Fingerpicking 'til Your Heart's Content

by Sue Carpenter
2005 National Champion Mountain Dulcimer Player

Not long after I started playing the mountain dulcimer, after strumming set my foot to tapping and my spirits to soar, I slipped on a set of fingerpicks and began fingerpicking 'til my heart was content. Picking my strings one at a time, listening to each one ring individually and in harmony with the others, I extended my musical journey to discover within me and within my dulcimer new depths of artistic expression waiting to be found and polished like a precious jewel.

Fingerpicking is a discipline requiring the patience to practice a few patterned picking sequences. Once you learn these basic patterns well enough that you can rely on muscle memory to free your fingers to pick in "autopilot" mode, any style of fingerpicking - banjo picking, Travis picking, pattern picking, classical, to name a few - is just a few fingertips away. This article will help you find that autopilot mode and develop good technique by focusing on right hand mechanics.

There's more to fingerpicking, however, than just mechanics; there's musical artistry and emotional expression as well. Generally, it's easiest to work on artistry after mastering the mechanics of playing all the right notes, but I believe that good technique fosters good musical artistry. Practice doesn't necessarily make perfect; practice perpetuates whatever is practiced, including bad habits or poor technique. After many years of classical piano and organ lessons, I found the freedom of learning a folk instrument, especially one that I had never before seen or heard, liberating and inspiring. Without knowing the "right" way to play the dulcimer, I found myself doing what seemed natural. But it wasn't long before I simply wasn't happy with the sound I was getting when I fingerpicked. Like a photo that is almost in focus, my music lacked clarity. So, back to the classical world I went, seeking the help of a classical guitar teacher who suggested some right hand techniques that improved the tonal quality of my music. Most importantly I gained an improved dynamic range that brought the melody to the forefront and allowed the filler notes to complement rather than compete with the melody. What I learned in those lessons you can find in my book, Patterns and Patchwork, a thoroughly detailed, methodical approach to fingerpicking the mountain dulcimer from beginning to advanced techniques. For the scope of this article, I will distill some of those lessons into five exercises to help you discover and develop techniques that will also improve your musical artistry.

Nails, Picks and Hand Position

Because your right hand is responsible for sounding the notes that your left hand frets, your right hand plays an important roll whether you're strumming, flatpicking, or fingerpicking.

What you do with your right hand affects the quality of the sound you produce and defines your style. So let's start with what comes in contact with your strings, your fingertips. You can pick with the fleshy pads of your fingertips, your fingernails, or fingerpicks. Without going into lengthy detail, each has its advantages and disadvantages, and each will give you a different quality of sound.

Experiment with all three to decide what's best for you. Finger pads and fingernails give you intimate contact with the strings, while fingernails and fingerpicks provide a bit more volume than pads. If you prefer fingernails but have incurably soft nails, as do I, you might consider acrylic nails. I have recently done so for my index and middle fingers; however, I still prefer a pick for my thumb.

How you position your right hand is equally important to the quality of sound. For fingerpicking, I highly recommend not anchoring your right hand in any way on your instrument. Anchoring does give your hand a fixed point of reference, but it does so at a cost. I find that the sound of each note opens up when I free my hand to move expressively, to caress the strings, and to flow with the music. Anchoring your hand close to the bridge also limits where you pick the strings to an area that produces tones that are somewhat more nasal than the richer, mellower tones produced by picking farther away from the bridge. Finally, for a clean, crisp sound, position your hand so that your knuckles are parallel to the strings, thus allowing you to pick the strings squarely rather than at an angle.

Basic Picking Patterns and Practice Exercises

As you learn the first few basic picking patterns, your "home base" is the right hand base position. In this position, your thumb picks the treble string, your index finger picks the middle string, and your middle finger picks the bass string. A repeated sequence of finger strokes forms a pattern such as thumb-index-middle-index-thumb-index-middle-index, or middle-thumb-index-thumb. Any combination of repeated finger strokes sets up a pattern. If you sing and you want to accompany yourself with fingerpicking, you can simply use a right hand pattern that fits the mood of your song while your left hand holds each chord position. If you want to fingerpick a melody, sometimes the chord changes have the melody built right in on the treble or bass strings such as with the D-G-D-A-D-G-D-A-D chord progression of "Boil Them Cabbage Down," as demonstrated in the exercises below.

