure the thumb is in front of the fingers e.g. closer to the headstock to ensure clearance between the thumb and fingers.

 For a more detailed explanation continue reading. If you are looking for an overview of fingerpicking guitar click the link.

How to Perfect Your Fingerpicking Hand Position

The reason the hand position suggested above is recommended is because it is the most efficient in terms of thumb and finger movement, while also providing plenty of clearance between the thumb and fingers.

Put simply, it minimizes the movement required of the thumb and fingers, as the fingers are resting beneath their assigned strings while the thumb, responsible for “thumb picking” the bottom three (bottom in terms of pitch, not direction) is in direct contact with the 6th string or 5th string, depending on the root note of the opening chord of the song being played. 

The angle of attack, of the picking the hand, suggested above, also positions the thumb forward of the fingers, providing sufficient clearance between the two. 

This is important when it comes to any variation of fingerstyle guitar, as the thumb is predominantly playing downstrokes while the fingers play upstrokes, moving toward each other as the strings are played.

As a result, it’s important the thumb is closer to the neck of the guitar than the fingers to allow a sufficient range of movement between the two without the two coming into direct contact.

Thumbs Up for Fingerpicking!

The simplest way to get your hand consistently in position for fingerpicking is to make a “thumbs-up” sign, and while maintaining this hand position, place the thumb on the 6th string of the guitar.

Then as per the instructions above assign the remaining fingers to their designated strings with the fingers folded back up toward the palm of the hand so they are resting against the bottom of their assigned strings.

If playing in more of a Travis picking style, rest the palm of the hand on the leading edge of the bridge, to facilitate muting of the strings, required to generate the “Boom Chick” sound associated with Travis picking.

Anchor the Pinky or Allow the Hand to Float?

Anchoring the Pinky while Fingerpicking Offers Stability
Anchoring the pinky when fingerpicking offers greater stability to the picking hand

There are two schools of thought on whether the pinky should rest on the guitar body, anchoring the hand in place.

Many fingerstyle guitarists including Tommy Emannuel, are strict about anchoring the pinky to the guitar body. In fact, Tommy goes as far as to tape the pinky fingers of his students to the top of the guitar using gaffe tape, at least until they become accustomed to this hand position.

Other guitar players, don’t bother to anchor the picking hand at all or instead choose to anchor the palm of the hand or elbow to the guitar body. Some choose to float between using the pinky and/or anchoring the palm or elbow.

For many fingerstyle players, anchoring the picking hand is useful as it enhances stability, which offers benefits in terms of consistency and accuracy. For others, anchoring the picking hand limits the range of the fingers, and hinders the guitarist’s speed and endurance.

Your preference, however, may depend on the size of your fingers, along with other factors including the size and body style of the guitar you are playing.

For example, those with smaller fingers often find it difficult to rest the pinky against the body of the guitar without limiting the movement of the picking hand.

Many choose a “horses for courses” approach, depending on the technical demands of the song being played. e.g. If you incorporate a percussive approach by slapping the strings with the thumb, it’s important to incorporate a whipping action of the wrist, making it difficult to anchor the picking hand with the pinky resting on the soundboard of the guitar.

Do you use the Pinky when Fingerpicking?

Traditionally the pinky is not used when playing any form of fingerstyle guitar, this includes classical guitar technique along with primitive guitar and traditional fingerpicking.

The reason for this is the pinky is usually weaker than the other three fingers, so the volume generated when using the pinky is less compared to the remaining “stronger” fingers.

Access to the strings with the pinky may also prove difficult if using the recommended hand position described above.

However, rules are made to be broken.

There’s nothing wrong with using the pinky if this is your preference. In fact, if assigning the pinky to the 1st string, this should result in even greater picking hand efficiency.

Final Thoughts

Fingerpicking can be challenging difficult. Developing bad habits, that limit the efficiency of the picking hand, including incorrect hand position, can hinder development, making fingerpicking even more challenging.

Speaking from experience, while it may feel uncomfortable, to begin with, it’s well worth persevering with as it will lead to great efficiency in your playing over time. It’s also important that you ensure you are using the correctly assigned fingers for each string. The more you consolidate this approach the more efficient your fingerpicking will be.