Getting Started: The Four-Step Pattern

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Welcome to the wonderful world of acoustic fingerpicking! We are going to start right at the beginning with a simple pattern, and move all the way on through up to some techniques of the pros!

Let's start from the top, with a simple 4-step pattern.

This four-step fingerpicking pattern is a super-powerful building block for fingerstyle guitar.

For this pattern, play the sixth string (Low E) with a downward pluck of your thumb. Next, pluck upwards on the first string (high E string) with your middle finger. Next, pluck downwards on the third string (G string) with your thumb. Lastly, pluck upwards on the second string (B string) with your index finger.

This pattern of four steps constitutes one half measure of music in 4/4 time. The count is: One And Two And. To complete a full measure, simply play the pattern again, with this count: Three And Four And.

Repeat this pattern over and over, trying to maintain a consistent rhythm, and gradually building up your speed.

In the next lesson, we'll take a look at how to apply this pattern to a variety of chords.


Q: I see you are using only your thumb, index, and middle fingers? I've seen some players use three fingers, plus the thumb. Which is correct?

A: There is no absolute right or wrong to this. You'll hear opinions on both sides of the aisle. My personal preference is based on the tradition called "Travis Picking" named for guitarist Merle Travis. I personally feel this pattern of finger moves, which uses the thumb twice within the pattern, opens up more rhythmic possibilities as you get into more advanced techniques.


A: The signature "Travis" move is that alternating thumb beat - the fact that your thumb does double-duty, alternating between the bass note, and the third string (or a variation of that) of the guitar. That provides a steady rhythm against which you can then add ornamentations, syncopation, melody, etc. Some students ask why they can't do these same patterns using three fingers, and the thumb on the bass note only. Technically you may be able to, but in so doing you compromise that steady "thump thump" of the Travis-style thumb beats.

Q: Is it necessary to have long fingernails to play fingerstyle guitar?

A: No. My personal preference is to have long-ish nails on the thumb, index, and middle fingers of my right hand. However, many players prefer to play with short nails. There is a difference in tone when using nails vs. not using nails. With nails, the tone is a bit crisper, without nails, it is a bit more muted. It's a matter of personal preference.

Lisa McCormick
Instructor Lisa McCormick
Getting Started: The Four-Step Pattern song notation

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Questions & Answers

On the demo outro, what chords were you playing with your left hand?? 4 months ago
Josh Workman 3 months ago

Hi Ted, She plays D, C (add2), G/B, G. Every chord has the D note on the 3rd fret of the B string pressed down. Also, every chord but the D should have the high E string left open. I hope this helps!