In the following exercises, the first measure shows your right hand what to do by identifying the picking pattern with T for thumb, I for index finger, and M for middle finger. The placement of these letters on the tablature lines indicates which string to pick with which finger. In the example below, pick the strings one at a time - treble, middle, bass, middle - using your thumb to pick the treble string, index to pick the middle string, and middle finger to pick the bass.

NOTE: These examples and the exercises that follow are in DAD tuning.

The measures following the right hand picking pattern show your left hand which frets to hold while your right hand picks the individual strings. In the example below, your left hand holds a G chord by fretting the treble string at the 3rd fret and the middle string at the 1st fret. The fret numbers are staggered one at a time - 3,1,0,1 - in the tablature and stacked next to the chord name above the tab.

Practice right hand picking patterns on open strings until your right hand becomes comfortable and automatic. Next practice the movement of your left hand through the chord changes without using the right hand picking pattern. Simply brush the index finger of your right hand across the strings while your left hand holds down each chord, for example, a G chord (0-1-3), a D chord (0-0-2) and then an A chord (1-0-1). When your left hand is completely comfortable and can change from one chord to another smoothly, then combine your right hand picking pattern with your left hand chords. Whenever you have difficulty coordinating your right and left hands, concentrate on one hand at a time. You can't concentrate on one hand when you're struggling with the other.

While your right hand picks the pattern, be sure to hold each chord position with your left hand until the next fret number or chord change occurs.

You can listen to each exercise first played exactly as written, then with the "Boil Them Cabbage Down" chord progression. Feel free to experiment using each picking pattern with other pieces you already know, perhaps even to create a new piece of your own. Think of the patterns as building blocks that you can use however you want to achieve any style you want. Combine patterns, change the picking sequences, the possibilities are limitless.

Alternating Bass Patterns

Let's start with the first two exercises that introduce an alternating bass rhythm.

Each exercise begins with a pinch on the first beat. To play the pinch, pick the treble and bass strings with your thumb and middle fingers respectively and simultaneously. Next alternate picking the middle and bass strings with your index and middle fingers respectively. An alternating bass pattern works nicely when fingerpicking back-up chords, especially for fiddle tunes.

As you look at the tablature for Exercises 1 A and B, notice that your right hand pattern is exactly the same in both, but your left hand changes with the inversion of the G and D chords: from bass to treble, 0-1-3 and 0-0-2 in Exercise 1A inverted to 3-1-0 and 2-0-0 in Exercise 1B.

Although the alternating bass is the driving force in this pattern and thus what you want to emphasize, you don't want to pick all the notes with the same intensity, especially the middle string. Accenting the first and third beats will give a little bounce to your picking.

Listen to Exercise 1A.

Listen to Exercise 1B.

Roll Patterns

Exercises 2 and 3 introduce a roll pattern that plays the individual notes of a chord in a four-note pattern producing an arpeggiated or harp-like effect. To play the roll in the base position, pick the treble string with your thumb, the middle string with your index finger, the bass with your middle finger, and the middle string again with your index finger. Practice this exercise until you can feel the steady, smooth roll of the notes across the strings and back again.

Listen to Exercise 2 and notice that the thumb picks louder than the other fingers to make a melody stand out while keeping the filler notes on the middle and bass strings in the background.

Listen to Exercise 3 and notice that starting the pattern on the bass string instead of the treble string reverses the roll pattern. You will have to practice accenting notes on the bass string by picking louder with your middle finger than with your thumb and index finger.

Alternating Two Fingers on the Same String

With only three strings on a dulcimer, it's easy to assign one finger per string and not vary from that assignment or base position. However, sometimes you'll find it necessary to pick successive notes, generally eighth notes, on the same string. If the same finger picks those successive notes, the sound is stiff and choppy. Alternating the thumb and index, or index and middle fingers, varies the tonal quality of the vibrating string as well as increases your speed and fluency. Listen to the following examples of picking the same note in succession with one finger and then with alternating fingers.

