The Concise Guide to Intermediate Fingerstyle Guitar
In 2021, after eighteen years of self-learning guitar and making extremely slow progress, I got myself a teacher. Since then, my rate of learning and overall progress has skyrocketed. These are my notes from my classes and my own thoughts on what I found to be most useful. My bias is towards acoustic fingerstyle but I imagine a lot of this stuff would apply to guitar playing in general as well.
This advice is mostly for self-taught guitarists who feel like they’ve hit a wall in their progress. It is also aimed at folks like me who don’t do this for a career, but rather as a hobby. As a reference, I try to dedicate anywhere between half an hour and two hours per day to practicing guitar (longer on weekends; up to four hours).
If you’re an experienced guitarist or have a good teacher, most or all of this article may seem ridiculously basic to you. However, everything here is advice I wish I had been given years ago. I would have wasted far less time and been far more proficient with my instrument today.
For me, the biggest shift in my relationship with my instrument was with regards to mindset. As an intermediate player, you need to start thinking about your playing and your instrument very differently. The goal of this phase of your guitar playing can be summarized as: ruthless focus on quality.
As my teacher put it, learning the guitar is like climbing a mountain whose peak you can’t see. Along the way, every now and then, you might choose to be content hanging out on one of the plateaus you encounter. After a while (months, years), you may decide to climb again. Or you might decide this is where you’ll stay.
Start looking at your mind, fingers, and guitar as tools for creating music. Start thinking about the music you listen to as melodic and harmonic information for helping you generate music. The music I listen to has changed. Earlier it was about finding other guitarists for inspiration. Now it’s about finding interesting melodies and harmony, regardless of style. For example, my current favorite is choral music!
You don’t need third party resources to learn something. You can discover it yourself from the primary source: your guitar. Third-party resources are simply to make this process more efficient but come at the cost of mental stickiness. Figuring something out yourself is far more memorable.
Practice and performance are independent. Practice is about problem solving. Performance is about replicating what you’ve already practiced. You will never consistently perform better than your best practice session. If you couldn’t do it in practice, don’t expect to pull it off during a performance. It might work every now and then, but it is not repeatable.
Have confidence that you can work through technique problems by yourself. Isolate problems, create your own exercises and practice efficiently. It’s not that difficult to design your own exercises. Just find the physical motion you’re having trouble with and repeat it over and over.
Be mindful during practice. Practice time is uncomfortable, both physically (from playing in the correct posture for long intervals of time) and mentally (from keeping track of your playing and issues that come up).
Never lose sight of the ultimate goal: creating music. You can create beautiful music regardless of your skill level. The only thing you’ll have to deal with is the mental struggle of falling short of your overblown expectations. In the meantime learn to find joy in simplicity. Have patience. Breathe. Relax.
Keep in perspective what it takes to create music: fluency with your instrument. Fluency is a journey, not a goal. As you become better at certain aspects of playing, it will open up new avenues for exploring your own ideas. That means, whatever your current fluency with your instrument, you can explore some interesting subset of ideas.
Guitars are functional pieces of woodworking art that can survive for multiple lifetimes if maintained well. Buy the best guitar you can afford. Buy a guitar that inspires you to play. Buy a guitar you can see yourself playing when you’re old. Get intimately familiar with one guitar; make it truly your own.
Spend some money to have your guitar set up by a professional or learn how to set up your guitar yourself. If you don’t enjoy playing your guitar, none of this advice will work. Get the action set up to your liking, experiment with which strings sound good to you. Get a good tuner and make sure you’re always in tune when you play.
Do not underestimate the snowball effect of small improvements made consistently over time. Patience is key. We all want to be able to play like our idols, yesterday. Get over that pipe dream. Learn to enjoy the journey over the destination. Don’t try to make this endeavor anything other than what it is: a lifelong journey with no “end goal” as such.
Have weekly goals. At most goals that span two weeks. This could be learning one song, learning and practicing all positions of a scale across the neck, or arranging one tune. Designing learnable chunks in itself is a skill and having an experienced teacher will help. However, you can learn this yourself through trial and error. Just be mindful of how long things really take you. Don’t lie to yourself.
