Is it Always Necessary to Use the Pinky Finger?

Is it Always Necessary to Use the Pinky Finger?

Is it Always Necessary to Use the Pinky Finger?

Obviously the pinky comes into play a lot in guitar playing and in certain situations, such as fretting chord shapes, it’s necessary to use it. But when it comes to lead guitar playing, many guitarists find themselves favoring a three-fingered approach, especially when using close position patterns like the pentatonic scale and playing styles of music such as blues and classic rock. I often receive questions about whether or not it’s appropriate to take this fingering approach in these situations. The line of reasoning behind these questions is that, although our playing may sound right, we may be doing it wrong. Here’s my opinion.

First off, if the description above matches you, then you’re in good company. Many great guitar players, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Johnson are known for a lot of three-fingered guitar playing, particularly in their minor pentatonic-based lead guitar solos. In fact, many of these famous guitarists also used their thumbs on the fretboard by wrapping them around the neck, which has traditionally been considered a big no-no. Indeed rules were meant to be broken.

The truth is, no rule exists that says you must always take a four-fingered approach, and in many situations a three-fingered approach is sufficient. For example, many guitar players find that the first three fingers of the fretting hand are stronger and more dexterous than the pinky, and so prefer to use fingers 1-3 in situations where hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends are involved. Additionally, so much can be played with three fingers that often it’s just not necessary to always get another finger involved. Heck, jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose third and fourth fingers were paralyzed after an injury in a fire, proved that you can still play a lot, and play well, with only two fingers! It seems that one’s success on the instrument is not necessarily a matter of following some kind of fingering convention.

When it comes to playing guitar, you must choose fingerings that allow you to play your best and accomplish your goals. If there are parts that you’re most comfortable playing using primarily three fingers, and you play them well and sound good, then there’s no reason not to play them this way. If you do better by getting your pinky more involved, then go for it. Whatever you do, don’t get into the line of thinking that you’re “supposed” to use a certain kind of fingering. You’re supposed to play well and sound good, and this isn’t always accomplished in the same manner for everyone. 

With all this said, don’t rule anything out either, and don’t be lazy. Be intentional about getting all your fingers in shape, explore all your fingering options, and put time and effort into each option before making a choice. In all things, work toward discovering your strengths and playing to them.

On the other hand (no pun intended), when it comes to the rock and roll hand sign (a.k.a. Sign of the Horns), using the pinky is a must! \m/


Comments ( 14 )

  • Ted

    Hi Desi: being a bass player, I have looked at the use of all four fingers versus three fingers. For guitar, the first three finger technique seems to work better because of the strength needed for vibrato, sliding and particularly string bending. Classical guitarists seem to play with four fingers, but to my knowledge they do not do much string bending.

    For me, three fingers works well for bass. What is far more important for bass is to anchor the thumb behind the frets on the neck, and not have it hanging over. However, the most important thing is how you sound, not whether you have perfect technique.

  • Anand

    Very Nice information and advice. I was always having this doubt in my mind.. Now it is very clear — Focus on Playing WELL and Sounding GOOD!!!

    Thank you so much, Desi Serna.

  • Great post! I just wanted to share that I’m a guitar teacher in San Francisco, but years ago, when I was starting out, I avoided using my pinky to fret at all costs

  • If I didn’t use my pinky to play chords or scales, it just wouldn’t feel right. It would feel like I was missing 25% of my full range of capabilities. Even though its not your strongest finger, the muscles can be built over time. Just reading through that list of great names I think its worth doing.

  • Qique

    I absolutely cannot play without my Pinky. I depend on it 50 percent of the time. I can’t fathom playing my guitar without my pinky finger. Yes, I use my first, second, and third but had to modify my playing due to a nerve injury which weakened my hand greatly but I believe I’m playing better than before because I use my pinky nearly 50-60 percent of the time as opposed to the likely 10 percent I did prior to the injury to my fretting hand. Speaking for myself, I’d be depriving my full potential if I left out the pinky. Vital for sweeps, sweep taps, stretching out chords and notes.

  • Thanks for adding to the discussion. It sounds like you have found what works best for you, which is really the point of this post.

  • Qique


  • Mike Lowery

    I use my pinky for longer scale runs and while fretting chords. It is too valuable in these two areas to not incorporate into one’s technique. I try to avoid any note accenting like vibrato as well as sliding with it though. It doesn’t have the strength or the dexterity to do them anywhere well enough to have clean technique. Listen to Yngwie’s intro to his solo on the song “Liar” (from Trilogy). The entire sections are played with only his first three fingers. I always tried to play that part using my pinky. Never could get it. Then I watch Yngwie play it on a video and, Voila, he was only using the first three fingers! I retrained my approach and now when I play that part, although not close to how well he plays it on that album, I can keep up and it sounds correct.

    So tell that pinky to get in the mix and to know his job when he decides to hop in.

  • Li zhang

    Best answer, many thanks.

  • Kip

    Thank you for your article and comments. I had an accident recently and have to come up with a decision either to remove my little finger or not. Surgeon says the bone and cartilage are beyond repair. I was happy to read your post knowing I have a chance to continue playing. I usually use my pinky[little finger] for certain lead notes bad habit? Don’t really know but when I get over this situation I will try playing with just my 3 fingers along with my thumb. Thanks.

  • Gregg

    I injured my pinky in a basketball accident 25 years ago, and it tends to lock up and become useless if I reach for a note with it. If I can keep it slightly bent, it’s ok. So, for most sus chords and such, it’s fine. But for soloing, I don’t trust it. I learned to play bass without ever using it for anything, and later learned to play guitar by only using it for some chords and not much if at all in solos. I always thought this would be a crippling liability and that put off me getting serious about guitar for years. I really wish I had read more things like this decades earlier. Once I did get serious about it, I noticed how rarely SRV and the other guys mentioned above would use it in solos and have really been kicking myself for waiting so long!

  • Paul Kittinger

    I’ve always used the pinky. Yeah, you can’t bend strings very well but it gives me the one extra fret reach when playing fast up the neck runs.. I taught myself to play this way in the early 70s and wouldn’t have the reach that I need for the styles I enjoy playing. If you have huge hands and fingers maybe you can get by using 3 fingers. Ritchie Blackmore always used 4 fingers and was classically schooled on guitar b4 becoming a rocker . He stressed the importance of using the pinky. I had already been using it b4 I read that so I just kept on doing it. Figured he knew more about technique than me! Enjoy your music and either your 3 or 4 finger style!

  • Kim

    I am double jointed and struggle greatly with using my pinky finger. It either collapses or locks up. Very frustrating!! I will keep trying exercises to build up strength.

  • There are always ways around problems like that. Don’t give up. We can connect for a private lesson if you’d like to get some personalized training.