One of the practical problems I’ve had with fingerstyle guitar is figuring out the best technique for practicing scales. And the problem really boils down to this: what exact type of fingerstyle picking are you using?
The techniques for your fretting hand are very similar across playing styles. And if you’re using a standard pick, you would use alternate picking techniques to improve speed and fluidity in your picking hand. But the complicating factor in fingerstyle guitar is that there are a number of right hand techniques:
- Thumbpick and fingers
- Bare thumb and fingers
- Traditional classical technique
And even within these families of picking techniques, there may be more than one approach.
So the answer to the question, “How to practice scales on fingerstyle guitar?” depends on you defining your picking style. Once you’ve done that, there are a number of teachers and resources with the right instruction.
So let’s take a look at those fingerpicking styles, and some good resources to go with them:
Thumbpick and Fingers
Tommy Emmanuel is one of the most well-known thumbpickers out there though there are certainly others: Maneli Jamal, Gareth Pearson, and more.
If you’re a Tommy Emmanuel fan, you’ll notice he relies mostly on the thumb pick for his single-line stuff. He also incorporates his fingers, but a lot of it is the thumb pick itself. Interestingly, he doesn’t have any material (that I can find) that covers scale practices per se. But this course Fingerstyle Breakthroughs spends quite a bit of time going through fingerstyle licks. So this would be a great resource for how to scales in the vein of Tommy Emmanuel.
If you want an actual walkthrough on how to practice scales with a thumbpick, a better bet is Emil Ernebro.
Ernebro is a fantastic guitar player form Sweden who has mastered the thumb pick technique. When it comes to scalar playing, my opinion is that Ernebro leans more towards an even use of thumbpick and fingers than Emmanuel does. On his ProGuitar.com he offers an excellent series of video-based lessons demonstrating this.
Specifically, there are a number of his videos on right hand technique and fingerstyle lines give really good direction on how to play scales with a thumbpick.
Bare Thumb and Fingers
Tim Lerch is a virtuoso jazz and blues fingerstyle player who spends a lot of time teaching and contributing to the guitar community, as well as gigging and recording.
Lerch alternates thumb and fingers when he plays scales. And if you want to see how, the easy way is to check out this YouTube video where he breaks down his right hand playing.
A more thorough way to understand how he approaches single-note playing is to check out his full instructional courses. Here he gets into more depth, of course, on his technique.
Adam Rafferty is another incredible fingerstyle player with some excellent teaching material online. Rafferty doesn’t use a thumppick (at least not anymore). Like Tim Lerch, he favors the warmer, rounder sound of bare thumb and fingers on the strings.
Rafferty has some very practical, helpful guidance on practicing scales available on his site StudyWithAdam.com.
In addition to the scale-related content, he also has really good walkthroughs of how to play songs ranging from jazz to R&B to pop.
Traditional Classical Technique
Of course, long before modern fingerstyle guitar techniques were developed, there was the classical guitar tradition. A rich historical tradition has established effective ways of playing scales using all the fingers of your picking hand. Rather than relying mostly on the thumb, classical scales are played with a more integrated approach, using the fingers more.
To get a walkthrough of this process, check out Andrew Leonard’s Beginner Method for Classical Guitar. The clear, comprehensive tutorial will give you firm ground to build your technique on.
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