If you’re interested in learning how to fingerpick on guitar, here are ten great songs to learn. I chose these songs because they’re familiar to guitarists who play pop/rock music, they range from beginner-level to intermediate-level in terms of fingerpicking skills, and they will introduce you to the general fingerpicking techniques used in popular music. The only requirement is that you already know the basics of playing guitar and you have no trouble playing songs using open chords, power chords, and barre chords.
1. “Fast Car” Tracy Chapman
This is a great way to ease yourself into fingerpicking because it doesn’t use any busy complicated patterns, you could play it using just a thumb and one finger, and there are only a few relatively simple parts to the song. On top of this, it’s a well-known song and one that often inspires guitarists to want to learn to fingerpick.
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2. “You Were Meant for Me” Jewel
This is another very popular song by a singer-songwriter artist. It uses a simple pattern played at a slow tempo and, again, you can get by with a thumb and just one finger. There are just a few parts to this song so there’s not much to memorize and it’s not hard to put the whole song together.
One problem you’ll run into with this song is the key. The original recording below is somewhere between the key of B and C. You’re better off playing along with this live version that is in the key of C.
3. “Dust in the Wind” Kansas
This song might come up as number one how many fingerpicking lists because it’s so popular and it has become a quintessential guitar fingerpicking song. It’s based on the so-called Travis picking pattern that forms the basis for many folk-style fingerpicking songs. I chose to put it at number three because there are simpler songs that you really ought to learn first just to get used to using your fingers. “Dust in the Wind” uses a somewhat fast and busy pattern that repeats throughout most of the song without giving you much of a break. That said, it’s definitely a pattern you need to learn, and once you get it down it becomes easy to repeat it over and over much like it’s easy to repeat a common strum pattern. And if you slow this song down and play it at maybe 90% or 80% tempo, it becomes far more manageable.
4. “Thinking Out Loud” Ed Sheeran
After working with the busy pattern used in “Dust in the Wind” for a while, you’ll probably want to shift gears and play something different and simpler. Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” is a hugely popular song, it uses fairly simple fingerpicking, and even features an added slapping technique. By slapping the strings on the backbeats in between the chords, you create a percussive sound that gives your playing a nice groove.
5. “Landslide” Fleetwood Mac
This is another fingerpicking classic that would make the top of most people’s lists. The original recording features multiple guitar tracks that can’t be duplicated on just one guitar. But the live version, which has become the most famous and familiar version, is played on just one guitar. It starts out simple with a Travis picking style pattern, but then Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham adds complexity with variations of that pattern and even a chord melody-style solo section. This wouldn’t be a bad song to start with if you were just gonna focus on the simplest pattern it uses at the top of the song, but I wouldn’t suggest new finger pickers try to tackle the other techniques that get introduced later in the song until after they have some experience under their belt. So for this reason, I put the song at number five. I would also add that trying to follow the live version note for note is almost impossible because there’s so much improvised variation. I think the better approach is to get a general and simplified idea of what is done in each section and put the song together that way.
6. “Stairway to Heaven” Led Zeppelin
Did you think I could make a top 10 list of fingerpicking songs and not include Stairway? This is often one of the first fingerpicking songs guitarists learn, but it’s not quite as easy as it sounds and I don’t think it’s the best song to start with. That said, it’s not terribly difficult either so once you get a little bit of experience using your fingers you’ll be ready to give this one a try. You can just focus on the first two minutes of the song which is the portion of the song that’s fingerpicked. There are some sections that you could and should play note for note, like the first 8 bars, and other parts where you could just get a general idea and not bother with always following the music exactly. Overall, Stairway does not require much fingerpicking skills, but because it’s not based on a simple pattern you can repeat throughout, the hardest part may be remembering how each chord is plucked.
7. “Blackbird” The Beatles
Like Stairway, Blackbird has almost become obligatory for guitarists that want to play fingerpicking songs. While this song might sound simple when you listen to it, it’s more challenging than you think and in many ways quite different from the other songs on this list. Rather than using standard chord shapes, Paul McCartney moves up and down the neck using various intervals and chromatic half-step movement. And this isn’t a purely fingerpicked song. McCartney uses a unique combination of finger plucking and finger strumming. Most people overlook this technique and play the song incorrectly using a more typical fingerpicking pattern. I recommend you watch a live version of McCartney performing this song so you can see what he’s actually doing. Also, when you play this, slow it down for sure.
8. “Your Body Is a Wonderland” John Mayer
Here’s another song that, like Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” was recorded more recently, at least compared to the other songs on this list which are several decades old at this point. John Mayer is a super-skilled player particularly when it comes to fingerstyle techniques. This song might be one of the easiest of his to fingerpick and it also happens to be one of his most popular. He uses drop-D tuning and there’s an interesting interplay between the thumb and fingers with a moving bassline that’s different from typical folk-style fingerpicking songs.
9. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” Led Zeppelin
What I love about this song is it’s played in a manner where it’s almost like an exercise to practice using your thumb and three fingers on your picking hand, or possibly even all of your fingers. Jimmy Page uses forward finger rolls throughout most of the song. In fact, you may just want to learn the main part of this song only as the song is quite lengthy and it’s kind of hard to follow the other parts at times. I like to use this song as a warm-up exercise to get the blood flowing throughout my whole picking hand. This is another song you may need to slow down.
10. “The Boxer” Simon & Garfunkel
This is another extremely popular fingerpicking classic and one that would often come up first and many people’s lists. However, this song is tougher to play than most people realize and it’s very difficult for a new fingerpicker to put this song together. Because I consider it to be more of an intermediate-level song, I’ve put it last at number 10 on my list. The original recording features multiple guitars with one in an alternate tuning, so I recommend you actually learn this live version and focus specifically on Paul Simon’s playing because he simplifies things a bit live. The original recording was recorded in the position of the key of C using a guitar in Eb tuning. The live version is also played in the position of the key of C but with a capo at the first fret on a guitar in standard tuning.
“The Boxer” is another example of a Travis picking pattern, it remains busy throughout most of the song with the only break coming during the chorus when you switch to strumming. There are variations of the finger pattern that involve you doing different things with your fretting-hand fingers that can be difficult to coordinate. Another thing that makes this song difficult is following its form. The verses are not always played the same and there are a few twists and turns throughout the song. But because this is such a popular song and it’s high on the list of songs guitarists aspire to fingerpick, it makes my list as well. By cutting a few corners and slowing down the song, you can make this song more manageable–I just don’t recommend starting with it. Get your feet wet by learning simpler songs first and then you’ll be ready to jump in the ring with “The Boxer.”