On making progress: on a day-to-day basis, walk along a straight path and don’t wander or deviate too much; do one thing really well. On a weekly or monthly basis make small variations in your path to keep things interesting; do a few things really well. On a multi-year basis, choose whichever path you want to take; do really well that which pleases you most.
Practicing fundamentals in depth beats the heck out of complexity and breadth. I was amazed at how much progress you can make in your technique by just playing a simple chromatic scale at very slow speeds day after day. It will blow your mind when after a month suddenly you find your fingers move more dextrously across the fretboard. Having a practice session that covers the most important fundamentals of technique (left hand and right hand) will accelerate your development as a guitarist faster than you can imagine.
Playing fast is about relaxation and minimizing tension. If you can play relaxed at a lower speed, you can work your way up to playing relaxed at high speeds. If your fingers are tensing up, slow down. Counterintuitively, if you want to play fast, slow down and learn to play in a relaxed manner.
Bad posture can contribute to tension in your arms and fingers. Find a comfortable chair and a comfortable position for your guitar. I use the NeckUp system on my guitar as it adjusts well for my body and posture. Others exist as well; the ErgoPlay Tröster would be my second pick. Although these supports are aimed at classical guitarists, they work great on my Martin Dreadnought.
Always. Use. A. Metronome. The urgency created by the tick will lay bare all your flaws. The problem, at least typically in the beginning, is not being able to visualize the next finger movement fast enough. The roadblock tends to be primarily mental. The only way to overcome this is to slow down and let your mind absorb the motion at a comfortable speed. Start at an embarassingly slow speed (e.g. whole notes at 50 bpm).
Sleep. Somehow, if the last thing you do before sleeping is a mindful practice session, you will find that your technique has magically improved the next morning. I’ve had times where I struggled with playing a tough section before sleeping, gotte frustrated and slept, and woken up to play it surprisingly well.
Everything is important. You’re attempting to produce subjectively pleasurable sound through a combination of mind, limb, and material. It all matters. What you know, understand, and are inspired by matters. Fluency with your specific instrument matters. What your fingers are able to do matters. What your guitar sounds and plays like matters (although probably least from all of the above). It’s hard to water down this truth although everyone wants to try. Patience and consistency will help you climb this mountain one step at a time, even if you never reach its peak.
Don’t look too hard for tricks and shortcuts. Most times you’ll waste more time searching for tricks than you would just doing the hard work of figuring it out yourself. More often than not, tricks will shift the cognitive burden from upfront effort to effort during playing. For example, memorizing all the notes on your fretboard takes lots of effort upfront but is far more effective than tricks that let you calculate notes on the fly. When you’re playing, you can’t be calculating notes via fret and string numbers. It’s just not efficient and efficiency is the name of the game.
A teacher helps with spotting problems while playing. If you don’t have a teacher for whatever reason, the next best thing I’ve found is to record a video of yourself playing and then critique it afterwards. It’s really hard to critique yourself while you play because you’re already mentally occupied. Do it later while looking at the recording. Really dig into what sounded good or bad, what was off rhythm, whether you were correctly alternating picking fingers on the right hand and so on. It really is the most effective tool I’ve found. The videos don’t have to be public or anything. Just for your own study. Use your laptop camera and microphone; the quality should be good enough for critiquing yourself.
Technique is your physical ability to play your instrument. It is the connection that lets you translate your ideas to sound. Bad technique will translate to bad sound. Good technique will correctly translate to whatever you have in your head (which you may find either good or bad!).
Three aspects that all need to be practiced for maintenance.
- Posture - Always practice in the right posture. For fingerstyle, I recommend looking at traditional classical guitar posture (with the neck slanted 45 degrees and the headstock at eye level).
- Left hand - You want to ensure you’re playing on your fingertips with an almost perpendicular distal joint. Ensure even pressure between thumb and fingers, with the thumb sitting somewhere behind your middle finger. Fingers should not be raised over one inch from the fretboard at any given time.
- Right hand - Picking movement should be at the Proximal joint of your fingers. If you pick in a claw-like fashion, fix it now. A few weeks of work now will pay off for years to come.
Grab Scott Tenant’s Pumping Nylon book and read it cover to cover. It’s just a hundred pages long and is packed full of incredible explanations, exercises, and advice. Although written for classical guitar, 99.9% of the advice applies to acoustic fingerstyle playing.
