Fingerstyle Electric Blues – Reconsider Baby

“Can we get picks with handles on, for Andy?”
– EC talking to Andy Fairweather-Low, New York live rehearsals 1994

“…there was always that thing about people who played with their fingers – they just had a more vibrant tone…”
– Clapton interview on “Nothin’ But The Blues”, talking about Otis Rush

“The pick is the biggest amplifier that exists”
– Mark Knopfler

Most electric rock guitarists are using a pick for both rhythm and solo guitar. With a pick you get a loud, clean and sharp tone, exactly what you need in a rock band. You can play very fast by using alternate and sweep picking techniques, as long as you play single note runs (double stops are harder to play). You also can play easy chord strumming without playing your nails off. But because you don’t touch the string with your finger you’re loosing a little bit of feeling and control. Picking with your fingers gives a more characteristic tone, from dirty like Albert King to the brilliant clean Strat tone of Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans of swing”.

What is fingerstyle? What is fingerpicking?

Fingerstyle simply means that you pick or strum the guitar strings without any kind of pick (including normal picks, thumb picks and fingerpicks), just with your bare fingers. You can do this on all kinds of guitars, electric and acoustic, with steel or nylon strings. Strictly classical guitarists play always fingerstyle, flamenco players also. Most early acoustic Blues players of the Delta style played that way.

Fingerpicking is a bit more specific. It means that you play certain picking patterns, which are derived from chords and played in an arpeggio-like style. The thumb often plays a kind of rhythm part like a walking bass while the fingers play repeating patterns. This style is often used in folk music (e.g. Paul Simon) as well as in Blues, country, ragtime and even pop and rock music. The acoustic guitar of EC’s “Presence of the Lord” is fingerpicking, while the acoustic Layla is fingerstyle but not fingerpicking. Since most fingerpickers play fingerstyle (but some use fingerpicks!) it is sometimes difficult (or nonsense) to distinguish between both. A favourite fingerpicking song of mine is Fleetwood Macs “Never goin’ back again” on my favorites page.

Back to fingerstyle. While many acoustic players use fingerstyle, there are only a few who do this on electric guitars. Some of them are well known like

  • Mark Knopfler
  • Jeff Beck, who turned to fingerstyle after years of pick playing
  • Derek Trucks (excellent slide guitarist)
  • Duane Allman (when playing slide guitar)
  • Ry Cooder (another excellent slide guitarist)
  • Wes Montgomery, Jazz guitar, thumb only
  • Chet Atkins
  • Robie Krieger (the Doors), who is also a flamenco player
  • Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac)
  • Mike Oldfield

And the old Blues players:

  • Albert King – just his thumb, wild and rough
  • Albert Collins – thumb and index finger on his Telecaster
  • Clarence Gatemouth Brown – thumb and index finger
  • John Lee Hooker – thumb and index finger
  • Lowell Fulson – thumb and index finger, also with fingerpicks or thumbpick
  • Otis Rush
  • Some of EC’s side guitarists: Phil Palmer, Andy Fairweather-Low, Duane Allman (when playing slide)
  • And: sometimes Eric Clapton (for example: Reconsider Baby, Sinner’s Prayer), on Pilgrim (Strat) and on his album One More Car, One More Rider on several songs!

There are different ways to play fingerstyle. Most of us know the classical guitar style: Thumb for the three bass strings, index, middle and ring finger for the melody strings. This is the way to play Blues fingerpicking, the bass lines played with the thumb, picking patterns or short licks with the fingers. In the early, acoustic Blues days (Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy,…) this was the main technique, picks were not used. Some of them were playing this style even after changing to an electric guitar (Lightnin’ Hopkins). Some of them developed other styles to play solo guitar with their fingers, others began to use fingerpicks (Freddie King).

On electric (steel string) guitars most players actually don’t play with the nails only (they would break after a few minutes), they rather play with the fingertips. Don’t use too long nails in the beginning! Playing fingerstyle on an electric is hard if you played only with a pick before. You need some time to get a reproducible sound while picking and in the beginning you’ll often touch unwanted strings. Two common problems are:

  • if you pick using thumb and finger alternately they sound different
  • if you play a melody you simply don’t know which finger to use

Both problems can be solved by practicing. The sound difference is created often by the amount of nail involved, so the angle of picking is critical. You also should decide which way to play (see below) in the very beginning, so that you don’t need to think about which finger to use on which string. After a while you may develop your own techniques.

