Using Finger Patterns to Improve your Playing


Think of the fingers on your hand as 4 separate working pieces that need to be trained to work in different combination’s to make one powerful team. If you begin to play the guitar the same way with the same fingers every time, then you will begin to get what I refer to as muscle memory. The same basic idea as when you ride a bike, you never forget how. With this concept in mind, I refer to finger patterns as a term for using your fingers in certain orders for specific parts. That sounds complex but its actually pretty simple and straightforward. First lets look at our four main guitar playing fingers, since obviously your thumb is used to hold the back of the guitar neck.

The first finger or pointer finger: This is most likely your strongest finger and should be used whenever possible. When playing rhythm, most times my first finger is finding every root note I play. Also when playing melodies I usually begin them with either my first or third fingers depending of the song.

The second finger or middle finger: This finger is often overlooked in my opinion because people often do not push themselves to strengthen it or stretch it to where it can be used in runs. When I am playing the pentatonic scale higher than G# or the 4th box, I will use my second finger to play the second notes on the A, D, and G strings.

The third finger or ring finger: This finger is most commonly thought of as the finger to use for hitting the 5th in power chords. While that’s true, this finger has many other natural abilities. The third finger is my best finger at controlled vibrato and reinforced bending. Also when I do slides up and down on the guitar to create a cool slur sort of sound I always use my third finger.

Lastly, we have the fourth finger or pinky: The pinky can be used in your rhythm playing and lead playing if you take the time to work out these patterns. When I do some chords lower on the neck, I will use my pinky to fret the 5th and also when I’m doing leads I can stretch my pinky about 8 frets so I can reach a lot of cool melodies.

As a kid I had a very weak pinky. Often it would crack and pop when I was trying to use it and was sore after I put the guitar down. I started doing the chromatic exercise I wrote about in my first blog and also began to use a little red “strengthening your fingers” toy I found at my local music store. These two things strengthened my fingers, especially my pinky, but I still didn’t know how to attack the guitar as was best for my hands.

I noticed some of my favorite guitarists such as Zakk Wylde and Dimebag Darrell would do their crazy fast runs using their first, second and fourth fingers. When I tried this, it opened up the neck immediately. I could comfortably play using my pinky finally. I saw many other guitarists using their first, third and pinky when playing and I’ve never found this way to be beneficial. Your third finger and pinky share tendons and muscles which often times makes it very difficult to independently move them freely from one another. You can test this for yourself, try to move them independently from one another right now. So if you’re like me, you will use these basic finger patterns. I use either my first, second and third finger (1,2,3) or my first, second, and fourth fingers (1, 2, 4).

When playing rhythm it obviously depends on what chords you’re working with but try experimenting with using your pinky more often as you can get some cool new voicing if your other fingers are freed up. So try experimenting with these patterns and try to find the ones that feel best to you and your hands and wrists. My only definitive is that once you find what is most comfortable for you, stick with it and build that muscle memory I mentioned before. If you develop this, you will be able to play anything since it will be by feel, memory and repetition.

ex. 1
first third
E—— 5 8
first third
B—— 5 8
first second
G——5 7
first second
D——5 7
first second
A——5 7
first third
E——5 8

This is what I do when I play the pentatonic scale. This finger pattern NEVER changes. This muscle memory and repetition builds strength, confidence and endurance.

ex. 2
first second fourth
E—— 8 10 12
first second fourth
B——-8 10 12

This is what I do when I play diatonic scales. This finger patterns NEVER changes. I hope that you continue to practice as you will see improvement. Thanks for reading.

  • Dan

    One way that I overlooked for a long time of using my middle and pinky fingers was for grabbing power chords without having to change my hand position. Two examples I can think of, that I’m too lazy to try to notate in the comment box:

    – switching between, say, G5 and G#5 on strings 6 and 5, playing the G5 with index/ring and the G#5 middle and pinky

    – jumping from an open position power chord, say A5, up a minor 3rd to C5, by playing the E on the second fret of the D string with your index finger and then the 3rd and fifth frets for the C5 on strings 5 and 4 with your middle and pinky

    Also, one drill for finger independence was something I saw on John Myung’s DVD that I think was called the Spider. You basically play the G5/G#5 fingered as described above except play the notes individual (G, up to D, down to G#, up to D#), then invert your fingers to play the minor 3rds (A to C to A# to C#), then slide up a fret and do it again. You can also work on your string skipping by skipping one string to play octaves and minor 6ths, or skip however many strings you want. (Yes, John Myung’s technically a bass player, but he claimed to have learned the drill from Petrucci :p)

  • Those Dream Theater cats are the kings of funky fingerings! But yeah, this is a big issue for many players. I think dissecting the physical aspects involved with playing really helps one to recognize where hidden potentialities lie! Great post!!!


  • This is a good one. %50 percent of getting more efficient at playing is to analyze one’s playing and then make corrections accordingly. This of course requires us to have to slow down which is something that no player likes to do 😉

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