"FINGER-PICKING is a Southern-based American instrumental guitar style. Many people incorrectly use the term "Finger-Picking" to mean any right hand style in which the fingers pluck or pull strings. Most of these styles should be simply called "plucking styles." Finger-Picking is a specific and complex melody style which allows one guitar to do the work of two by placing a treble-string melody over a constant bass-string accompaniment. Most Finger-Pickers use a steel-string guitar which is preferable both for its bright, penetrating sound and for its "quicker" narrow neck." -- Bob Baxter, 1967.
Acoustic fingerpicking guitar is a way of playing the steel string flat-top guitar. It is also referred to as "thumbpicking," particulary in Kentucky, or "Travis picking," in honor of Merle Travis. In this style, both thumb and fingers are used to do the picking. The thumb of the picking hand (right hand for a right handed guitarist) is used to pick the bass notes on the lower strings, while at the same time the index, middle and other fingers pick out the melody on the treble strings. The guitar is commonly used to accompany singing; fingerpicking is a way to approach it as a solo instrument.
Fingerpicking falls under the fingerstyle category of ways to play the guitar. There is a long history all over the world of playing the guitar with the fingers. Classical and some Hawaiian and jazz guitarists play fingerstyle. By way of contrast, rock and bluegrass guitarists generally play with a flat pick (plectrum), either to strum chords (rhythm guitar) or to pick out individual notes (lead guitar), or a combination of the two (chord/melody). Fingerpicking is the term I prefer to refer to this folk and country style of playing associated with the American South.
The steel string flat-top guitar first became popular in the U.S. in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The famous Martin D-28 dreadnought emerged during this time. It was a favorite for playing in a band due to its powerful sound and deep bass response. The "Orchestra Model" Martin OM-28 came out in 1929. The smaller, less bassy, OM or 000 size guitar has a wider fretboard than a D-28 and is easier to play sitting down. This size of guitar is often favored for fingerpicking.
Pioneers of steel string fingerpicking guitar include blues, country and folk
Rev. Gary Davis,
Blind Boy Fuller,
I maintain a
list of fingerpicking guitarists,
but read it with the caveat that this is my personal taste here.
Additions, corrections and just plain feedback are always welcome. Please feel free to write me.