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Sick and tired of playing the same old arpeggio patterns every time you use your fingers to pluck out open-position “cowboy” chords on your acoustic guitar? Perhaps you're having a hard time integrating your well-honed classical guitar technique into “pop/rock” acoustic guitar playing? Well... it's high time you took some tips from tasty folk-rock fingerstyle phenoms like James Taylor, Paul Simon, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, Jim Croce, Dan Fogelberg, Stephen Stills, Nick Drake, Gordon Lightfoot, among others, and start coloring your chords with melodious embellishments!! In other words, consider spending some time studying how to add single-note ornaments to your common chord shapes.

As you'll soon see, the above-described sounds surface in every conceivable acoustic guitar style (not just folk-based pop/rock), a mainstay in the recorded work of revered pluckers ranging from Eric Clapton (Unplugged) and Jimmy Page (acoustic Led Zeppelin), to relative newcomers like John Mayer, Dave Matthews, Joseph Arthur, Elliott Smith, John Frusciante, Ani DiFranco, and others. Even “Lilith Fair” icons like Jewel, Lisa Loeb, Sarah McLachlan, and Shawn Colvin make it standard practice to avoid playing obvious fingerstyle patterns, supplementing their open chord shapes with ornamentation moves.

Without further ado, in this acoustic guitar lesson (featuring TAB, standard notation, and MP3 audio support) we'll take a closer look at common “open position” chords like E, Em, A, Am, D, Dm, C, G, and B7, fingering them in traditional fashion, but tacking on tasty tones to them. Sound tantalizing? Let's give a few of these patented plucking passages a try...

A Note On Acoustic Fingerstyle Technique

To the uninitiated, playing “fingerstyle” means using a specific combination of your plucking hand's fingers to articulate certain strings. In proper fingerstyle notation, to eliminate the guesswork over which fingers are used, symbols are often included between the notation and TAB staves. Since much of the early “classical guitar” repertoire stems from Spanish guitar literature, these symbols are actually an abbreviation of the Spanish names for fingers—p (“pulgar,” or “thumb”), i (“indice,” or “index” finger), m (“medio,” or “middle” finger), and a (“anular,” or "ring" finger). In traditional classical guitar pieces and/or exercises, the thumb (p) is typically assigned to play the bottom three “wound” strings (strings 4-6), while the remaining fingers (i, m, and a) are used to pluck the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings, respectively. (Note: The “pinky,” or “c,” is rarely used in classical fingerstyle technique; it does, however, get called upon when Flamenco-based approaches are employed.) The following graphic should help clarify the various “plucking hand” terms and symbols you'll see in this lesson:

For what it's worth, after you run your fingers through the following figures, consider also learning them using hybrid picking—using both pick and fingers to achieve a “fingerstyle” effect. Many steel-string acoustic stylists use this approach as an alternative to “traditional” fingerstyle playing to minimize the risk of shredding their fingernails (if they also play nylon-string, for instance). For more on hybrid picking, refer to PsYcHo LiCkS' recent Travis Picking lesson. As for the MP3 audio examples herein, I played them all fingerstyle, angling my fingers in a slight manner so that only my fingertip pads touched the strings, preserving my fingernails.

Open E Chord

Let's kick this lesson off by adding a single extra note—the note “A” (2nd fret, 3rd string)—to a garden-variety open E chord arpeggio pattern [Fig. 1]. Given that your fret-hand's index, middle, and ring fingers are already involved in grabbing the chord's primary notes (an “E” triad: E-G#-B), your pinky will be used in quick “hammer-on” fashion to color this chord. In analysis of the E major scale—E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#—you can see simply by counting scale steps (E=1, F#=2, G#=3, etc.), that “A” is the “4th” degree of this scale. Whenever a chord's “3rd” (in this case, the note G#) is replaced by a 4th (in this case, the note A) a “sus4” sound results. This is an abbreviation of the term “suspended 4th.” This particular note functions as a “suspension” because it “suspends” a chord's resolution—i.e., temporarily avoids settling in a clear-cut major (E) or minor (Em) tonality. As you'll see in forthcoming examples, the use of the “sus4” is almost mandatory when it comes to coloring cowboy chords!

Note: Make every effort to keep all your fingers anchored throughout, adding/subtracting only the pinky to the picture. Perform all other examples to similar effect (i.e., keep fingers depressed as much as possible).

Open G Chord

By grabbing the “G” root (3rd fret, 6th string) of an open G chord with your fret-hand's ring finger (keeping it anchored throughout), your remaining digits become available to add all sorts of ornaments to this shape. For instance, in Fig. 2 below, the index finger can be used to pull-off from “C” (1st fret, 2nd string) to the open B string. Meanwhile, the middle finger can be used to hammer-on extra tones like E (2nd fret, 4th string) and B (2nd fret, 5th string). Within the G major scale (G-A-B-C-D-E-F#), this hammer-on/pull-off activity adds notes like the “sus4” (the note C) and the “2nd” (the open A string) and “6th” (the note E) to a G triad (G-B-D). The addition of these latter tones (the 2nd and 6th to a major triad) imparts a G major pentatonic (G-A-B-D-E) flavor. In addition to the ever-present “sus4,” in later examples you'll see how using notes from a chord's related pentatonic scale (G major pentatonic over G, C major pentatonic over C, A minor pentatonic over Am, etc) is equally important when it comes to adding ornaments to open chords!

Open D Chord

In this D chord example [Fig. 3], which is somewhat inspired by James Taylor's “Sweet Baby James,” your fret-hand's pinky and middle fingers will be added/subtracted to the chord's core tones (D-F#-A), used to play a “sus4” G (3rd fret, 1st string) and hammer-on/pull-off an F# (2bd fret, 1st string) to/from the open E string. As it relates to the D major scale (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#), these pitches are the 2nd (E) and 4th (G) scale degrees. All your fret-hand's remaining fingers (the index and ring) should be used to hold down the D chord's remaining pitches, adding the thumb to the picture to play F# (2nd fret, 3rd string) at the downbeat of measure 2. In the event you find it difficult to hammer-on/pull-of the notes along the high E string while the chord is held, check to be sure your ring finger's tip (pressed on the “D” at the 3rd fret of the 2nd string) is fretting straight down on the string, otherwise that fingertip's pad might end up touching the 1st string, making pull-offs unnecessarily difficult.

Open C Chord

From a practical performance standpoint, you've likely noticed that the figures in this lesson all work as great “song ending” moves, among other things. This next passage is no exception!

In the following C chord example [Fig. 4], you'll need to keep both “C” notes (1st fret, 2nd string/3rd fret, 5th string) depressed throughout (using your index and ring fingers), while your pinky and middle fingers get tied in knots to grab D (3rd fret, 2nd string), F (3rd fret, 4th string) and A (2nd fret, 3rd string) pitches. In familiar fashion, this maneuvering adds the ol' “sus4” (F), as well as C major pentatonic pitches (C-D-E-G-A) to a basic major chord, C (C-E-G). Remember: Let 'em all ring together by keeping your fingers depressed (*sniffle*) as long as humanly possible!

Open Am Chord

Interestingly, Am (A-C-E) can be embellished using a similar approach to that which we used in the previous C chord. Only in this case [Fig. 5], we'll be focusing on pitches from the Am chord's related A minor pentatonic scale (A-C-D-E-G), using our fret-hand's pinky to tack on “D” (3rd fret, 2nd string), and our ring finger to hammer-on/pull-off to/from open G (3rd string) and D (4th string) notes.

Open Dm Chord

If you've played guitar for a few months (or more), you've probably noticed that some of the most common open chords can be grouped into major and minor pairs—like E and Em, A and Am, D and Dm, for instance. Since we already worked on embellishing a standard D chord (D-F#-A), let's take a close look at what we can add to it's Dm (D-F-A) counterpart.

In Fig. 6, a Dm chord is grabbed using the traditional fingering. Then, while all of its notes are held down, the open E string is sounded from a pull-off (from F at the 1st string's 1st fret), and the A on the 3rd string (2nd fret) is preceded by a hammer-on from the open G string. This adds both the 2nd (E) and 4th (G) scale degrees to our Dm sound, borrowed from the D natural minor scale (D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C). Interestingly, this Lyndsey Buckingham-like figure sounds not unlike certain Travis Picking patterns we studied a couple months back.

Open A Chord

Measure 1 of Fig. 7 illustrates a James Taylor-like treatment of a basic A chord shape (A-C#-E). Finger this chord (from low to high) using the middle, ring, and pinky fingers, otherwise the hammer-ons/pull-offs to/from the open B string won't be very playable. (Note: James Taylor actually plays his A chord shapes so that his index finger can be used to hammer-on/pull-off along the 2nd string!) Your pinky will also need to be shifted along the 2nd string to grab C# (2nd fret, 2nd string) and D (3rd fret, 2nd string), when specified. By measure 2 you'll need to shift hand position, using your index finger to barre acrossd the 2nd fret. This frees up your fret-hand's middle finger to hammer-on/pull-off D (3rd fret, 2nd string) and your pinky to stretch up to a high A (5th fret, 2nd string). All in all, we've just tacked on the 2nd (B) and 4th (D) degrees from the A major scale (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#) to our original A chord.

Open Em Chord

This E minor chord example [Fig. 8] might cause some plucking problems for ya! Why? Because this figure is written to use a different set of plucking-hand fingers from those we've used so far. Instead of assigning a specific finger to pluck specific strings like we discussed at this acoustic fingerstyle lesson's outset, your ring (a) and middle (m) fingers will tackle two string pairs (strings 1-2 and 2-3, in succession), while your index finger (i) pops out notes on the 4th string!

To pluck this puppy properly, begin by grabbing Em (E-G-B) in customary fashion, fretting the B (2nd fret, 5th string) and E (2nd fret, 4th string) notes with your middle and ring fingers, respectively. While those notes are held down, you'll be using your pinky to pull-off a plethora of extra pitches—A (2nd fret, 3rd string), G (3rd fret, 1st string), and F# (2nd fret, 1st string). Your fret-hand's middle finger will also be used to toss in a tasty hammer-on to the “E” chord's B (2nd fret, 5th string) from the open A string. All in all, this activity outlines what's referred to as the (*gasp*) E minor hexatonic scale (E-F#-G-A-B-D)—a six-note E minor scale that omits the “b6” scale degree (in this case, the note “C”) of the “normal” E natural minor scale.

Open B7 Chord

This final example [Fig. 9], presented within a common though somewhat difficult B7 (B-D#-F#-A) shape, is sort of the oddball of the bunch here. It's an actual Travis Picking passage—featuring alternating root (B)-3rd (D#)-5th (F#), quarter-note basslines and all—with melodic movement occuring on the 1st and 2nd strings. To properly play this passage, you'll need to use your fret-hand's middle finger to grab B (2nd fret, 5th string) and F# (2nd fret, 6th string) in alternation, using your pinky to pull-off from a high F# (2nd fret, 1st string) to an open E, then execute a microtonal (i.e., 1/4 step) bend on the 2nd string—all while your index and ring fingers remain firmly rooted on D# (1st fret, 4th string) and A (2nd fret, 3rd string), respectively!

Like This 100% Free Acoustic Guitar Lesson?

To help support this site's free online guitar lessons, please check out my brand-new “full band” album of original compositions, MANNERISMS MAGNIFIED (now available through, iTunes and AMAZON.COM), featuring me performing all the instruments (voices, guitar, bass, real acoustic drums, piano, accordion, and mandolin). I also produced, arranged, engineered, and did all the artwork/illustrations—intimate audio AND visual, lol! (Details can be seen in my YouTube: ALBUM PREVIEW/documentary.) I’d love to hear your thoughts! Thank you :)

For More Fingerstyle Technique...

If you're hankerin' for more pluckin' passages, there are several fine books out there that are designed to help get your fingers flying. Here are some fun ones:

Classical & Fingerstyle Guitar Techniques (Book/CD Pack) Written by David Oakes. For guitar solo. Includes instructional book and examples CD. With standard guitar notation, guitar tablature, introductory text, instructional text and instructional photos. Instructional and romantic period. 64 pages. 9x12 inches. Published by Musicians Institute Press. (HL.695171)
See more info...

Fingerstyle Guitar Essentials Compiled by Acoustic Guitar Magazine. For guitar and voice (on certain selections). Includes guitar tablature book and examples CD. With guitar tablature, standard notation, vocal melody, lyrics and chord names. Instructional and learn to play. 88 pages. 9x12 inches. Published by String Letter Publishing. (HL.699145)
See more info...

Acoustic Guitar Magazine's Best Private Lessons String Letter Publishing. Book & CD Package. Size 9x12 inches. 80 pages. Published by String Letter Publishing. (695603)
See more info...

Complete Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar by Stefan Grossman, Duck Baker and El McMeen. For Guitar (Fingerpicking). solos. Complete. Celtic/Irish. Level: Multiple Levels. Book/CD Set. Size 9.5x11.75. 244 pages. Published by Mel Bay Publications, Inc. (95217BCD)
See more info...

James Taylor: The Best of James Taylor Performed by James Taylor. For guitar and voice. Format: guitar tablature songbook. With guitar tablature, standard notation, vocal melody, lyrics, chord names, guitar chord diagrams and guitar notation legend. Folk rock and soft rock. Series: Hal Leonard Guitar Recorded Versions. 64 pages. 9x12 inches. Published by Hal Leonard. (HL.694824)
See more info...

Ani DiFranco: Best Of Ani DiFranco For Guitar Performed by Ani DiFranco. For guitar and voice. Format: guitar tablature songbook. With guitar tablature, standard notation, vocal melody, lyrics, chord names, guitar chord diagrams, introductory text and black & white photos. Contemporary folk and alternative rock. Series: Hal Leonard Guitar Recorded Versions. 112 pages. 9x12 inches. Published by Hal Leonard. (HL.690384)
See more info...

Concepts Arranging For Fingerstyle Guitar Performed by Howard Morgan. By Howard Morgan. Edited by Aaron Stang. Fretted instrument method/supplement (Guitar). 192 pages. Published by Warner Brothers. (TPF0088)
See more info...

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Dale Turner (2003)