Learning how to do some basic fingerpicking can really open up your world as a guitar player. You'll have a great way to accompany yourself as a solo singer, you'll be more welcome at a back porch jam session, and you can even add some hill-country blues licks to you electric guitar toolbox that will quickly have you sounding like Keith Richards.
Luckily for you, there's one simple technique that you can learn to open up this fingerpicking wonderland–the alternating thumb method.
The Alternating Thumb Pattern
Earl Scruggs popularized this style of playing with his self-titled banjo method in the mid-20th century. He called it the alternating thumb pattern. A lot of times you'll hear it called "Travis Style Picking." It's the heart of the Earl Scruggs style of banjo, but it's equally useful on the guitar. It's really simple, and it's not that hard.
All you have to do is keep a steady alternating bassline running with your thumb as you move through a chord progression. Once you have that down, you've got a sturdy foundation that you can use to start building a library of fingerpicking patterns with your index, middle, and ring fingers. But as soon as you have a steady, alternating thumb, you'll have a lot of new options.
How to Practice
Start by running through some chords and plucking the lowest string in each chord followed by the second lowest string in each chord with your thumb. Keep alternating back and forth several times then switch to the next chord. I like to practice with the old folk standard "500 Miles," which goes like this:
E > F#m > A > F#m > A > B7
It's a simple progression that sounds great with an alternating bassline. Once you have that thumb steady, then start plucking the chords on the offbeat with your index finger and middle fingers. Once you've got that steady, you can start rolling between the chords with those same three fingers. If at any point you lose track of the bassline, strip it down and get that steady again before moving forward.
If you don't believe us, just listen to our buddy Kurt Vile. Check out this video. Around 3:10 they start talking about fingerpicking and Kurt says:
"The thing people don't know—you gotta worry about the thumb first. People like wanna be able to do it all. But really you can just sit and do the thumb. Just like you could do that forever, and then you could add a finger."
Here's a video illustrating how to practice this:
Lock into this until you zone out. It's great way to meditate. Pick up the guitar everyday and just do this for a few minutes. The goal is to get that thumb rock solid. Once it can't be shaken your options will start to open up.
Now Do Some Tricks
Once you can play through chord changes fluidly and keep the alternating thumb going, you can start to learn different patterns of rolling your fingers and mixing and matching them. A great example is in Bob Dylan's version of "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" on his first album. He uses the alternating thumb along with plucked chords to give it a country blues feel. Just by plucking instead of doing a Scruggs-style roll you've suddenly opened up a whole new way of playing.
As long as you keep that thumb on the alternating bassline steady, you can try anything and it will probably sound good. Just keep that thumb steady.
In case you need some inspiration to get you excited about learning this new technique, here are some of my favorite fingerpicking songs:
Josh Ritter & Dawn Lands - "500 Miles"
This is an old folk standard by Hedy West, but this is a beautiful version. It's great chord progression to practice on.
Bob Dylan - "Don't Think Twice It's Alright"
This is pretty advanced, but we're trying to get inspired, right! We'll do a future post with a tutorial on how to play this song.
Bob Dylan - "Baby Let Me Follow You Down"
Great example of using syncopated chord plucking with the alternating thumb technique.
Nico - "Fairest of the Seasons"
Nico - "These Days"
Both of these songs were written and played by Jackson Browne. I used to think he was a cheesy 70s singer until I heard this. Apparently he's the real deal.
Badly Drawn Boy - "Hour of the Bewilderbeast"
This is a great song that combines the alternating thumb pattern with strummed chords. Just another great example of the versatility of this pattern.
Beck - "Lost Cause"
Beck's most beautiful song? Perhaps. We'll teach this one sometime in the future.