Breathing is surprisingly important. If you find yourself stuck on a part or tensing up during a section, check your breathing. I find that I have to actively remind myself to breathe during practice in order to make it a part of my playing. Not breathing properly will result in tension all across your back, arms and fingers.
Think carefully about dynamics. Which note should be emphasized louder than the others? Should all notes being played be at the same volume? Should notes played in succession ring out or should there be clarity by muting the previous note at the same time you play the next one? Should you use a rest stroke to mute the next string or a free stroke to let it continue to ring? This stuff might not seem very important but every top-level guitarist thinks very carefully about every note and the context in which it sits. That much is clear to me from the things my teacher catches when I play!
For fingerstyle arrangements, the melody is the heart of the piece. It should always stand out above the other stuff. Keep that in mind when thinking about the dynamics of each note.
Listen carefully for scratching sounds when you slide your fingers on your strings. I found this particularly problematic after switching to uncoated strings from my coated Elixir Nanoweb’s. The coated strings reduce the scratching sound, so the technique never gets fixed. When doing slides, try to put just the right amount of pressure and not too much. When jumping around frets, lift your finger off and follow a gentle curve to the next fret.
When making jumps across frets, start looking at the spot where you want to jump to a moment before making the actual jump. Your finger will follow you eye. This particularly important when you want to avoid scratching by lifting your finger completely off the frets. Left unmoored, it helps your accuracy to look at where you want the finger to go.
Alternate your fingers when picking. You rarely, if ever want to put yourself in a situation where the same finger has to play two consecutive notes (even on the same string). The care with which a professional player ensures this boggled my mind the first time it was pointed out to me. It makes sense though; you don’t want the limit to your speed and accuracy be your ability to pick with just one finger multiple times.
Somehow, we guitarists are unique in the world of musicians in that we can spend decades on end becoming proficient at the guitar without ever understanding music theory in depth. This was me. I played guitar for 18 years before realizing I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Don’t be like me.
Purpose: help you to analyze and generate ideas better.
Foundation of music: melody combined with harmony. If you can understand the basics, that’s a good start. There’s a lot to learn and that gets very intimidating. Start simple and progress from there.
Here is a simple progression for learning:
- Melody: Notes --> Scale Construction
- Harmony: Chord Construction --> Chord Progressions
Start by learning the notes. Then learn how scales are constructed. I recommend you start with the mother of all scales: the major scale. The other common scales are just variations of this one foundational scale. Once you understand the major scale, learn how chords are constructed. Again, start with the most basic skeleton chords: major triads. From here, you can start to derive every other chord (minor, sustained, diminished, augmented, seventh family). I highly recommend this incredible playlist by Michael New.
If you’re a programmer or understand basic Python programming, you might like my article deriving the very basics of music theory in code.
For the guitar, I find music notation is inferior to tab when it comes to telling you where to play. This is simply because the guitar is a two-dimensional instrument where the same note can be played on different strings at different frets. This is in contrast to the piano where every note has exactly one place it can be played. However, I find music notation to be far superior to tab when it comes to timing and rhythmic information. Therefore, when it comes to reading music, I recommend learning the timing notation and understand how to interpret time signatures at the very least.
When looking for guitar sheet music, good ones normally have parallel tab and music notation. I read the tab on where to play and the music notation to know the timing of each note.
Basic idea: applying music theory to the guitar.
Memorize your fretboard. You should be able to play a random sequence of notes on each string and across strings to a metronome at decent speed. You don’t even need your guitar for this. Here’s what worked for me: do this exercise until you hit 5000 attempts. Focus on correctness over speed: https://www.musictheory.net/exercises/fretboard/yyyyyyy9by998ynyyyyyo1rj1 Use your keyboard to answer the question quickly (type the letter A through G). I did around 500 a day for two weeks and by the end of it I knew where every natural note was. From there it’s significantly easier to get to all the accidentals (sharps and flats).
You don’t need a book. Put in the effort to derive things yourself. Far more powerful that way; sticks better. Actually memorize the basic stuff: notes, chord notes, scale notes. It’s just an efficiency thing.
- Chords: start with major triads. Aim for being able to play a random key sequence of major triads on each set of three strings.
- Scales: start with the major scale. Label every note on the fretboard. Derive shapes that feel comfortable to you.
- Arpeggios: find all the major chord arpeggios across the neck. Learn to connect them together while playing.
Here’s a little page I created for myself to test my memory. On the page you’ll find a randomized 3x4 grid of all the keys. If you’re learning your notes, try to find the notes row-wise. Then column-wise. Then randomize and try again. Do the same for practicing triads.
Some advice: the most bang for your buck you can get from a short practice session is to play scales or arpeggios across the neck with a metronome. It doesn’t matter which scale; just pick something. Cycle across different scales periodically to get a more complete understanding. This doesn’t just teach you to play a particular scale. It also builds up your intuition of how to move around your instrument in a musical manner. It improves left and right hand technique as well as coordination between them.
Learning other people’s songs is like getting mini lessons in breadth: technique, theory, musicality all come together. And you get a piece you can play at the end. At any given time, focus on playing one piece really well rather than playing lots of pieces poorly.
Try to find good tablature. Pay for it if necessary; it’s worth it. My teacher writes out his songs in excruciating detail: left and right hand fingerings for all notes, dynamics, rest vs. free strokes, accented notes. This gives so much more information for analyzing how an experienced player makes decisions.
When learning songs, I like to play along with the original audio to get the timing just right. However, it’s hard to do at full speed. I use a paid Mac app called Transcribe! that lets you slow down an audio file and loop parts of it. It’s an invaluable tool for me during practice. You can even set up pedals to control it so you have hands-free operation when practicing!
For short pieces: memorize the notes first. You should be able to play through the piece without a metronome from memory. Then start ridiculously slow on your metronome and try to play. If it’s too fast or you’re feeling too embarassed to go slower…go slower. When you can play through around 3-5 times without errors and with proper relaxed technique, increment the metronome by 5-15 BPM (depending on how comfortable you felt playing it at the current speed. If it feels really easy, try 15, otherwise try 5). If it feels like it’s at the edge of your skill, hold the current speed and focus on relaxation and proper technique. Always back off if you don’t see the current speed working. Remember, your top three goals are quality, quality, and quality.
All of this is just to maximize the efficiency of your time. Playing faster than you can without proper technique will just make you hit a wall down the line. Playing so slow that it’s always comfortable will delay your development. You’re in the driver’s seat now. You get to decide what you want. I recommend efficiency.
For most medium or longer sized pieces: break it down into short, logical sections. Then work through those in the method above. Memorize, practice slowly with relaxed and clean technique, then speed it up incrementally.
Learn the sections of a song in reverse order for maximum efficiency. This can also apply to smaller logical sections of a song of course.
When getting stuck on a problem area, isolate it. Just play one bar or along with the previous and successive bar at a slow tempo. Don’t just start over. Focus on the problem. If it’s a deficiency in your technique, then invent some exercise for it and practice that. It’s easy to invent exercises. Just find the motion you want to improve and repeat it. It doesn’t have to be more clever than that.
The question of what to learn is harder. It really depends on your musical interests, level of experience and style. What is important to do is to grade pieces by difficulty and start at the easiest level and work your way up. Again, teachers can help here: they can just tell you to learn song X by next week and you believe them because you don’t know better. However, if you’re learning by yourself, you can still do this by looking at what others recommend, although one thing I feel is definitely missing on the internet is good curated lists of guitar repertoire that one can progress through from beginner to advanced. It kind of makes sense though; styles, techniques, and difficulty levels are all subjective and in the end it’s a very personalized journey that you’ll have to discover for yourself.
As a simple rule, start by learning pieces that are no more than two A4 pages of tab. I started seriously building my repertoire with a one-page song that had two sections that repeated. This makes it easy to learn in a week or two and makes it easy to spend most of the time focusing on clean technique rather than memorization.
Composing and Arranging
Try to arrange existing songs yourself. It’s a worthwhile exercise. If that’s too initimidating, do the following instead.
In the beginning compose small fragments rather than full songs. This is less intimidating, has faster turnaround, and increases your confidence quicker than attempting something more complex.