There are many different styles for fingerstyle guitar, I will explain the most common of them:

  • Just thumb: to play like Albert King (or Wes Montgommery), you use your thumb instead of your pick and play mostly down-strokes. You can play a very dirty, hard style this way. Great attack, great tone, but limited in speed. Start with this style to get the right feeling for the strings.
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  • Thumb and index finger: play as if you have a pick, but use the thumb for down-strokes and your index finger for up-strokes. The problem is to get the same sound with thumb and index finger. The great advantage over pick playing is that you have a better feeling for the string, you can also pick two strings really at the same time and play faster as with thumb only.
  • Thumb, index and middle finger: you can play as above, but also use index and middle finger for alternate, fast picking. Now you can play real power chords, picking three strings at the same time. More fingers can be used, but it’s also getting more difficult to control them.
    fingers
  • Thumb, index, middle and ring finger: this is the common way for classical fingerpicking. Alternating bass notes done by the thumb, chords are played with the fingers in repeating patterns. Some players even use the pinky, but it’s shorter and harder to control.

Try it out! But don’t play to much at the beginning – your fingers have to get used to it.

Example: Reconsider Baby


Reconsider Baby is from the album “From the Cradle“.
You may also take a look at the “Nothing but the Blues” video to see it played live.

Reconsider Baby was written 1954 by Lowell Fulson. (By the way – Fulson’s (1921 – 1999) piano player was no one other than Ray Charles…)

Reconsider Baby is a slow Blues in G at about 90 bpm (beats per minute, and that are HEAVY beats at 1 and 3!) and played on a Gibson ES 335, and EC plays it in fingerstyle. To get an idea how to start, the beginning is noted in two ways to play it (fingerset 1 = fs1, fingerset 2 = fs2, remember it’s the pickin’ hand!) with thumb (t) and index finger (i) or thumb, index and middle finger (m). I don’t know the exact way EC plays it, it’s hard to follow even with the help of the video. Try out how it works best for you.

In this tab I use the first fingering pattern of the minor pentatonic Blues scale in G beginning at the 3rd fret. Sometimes a note from the major scale is added (gray dots) as usual.

To remember the minor pentatonic scale in G:

G minor

It’s not typical for EC to play a complete song
a) only within one pattern and
b) without jumping to the 12th fret and above.
But it sounds great and you can see that you really need only a few notes to play a great solo.

Intro and 1st verse

I----------3---3-6b-3------------------------------------------------------------------I
I--------3---6--------3------------------------------------------------5h6-5-3---------I
I--5(b)7----------------5b(7)rb5p3---3------------------3/5-3~~------------------------I
I----------------------------------5---5--------3/5-3~~---------3/5-3~-----------------I
I----------------------------------------5-3\2-----------------------------------------I
I--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
time 0:00                                   0:05                   0:12
fs1 t    i m i m i m i t           t i t i t    t      i     t      m  i m
fs2 t    t i t i t i i i           t i t i t    t      i     t      t  i t

I-----------------------------3---6b-3----------------------------------6---3-----------------I
I------3--------------------3---3----------------------------3----------5b----3---------------I
I----5---5br-p3---5---3-5b-----------------3-5--5br-p3----5b---5br-p3-----------5br---3/4-----I
I---------------5---5--------------------5-------------h5---------------------------5-----5---I
I------(this is REALLY difficult!,----------------------------------------------------------5-I
I-------leave it out first...)----------------------------------------------------------------I
t                                   0:15                           0:18                   0:22
fs1  i m i      t i t i t   i m i m i    t i m  i         i  m i        m+i i m i   t i   t t
fs2  t i t      t i t i t   t i t i t    t i t i          t  i t        t+i i t i   t i   t t

I---------------------------------3------3-6b-6b--3--------------/8-6b------------------------I
I-----------3-------------------3----3-6------------3------------------8----------------------I
I----3-5-5b---5br-p3-----5---5b-----------------------5-3b---------------(6)br5-3h4-----------I
I--5-------------------5---5-------------------------------5------------------------5---------I
I------------------------------------------------------------5--------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
   0:24                              0:27                                            0:33

                                 Chords: G7                     C7
I-------3-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-----3----6-6-3---3--------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I--4b------------5---(7)br5-p3---3b--------------(7)br5-p3------------------------------------I
I------------------------------5---------------------------5----------------------------------I
I-----------------------------------5~-----------------------5--------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
0:33                                0:37
                                 Lyrics: So long...