Sample 1 and Sample 2

Can you hear a difference? Of course, both examples play only one note, the same note, and thus literally can be described as monotones. However, listen carefully and you'll notice the first sample sounds like "pick, pick, pick, pick, etc." while the second sounds more like "pick, pluck, pick, pluck." That's because the thumb and index alternate picking the treble string in the second sample.

If you fingerpick a guitar using only thumb, index, and middle fingers, as many non-classical pickers do, the concept of shifting fingers from string to string becomes a necessity. How else could you pick 6 strings using only three fingers unless you shifted finger positions to other strings? Worried about hitting the wrong string during the shift? Don't be. Even if you do, because you're holding down a chord the string you hit will just be another note that blends in. You're going to have to trust me on this one, but once your fingers are in autopilot mode they have a miraculous way of knowing and remembering which string to pick. Accurate practice will make it so.

The important thing to remember is that your picking pattern remains the same when you shift a finger from picking one string to another. Look at the tablature for Exercise 4 and notice how the picking sequence for the roll pattern - thumb, index, middle, index - is the same as in Exercise 3. The difference is not in the pattern but in the index finger shifting from the middle string to the treble string to pick the last note in the four-note roll pattern. Notice also that you'll be picking two notes in succession on the treble string, first with the index and then the thumb to start the roll pattern over again.

Listen to Exercise 4.

Putting It All Together

Enough with the exercises and on with some serious music! Although the final piece of music I chose for this article doesn't use the alternating bass pattern, I encourage you to explore its possibilities. I included the alternating bass exercises primarily to get your fingers moving through a basic, easy pattern. You can certainly use the pinch in any arrangement, and from time to time an alternating bass pattern is a good filler when holding a melody note for a measure or two. If you want to pursue arranging and composing your own chord-melody patterns, I recommend you read "Patterned Chord Arpeggios for Melody" by Gary Gallier in the August 2004 issue of Although Gary addresses flatpicking in his article, the concepts are the same for fingerpicking. For now, let's learn a tune.

I chose the traditional Scottish piece "Skye Boat Song" because of its relative left hand simplicity and because it's such a perfect piece to demonstrate how to incorporate the roll pattern into a chord-melody arrangement. Here, the roll musically suggests the gentle rocking of a boat on the swells of a sea. For the most part, you will be using the roll patterns as you learned them in Exercises 2, 3, and 4. Notice in measures 10, 12, and 14, however, that the four notes of the roll are not rhythmically even with four eighth notes comprising the pattern. In these measures, two eighth and two quarter notes are used in the roll.

Picking patterns (T I M I T, for example) are written above the tablature to guide your right hand. The bold, larger fret numbers are the melody notes - a visual reminder to accent those notes to bring the melody to the forefront while keeping the filler notes as a complimentary, musical voice behind the melody. In measure 8, brush the A chord (4-4-6+) with your index finger from bass to treble. The brush is indicated with a "B" in the right hand notation. A "P" next to a fret number indicates a pull-off, an alternative way to play successive notes on the same string rather than alternating two fingers.

Finally, practice at your own pace, even if you have to use each individual measure as an exercise for first your right hand on open strings, then your left hand for the chord and fret changes, and then both your right and left hands together. Most of all enjoy the music and fingerpick 'til your heart's content.

Listen to "Skye Boat Song"

About the Author

When Sue Carpenter first played a mountain dulcimer in 1981 she was immediately captivated by its simplicity and challenged by its fingerpicking possibilities. As a teacher, Sue is well known for her challenging, highly organized and intensive methods, nurturing patience, and energetic enthusiasm that make learning fun. As an instrumentalist, she is best known for her expressive style and exceptional technical ability. She delights her audiences and balances her repertoire with a wide range of styles and tempos: traditional, folk, original compositions, ragtime, fingerpicking, and strumming. She has performed and taught at many dulcimer festivals from Maine to California and is the 2005 National Mountain Dulcimer Champion.

Sue wrote and published Patterns and Patchwork, a fingerpicking instruction book, and Heliotrope Bouquet Tune Book, a companion tab book for her "Heliotrope Bouquet" CD. She is also a featured artist on the CD "Masters of the Mountain Dulcimer, Volume 1."

You can contact Sue via e-mail at or visit her website,

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