How to Learn a Song “Fingerstyle” on Acoustic Guitar

What does it mean to play a song “fingerstyle”? It generally means that you play the melody, bass, and chord tones all at the same time, and use a fingerpicking technique with your right hand.

For examples, see here, here, and here.

If you want to learn a song “fingerstyle”, it’s never been easier.  There’s a growing body of tablature and notated music available for fingerstyle guitar. The tablature, in particular, allows an easy path for understanding what the performer was doing (i.e. what chord progression, voicings, position he or she was using). Unfortunately, I tend to agree with Tommy Emmanuel, it often takes more time than it saves.

The fastest way to internalize a song, so that you can play it without sheet music and in a performance, is to listen and learn.

So is that what I do? Well… I tend to do a hybrid. My typical routine looks like this…

1. Go Online

Look at available tabs and chord charts online to get an idea for: key, capoing, general chord progression. Yes, this may seem like a bit of a cheat, but it’s faster. I prefer to make some easy progress where I can, and spend my intense listening time on the intricate bits.

2. Chords

Practice chord progression and get a sense of available chord positions and voice leading.

3. Melody

Learn the melody. Melody is everything. Try to play the melody along with the original vocals of the track. This gives a sense of the nuance and timing that really defines a given melody.

4. Melody and Bass

Try to play melody and bass at the same time. Instead of rushing to fill in full chord voicings, it can help to get a sense of where your chords vs melody lines are moving. While this step is helpful, I try not to camp out here. It’s easy to become satisfied and think “that sounds good enough”.

5. Chord Tones

Begin to fill in chord tones. This is where you are sewing together the full chord voicings that incorporate your melody, bass movement, and available chord tones.

6. Put It Together…Slowly

Play it all together, but slow. Oftentimes, my fingers are just not ready to move quickly through the chord voicings that I’ve chosen. I have to slowly develop some muscle memory to begin moving up to ‘real time’.

7. Bring It Up to Tempo

Learn main sections in close to real time. I’ll try to get the chorus or verse melody down in something close to the tempo of the actual piece. This is where the ‘wood shedding’ begins…

8. Transitions

Practice transitions. This is the bane of my existence. It’s so satisfying to have the chorus and verse down. But then the transition can totally ruin you. I spend considerable time concentrating on the transitions I want. Often in fingerstyle guitar, there’s a reptitiveness to the verse and chorus – maybe a repeating bass figure (a la Chet Atkins), or steady melody line (like a hymn). But this typically goes out the window at a transtition.

9. The Bridge

Get the bridge, or the “C” section, right. It’s easy to be happy with a great chorus and verse. But learning the “C” section (AKA the bridge) is what makes the song complete. Learn it so that it sounds as effortless as the chorus that you’ve been woodshedding for the last week.

10. Record, Analyze, and Improve

It’s easy enough to record yourself on an iPhone. The idea isn’t too have a high quality recording. It’s just needs to be good enough that you can get a sense of what you actually sound like. So many times, I’ve listened to myself after the fact, only to realize that I sound way too busy or too sparse or have pitchy intonation, string vibrations, muted strings, bad tempo, etc. All of this shows up pretty quickly when you sit and listen.

11. Play it for Someone

The ultimate way to make sure you have it ‘under your fingers’ is to play it in front of someone live. In order to perform well, you have to really have it down. You can’t count on a lucky take, or restarting it. You have to be able to hit it 99% of the time.

What’s your approach?  Similar, or totally different?