Think two to four bars of music.
I prefer what I call “melody-first composing” where you start with the melody and add harmony on top of it. The process looks like the following.
- Come up with a melody (I like to hum it; I’m far more proficient with singing the right notes than fretting them on the first try with my fingers)
- Come up with a bassline. One approach I like to use is to hum the melody with my voice over and over while playing different basslines. This lets me experiment much faster than figuring out the fingerings for playing both the melody and bass note I want.
or alternatively, if you feel like you don’t have any ideas, an alternative is the reverse process of going from harmony to melody:
- Come up with a bassline or chord progression.
- Compose a melody on top of it. I like to record it, loop it and hum to it. It’s like jamming to a backing track, but with your voice.
Now comes the fun part: iterate, iterate, iterate.
- Try to find new and interesting ways to play the same melody. (across strings, harmonics, tapping, trills, slides). Phrase it in different ways like you would your voice if you were singing it.
- Try playing the same melody and harmony but an octave higher.
- Try to find chord positions across the neck so you can support the melody rather than having the chord locations limiting how you can play the melody. Knowing your triads across the neck will help with this, but trial-and-error works too!
- Try using alternative chords: the seventh family, sustained chords etc.
- Add embellishments to your melody. Try filling dead space with other notes of the current chord.
I purchased a license of Guitar Pro a long time back. I use it to keep track of my ideas as I come up with them. I go through so many variations when experimenting that I forget them if I don’t. Sometimes I’ll just record myself noodling around so I don’t forget what I was playing. Beyond this, keeping track of musical ideas is currently not a well-served niche; I haven’t found any better solutions.
That’s Too Much Stuff. How Should I Start?
If you’re asking this, you likely don’t have a teacher and feel somewhat stuck. So I’ll give you one way to start. My recommendation: build a solid foundation.
Daily goal: do the warmup routine from Scott Tenant’s book. Every. single. day. If you’re unconvinced, start by doing this for two weeks. Evaluate the improvement by recording yourself playing some song before and after the two weeks. If convinced, keep doing this. Every. Single. Day. Just trust me on this.
If you’re limited on time, don’t even bother with a weekly goal initially. Improving technique and getting up to speed with the different exercises will be your only goal. Once you can play the entire warmup with good technique in around 30-35 minutes, you can start incorporating a weekly goal. After signing up with my guitar teacher, I had about a month before my first lesson, and improving basic technique through a few exercises is the only thing I did every day during that month.
When coming up with weekly or bi-weekly chunks to work on, try to have some end goal. In my case, having to play it in front of a professional guitarist was sufficient pressure. Other times, I would just set myself up for a mini exam of sorts. I would test myself with some exercise that would involve what I just learned. If your goal is to learn a song make the end goal a video recording that you can analyze/critique.
Weekly goal ideas:
If you haven’t done it yet, memorize all the notes on your fretboard by doing the linked exercise every day (200-500 reps). Week-end goal: you should be able to play a random sequence of notes on any string and across strings to a metronome at a slow speed. Or do the online exercise with a metronome keeping beat.
Memorize the major triad shapes across the neck in every key. This isn’t as hard as it seems. You take string in sets of three (four sets total: 123, 234, 345, 456) and find the root triad, first inversion and second inversion. That’s a total of just 12 shapes. To learn it in every key, you just move the shapes around. This is why you should learn your fretboard first. Next would be minor chords (easy once your know major chords). Week-end goal: play a random sequence of major triads on each set of three strings.
Learn a piece for your repertoire. The challenge here is that you need to honestly evaluate your skill level and pick a piece that is a good fit. If you’re a beginner, the piece you end up picking should feel too simplistic to your ears. Remember, quality over quantity. Week-end goal: record yourself playing the piece and critique it (both technique and sound).
Compose and arrange a melody. Try doing 2-4 bars of melody. Then find a bassline to go with it. Then expand the bassline to chords. This is far easier once you’ve memorized your fretboard and triads across the neck. Week-end goal: record yourself playing your composition and critique both technique and sound.
Bone up on basic music theory. Learn one new concept and try to apply it to the fretboard by composing something short with it (2-4 bars). Week-end goal: record yourself and critique it.