In order to answer the question: “How difficult is fingerstyle guitar?”, you have to define a couple things. What do you mean by “fingerstyle guitar”? And what do you mean by “difficult”? I’d like to offer a few definitions which show that it can be both easy and difficult, depending on what you’re aiming for and what’s in your current toolbox.
What do we mean by “fingerstyle guitar”?
What exactly is “fingerstyle guitar”? A general definition is:
Playing an acoustic guitar (steel- or nylon-string) by using the fingers of the picking hand to pluck and strum the strings, rather than using a plectrum (AKA “pick”).
Some qualifiers on that definition:
1. Yes, you can play fingerstyle on electric, of course. But that’s not generally what people are referring to by the phrase “fingerstyle guitar”.
2. There are a LOT of genres that are covered by that definitions – flamenco, folk, classical, modern, blues, etc. All are valid, wonderful, and worth exploring.
Let’s Get More Specific
The quick answer is that, as you probably guessed, playing that material is difficult! They’re playing incredibly complex arrangements that combine a variety of guitar styles, as well as right-hand and left-hand techniques. And they’ve been refining their chops for long time, so they play fast and with fluidity. The honest answer is that you’re not going to play like that at first. It will take consistent hard work over time (the equation for pretty much anything worth having in life).
If, by “fingerstyle”, however, you mean more simple songs – such as the intro to “Nothing Else Matters” (Metallica) or many of the early folk songs in the 60s from Bob Dylan – then that is much easier. The opening pattern of “Nothing Else Matters” can often be played by someone with no guitar experience whatsoever. Early Dylan songs often use simple and repetitive patterns that can be learned by a beginning guitarist.
What’s In Your Current Toolbox?
Are you a beginner or an advance player? Do you naturally have groove or do you have to work on that? Do you have any prior experience in a finger-picking oriented instrument (bass, banjo?)? Determining whether fingerstyle guitar is hard depends very much on your current starting point.
Many guitar resources and teachers refer to guitar playing ability in terms of “beginner”, “intermediate”, or “advanced” (and maybe “pro” on the end). I’ve never seen an actual list of skills or accomplishments, though, that distinguish one level from the next.
So I won’t specify fingerstyle as appropriate for a certain “level”, because I’m not sure that make sense. Instead, I’ll offer a few concrete examples, which may be more helpful:
- Playing fingerstyle require both your fretting and picking hands to be doing finger-independent work simultaneously. So if you already know how to voice chords and play scales with your fretting hand, that helps a lot. It removes 50% of the learning curve. You can then focus on the picking hand.
- If you have a good sense of “time” and groove, that helps a lot. Much of fingerstyle guitar depends on playing notes with a consistent rhythm. If you struggle with keeping a groove going with a pick, you’ll probably struggle with keeping fingerstyle patterns going.
- If you have experience with another finger-picked instrument such as bass or banjo, that obviously helps a lot. The basic concepts will be familiar, and even some of the patterns may carry over.
So, the TL;DR answer to “How difficult is fingerstyle guitar”…
Fingerstyle guitar is easy if you have some experience with guitar (or other finger-picked instrument) and want to learn simpler material like folk or pop/rock patterns.
Fingerstyle guitar is hard if you do not have any experience with guitar and/or are attempting to learn advanced material – particularly the popular style of folks like Tommy Emmanuel and Andy McKee.
Resource for Learning Fingerstyle Guitar
If you want to get started learning fingerstyle guitar, there are several places to get great beginning lessons online – Truefire has a great selection.
Also, seee below for a few specific recommended resources: