So for the life of me I am struggling to switch chords with my left hand while picking a fingerstyle pattern. have been playing a bit over 6 months :(

When I'm playing chords with a flatpick I can switch just about any chord easily, but when I am playing fingerstyle/individual strings with a pick I can barely switch the most basic open chords.

I've been at this for two weeks now.. switching between C and G major chord mainly.

What I've been doing:

  • playing the first string of the pattern, then switching the chord and repeating.

  • practicing practicing practicing...

  • going slowly

switching chords feels so forced and even trying to "force" the change I just butcher it and can't seem to get my fingers straight. I've been noticing extra tension when changing chords fingerstyle, which I've actively tried to lighten, and then it's more to "think about".

then I start thinking too much about what I'm doing.


Please offer tips / tricks / resources to help me through this.

Edit: i honestly have a very loose understanding of what arpeggio even is. It just sounded educated.

Also, after writing this, I kind of reflected on what exactly good practice is. I just slowed down, and added in a few other chords to switch to, I'm using p and I, root and 2nd string as the first notes of the pattern, and just switched around from chords in a rhythm. slowly. started to come together. Did this for about 15-20 minutes with small rests to stare in amazement at electric covers on youtube. still botching chord changes and it is just frustrating when I can switch so easily with the only difference of a pick in my hand

  • What are your goals? It sounds like there is another question hiding in there somewhere like "What finger picking patterns are good to start playing chord progressions with?" I'd look into some basic Travis picking, like in "Dust in the wind".
    – amalgamate
    Feb 2, 2016 at 14:09
  • An arpeggio is where you play a chord one note at a time, instead of all the notes at once. So a basic up once arpeggio of the C major open chord would be done by fingering the chord, then pluck the A string with your thumb, then the D string with your thumb, then G with first, B with second, and high E with your third finger (all on your plucking hand, of course). So you hear each note of the chord one at a time. Normally you let the notes "ring out", which means you don't damp them or lift your fretting fingers. When you're done with the arpeggio, you are hearing the whole chord at once. Feb 2, 2016 at 15:26
  • That's an extremely unconventional way of playing a chord that I could never recommend to a beginner who is struggling with changes. Feb 3, 2016 at 15:24
  • I'd suggest practicing the changes one note at a time. You're not changing the whole chord at once when finger-picking but just one note. Place your LH fingers only as you need them and in the order that you need them. These problems usually occur when you're trying to grab all the notes at once - and this is poor technique and difficult to do. Maybe practice landing on the bass note and only then worry about the rest of the notes in the chord.
    – PeterJ
    Nov 18, 2019 at 11:39

8 Answers 8


There are a lot of good answers here but I didn't see what I was primarily looking for in them, so I will add it.

In addition to patience and practice, there is a technique for making the chord change more smoothly.

When stumming, we usually have to nail the chord change completely in the very small amount of time between the last strum of the old chord and first strum of the new chord, but in fingerstyle we usually have a little extra time.

The advantage you have in fingerstyle is you are rarely playing every note of the chord at the same time. That means you don't have to have all your fingers in the right place all at once. You can lay out the chord one or two fingers at a time. If you are just playing basic arpeggios going from lowest to highest note on the G and C major chords, then you can focus on placing one finger at a time when moving to the new chord. This can also help your chords flow into on another.

Let's look at an example using the C major and G major open chords you are already working on. And let us suppose that for the C major chord you are using your third finger on the A string, second finger on the D string, and first finger on the B string. For G major, suppose you are using second finger on the low E string, first finger on the A string, and fourth finger on the high E. If you are using different fingering, that's ok - keep reading and I think what I describe will make sense anyway.

Here's a step-by-step, going from G to C:

  1. Finger the G chord and play an arpeggio from lowest to highest note.
  2. Begin your transition to C by lifting your first and second fingers but keeping your fourth finger on the high E string (third fret).
  3. Focus only on placing your third finger on the third fret of the A string. Once it's there, you can start (very slowly) playing the arpeggio.
  4. As your picking hand is playing the A string, your fretting hand can be putting its second finger on the second fret of the D string.
  5. As your picking hand is playing the D and G strings, your fretting hand has time to put its first finger on the first fret of the B string.
  6. Some time between placing your first finger of the C chord down and playing the high E string, you might want to lift your fourth finger. Or you might not. The third fret of the high E is also part of the C major chord, so you could leave your fourth finger planted there as you switch back and forth. This trick can really help you fret more cleanly because it helps your kinesthetic sense of where your hand and fingers are to keep one finger in the same place.

Lest anyone think that these techniques are just for beginners or for learning and will have to be unlearned at some point in the future, I happened to see Matt Bellamy from Muse use the technique outlined above while playing arpeggios just last night (live in concert - not watching a video). The finger planting trick is used on Wonderwall by Oasis and Closer to Fine by Indigo Girls, just to name the first two that pop into my head.

  • 2
    I thought about including that in my answer (because I started playing around with a few finger picking chord changes and noticed that I do that subconsciously) but decided that it might just add one more layer of concentration and complication thus exacerbating the problem. It is good technique to learn but I think it comes after internalizing the picking pattern and chord formation into muscle memory through constant practice. It is certainly something that will help in the long run though so I'm gonna give you a plus 1 for contributing this valuable technique to the pool of advice. Feb 2, 2016 at 19:53
  • Whilst heartily agreeing that this is a good way to start getting an effective fingerpicking regime (assuming the 'strum' is bottom to top!), And it may well need a change of order for a different pick. I feel that at the end of the day, any chord needs to be immediate, and a good way to effect that is to practise each chord as a hammer-on. This way, all fingers will eventually go down simultaneously and together. And at the same time! Can't be a bad thing, surely?
    – Tim
    Feb 3, 2016 at 8:31

Okay so if I understand you correctly you are not having any trouble with chord changes when using a pick (presumably to strum) but if you are playing fingerstyle one string at a time with a pattern or using a pick to pick out individual notes of a chord (in a pattern) - then your transitions between chords simply fall apart.

If that is what is happening the only explanation I can think of is that you have too much going on in your brain at one time trying to remember which string in the pattern to pick in which order at the same time as you are trying to remember how to switch to the next chord.

Here is the thing. Learning guitar is quite challenging on multiple levels. You have to train your brain to teach your fingers to contort into many unnatural and unrelated formations to play various chords. And you have to remember how each one goes. When you first learn a new chord sometimes you have to think "now how does that chord go?" Not easy to get your head around.

When picking a individual string pattern either with fingers or a pick, now your brain must remember a particular pattern and your muscles must learn to move your fingers to a very precise point to pluck an individual string without touching the surrounding strings. Then immediately your brain has to know what the next movement is in the pattern and you have to start focusing on hitting the next individual string etc. A great deal of mental processing taking place.

After only 6 months of playing, its not surprising that you are struggling a bit with mastering both a complicated picking hand pattern together with remembering freshly-learned still-a-little-strange chord formations. It's just too much to ask your brain to do all at one time in the beginning stages of a lifelong journey. You are having to concentrate on what to do with your right hand and what to do with your left hand and they are both doing different things at the same time and neither thing is something you can do without thinking about it - yet.

I think you need to spend more time practicing the picking patterns until you can do them without conscious thought. If you watch television or a movie at home, hold your guitar and just repeat the pattern over and over again until you can do it without consciously thinking about it.

You should have the same comfort level with your chords where you are able to play a C chord on command with no conscious thought as easily as you can make a peace sign without thinking about it (or any other type of hand signal that you may have memorized).

Once you have developed the muscle memory for both chord formations and a picking pattern to the extent that you can do both while carrying on a conversation (without conscious thought), you will have no trouble transitioning between chords while playing the picking pattern. And it will come just as easy as it is to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Just be patient and realize that mastering the guitar is a long term proposition that requires dedicated practice. And don't fret it (excuse the pun) if it takes a while to master finger picking. I have been playing guitar for longer than I care to admit and I still have not mastered finger picking. But if it's something you really want to do, given enough time and dedication - it will come. I have seen beginning guitarist pick up on fingerpicking quickly if they are intentional about practicing regularly. But 6 months is really not much time.

Have fun on your journey towards mastering the guitar.


This sounds to me like you do not have the picking technique down yet. This makes you focus on the right hand which leads to you struggling with the left-hand chord changes.

My advice for you would be to maybe first forget about chords and just play open strings. Make sure you have got the finger picking down to the extent where you can look at your left hand and pick with your right hand without stumbling.

Then when you got that down slowly start adding rudimentary chords. Always make sure that you are playing in time.

You are always with whatever picking technique you are working aiming to be able to focus totally on your left hand and completely ignore the right hand. You always want your picking to be able to happen without looking at the right hand.

I don't know what exercises you are using but Giuliani's 120 Arpeggio excercises is probably the best collection of fingerpicking exercises you are ever going to find.

HERE is a link


You need to reduce your cognitive load. The other answers have some good ideas, but here is another quick one:

Simplify the picking pattern you are practicing with. So instead of practicing an arpeggiated pattern, just pluck the bass with your thumb, then three treble strings at once with three fingers held together. That's it. PLUCK-twang, PLUCK-twang, PLUCK-twang, PLUCK-twang.

That should get your right hand used to moving the fingers and thumbs differently (rather than as a unit as it is when using a plectrum) at a very basic level.

Then try the chord changes. I think that your desire to change chord after playing the first string of the pattern is not letting a rhythm set in to your right hand. I would do it to four beats:


PLUCK-twang, PLUCK-twang, PLUCK-twang, PLUCK-twang.


PLUCK-twang, PLUCK-twang, PLUCK-twang, PLUCK-twang.

Etc. etc.

  • Plus 1 for "need to reduce the cognitive load". That was the crux of my answer but I think your idea of simplifying the picking hand pattern has merit as well - and is not part of my answer. Feb 2, 2016 at 19:56

Simple answer: Two weeks is not enough to be effective at fingerpicking for the first time. Have patience. Practice consistently, every day. Take breaks during your practice to let your fingers forget (within the same practice session), and then relearn the pattern for a more concentrated effort. Your memory is key. Memorize, and practice for memory's sake.

Slightly more: Practice the picking pattern by it's self for a few weeks (right hand only, if you are a right handed player). Don't worry about the chords, you say you already know them. Add the chords in later, a few weeks from now. Once you get one pattern comfortable, new ones will come easier. If you can't stand the sound, try a cool open tuning... and change simple one note things.

Read the other answers: I have read all the answers (as of this writing) and up-voted each one. They all contribute a really good point depending on where you are really having trouble. Notable is @Tim's advice about not letting your right hand move all over the place, instead hold it in a pretty steady position above the strings. It may not be exactly clear, but that's kind of what he's saying in the second paragraph.

What I hear between the lines in your question is that you are not doing the full finger picking pattern in rhythm, but it is a rhythm pattern. I may be interpreting your text wrong, but even still: You need to do the whole thing over and over in your right hand in rhythm. If you do not get up to a certain moderate speed where your fingers know the pattern instead of the notes, then like riding a bike, you will never quite get it. Your practice memory needs the rhythm in order to have something to hold on to and bring back the next day.

Rhythm helps us memorize all sorts of things. If you need to study something for a test, memorize the thing in a rhythm or a song and you wont forget it. Remember that when you are getting the rhythm correct you are improving your ability to remember it correctly.


You're trying to do two different things at the same time. Neither of which is easy by itself, after only 6 mths playing. So, instead of using C and G, which are each using a different hand (and arm) position, try E and A, where you can leave your index finger on 3rd string, 1st fret for both. You won't need to look at that l.h. now. So you can concentrate on the r.h. However, to do the job properly, you do need to be able to pick with fingers, without looking or thinking, so practise, practise, practise till you can.

You may also consider your right arm, which needs to be static, and not leave your r.h.'floating'. This way, each string is under the particular finger that's going to play it. No more searching.

  • Alternating between D and D sus 4 would be even easier Feb 3, 2016 at 12:37
  • @DaveHalsall - that's as maybe, but C>G becomes A>E in the key of A. D>Dsus4 isn't as appropriate. And with D chords open, there's only really 4 strings to pluck fingerstyle.
    – Tim
    Feb 3, 2016 at 12:46
  • There's 5 strings if you alternate the bass and it's just about the easiest chord change going, besides which the chord you're describing as A with the index finger on first fret, third string would be AM7 and not harmonically equivalent to C>G Feb 3, 2016 at 13:45
  • @DaveHalsall - I'm talking about an A major chord, 2nd fret on strings 2,3 and 4, AND leaving the finger on 3rd string, where it needs to be for an E chord, somewhat like a pivot. There's absolutely no need to move it when alternating between A and E. Yes, D can be played with 5th string open, but that's not going to sound anything like alternating I and V. I've done it for 50+ yrs. So, harmonic equivalence is re-instated...
    – Tim
    Feb 3, 2016 at 13:50

Yes, the point that some people made here about chord changing in fingerstyle is exactly right. It is very different than chord changes in strumming. Sometimes people say "What chord is that right there?" and I have to look at my fingers and I go "I don't know, it is somewhere between the C and a D on my way to a G". You are in transition. You don't notice it and it's usually not a deliberate thought but if you play fingerstyle enough (and out of aggravation like where you are) you will develop that technique where you abandon some notes in the current chord you're not using to start forming the next chord. James Taylor has a youtube video about this. Sometimes you don't even need to finger the whole chord if you're not using those notes... the B on the 5th string in a G or Em chord is an example.

Playing partial chords is not cheating, it is a necessity in fingerstyle. I would just offer that you not so much focus on the chords as the notes. There is no "rule" or reward for playing the full chord or grabbing the chord in a hurry. I would offer an example of Gary Moore's "Still Got the Blues" arpeggiated verse chords, picked straight down and up (6 notes each chord - all played in open position using just the Bass note (after the slash) and the three bottom strings. So the Dm7 for example (note/string) would be D/4, A/3, C/2, F/1, C/2, A/3). The verse chords are: Dm7 - Dm7/G - CMAJ7 - FMAJ7 - Dm/B - E - A - A. The chords are easy except for the Dm/B which I had a hard time grabbing but... since I was playing it from the top down, I could build it enroute as I was playing the notes down "B-A-D-F-D-A." It is in 12/8 time so but you can count it like 1-2-3-4-5-6 over each chord.

That "Giuliani 120+" fingerstyle exercises looks like a great book to work through, not only for techniques but for reading music.


Learn your chords. Like, really learn them. Your (finger)picking is feeling off to you cause you're probably not plucking the right notes of a given chord, and strumming feels fine because your ears aren't trained (the same principle applies, root notes are a thing for a reason).

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