Thumb independence basics

Welcome to the core of fingerstyle guitar playing!

It's all about thumb independence

The basis of fingerstyle guitar playing and the reason why fingerstyle guitar sounds the way it sounds is that the guitarist plays the melody and bass simultaneously. People often say that it sounds as if several guitars are playing at the same time. The difficulty with this type of guitar playing is that you only have one hand - the picking hand - available to play bass and melody. On the piano, for example, it's much easier - there you usually play the bass with your left hand, while you play the melody with your right hand.

So how do you play bass and melody simultaneously with one hand?
This is where thumb independence comes into play. The goal of thumb independence is to completely automate the thumb through practice. Once you have achieved this, you no longer need to focus on your thumb, but can devote your full attention to playing the melody.

How long does it take to achieve thumb independence?
It depends. The question is also, what exactly does it mean to achieve thumb independence? In the beginning it takes ages until you can play even very simple pieces. At some point this process gets faster and faster. The final stage is the ability to improvise in this style, but you don't need this skill before you can play fingerstyle pieces. In any case, you shouldn't get discouraged too quickly and invest the necessary time and patience to get better step by step.

Palm muting

Palm muting is a right hand technique, where you damp the bass strings slightly with the side of your picking hand to produce a more muted, punchy bass sound. This technique is not only used in fingerstyle, but also in many other styles of playing.

The side of the picking hand slightly touches the bass strings
The side of the picking hand slightly touches the bass strings

You should try out if you like this sound. There are genres in which this technique is used extensively (e.g. Delta Blues) and other genres in which this technique is rarely used (e.g. Folk Blues).

Other things to keep in mind

‣ If you are just starting out, you should play very slowly. As long as you do not play flawlessly, you are playing too fast.

‣ Always use a metronome and always tap your foot to the beat.

‣ Check out my recommendations for a good picking hand position.

‣ Check out my recommendations on how to pick strings.

‣ The first bass note of a bar should always be the root note of the chord you are in, everything else sounds strange. If you play an E major chord, the first bass note should be E.

See also

I grouped the upcoming thumb independence exercises into four sections:

Within these sections the level of difficulty increases from easy to advanced. I would recommend that you work through the sections chronologically, but you can of course skip sections and come back later if you want. I wish you lots of fun and patience in learning this beautiful guitar playing technique!