G7                                  C7                     G7
I----------3-----3----------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I--------3---6b----3--------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I--5b(7)-------------5-3h4--------------------------------------------------------------------I
I--------------------------5----------------5b-5p3---3----------------------------------------I
I----------------------------5-3-2-----------------5------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
0:43                            0:47       0:50

G7                                             D7
I----------3-6b-3-6--------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I--------3----------3------------------------------------------------------3-----------------I
I--5b(7)--------------5-3h4---------------------------------------------5b---5br-p3----------I
I---------------------------5----------------------------------------------------------------I
I-----------------------------5-3-2----------------------------------------------------------I
I--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
0:55                            0:57                                    1:01

C7                            G7
I---------------------------------------3----3------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------3---6b---3----------------------------------------------I
I----------------------------------5b------------5br-p3---3tr4--------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------5------5------------------------------I
I----------------------------------------------------------------5-5--------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
                              1:05
I guess you will never know

2nd verse: (nearly played as above)

1:09
We’ve ….
1:37

Solo

OK, stretch you fingers and take a deep breath. We come to the solo now. Look at the scale above and use a comfortable fingerset on both hands. Sometimes it getting very fast – play it slowly first and optimize the picking strategy.

I-----------------3-----6b-3----------------------3-----------------------6--3--6--6--6-------I
I---------------3---6-3-------6-----------------3---6-3-------------------5b----5b-5b-5b------I
I-----3-5-3--5b------------------5b--5-p3----5b----------5b-3---------------------------------I
I---5-------------------------------------5-------------------5-----piano---------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------5-----------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
1:41                                                            1:47

I--3------------------------3-----6b-6b-3-----------------------------------------------------I
I----3--------------------3-----3---------3----3--------------------3-------------------------I
I------5br-p3----3---3-5b-------------------5b---5br-p3----3---3-5b---5br-p3---3---3----------I
I--------------5---5-------------------------------------5---5---------------5---5---5--------I
I-------very fast!---------------------------------------------------------------------5p3p2--I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
                                1:54                                                    1:59

I----------3-----5b-3------------------------------------------------------------------3------I
I--------3---6-3------6-3---3-------3--------3-------3-------------------------------3---6-3--I
I-----5b------------------5---5b(7)---5b(7)----5b(7)---5b(7)-5-3h4p3---5-3b-------5b----------I
I--------------------------------------------------------------------5------5-5---------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
2:00                                                           2:06

I----------------------3--6--3---5tr6----3-6---3---5b-------I-5b-3-----------------I
I-----------------3-5-----5b---5-------5---5b----5-----3-5--I------3-(repeat-4x)---I
I-5-3tr4----------------------------------------------------I----------------------I
I---------5-------------------------------------------------I----------------------I
I-----------5-5---------------------------------------------I----------------------I
I-----------------------------------------------------------I----------------------I
2:10                                                2:16                      2:21

I-------3----------------------------------------------------------------------------3------3-I
I-----3---6--3-------------------3-----------------------------------------------------3h6b---I
I--5b----------5b-p3----3---3-5b----5b-p3---3---3-----------3-5-(7)rb5-p3---3---3h5b----------I
I---------------------5---5---------------5---5---5-3h5---5---------------5---5---------------I
I--------------very fast!---------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
                                                   2:24                                    2:27

I----------------------------6---3----------------------------------------6b-3----------------I
I--3-------------------------5b----3-------------------------------------------3--------------I
I----5br-p3---5---4------------------5-3--------3-5b(7)-3-5br-p3---3b------------5br-p3-------I
I-----------5---5---5---------------------5---5------------------5-----------------------5-5--I
I---------------------5-3\2-------------------------------------------5-----------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
                             2:30                                         2:35

I-------3----3-5b-3---------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-----3---6b--------3-------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I--5b-----------------5-3tr4------------------------------------------------------------------I
I----------------------------5----------------------------------------------------------------I
I------------------------------5--5-----------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
                                2:42

3rd verse: (played as 1st)

2:43
You …
3:10

Ending

I-----------------------11--10\---I
I-----------------------11--10\---I
I---5b-5-3---3---3tr4---11--10\---I
I----------5---5--------10---9\---I
I---------------------------------I
I---------------------------------I
3:11                        3:13

Tomorrow you’ll have blisters at your fingertips 😉 !

Picking up a Stratocaster makes me play a bit differently. I find that over the last few years I play more with my fingers because of the way my hand sits on the guitar. I don’t feel the need to use a pick quite so much as I would with any other guitar, where the bridge sits higher off the body. With the Strat the bridge is almost flush with the guitar, so my hand rests on the body, part of my heel rests on the bridge, and then my fingers rest on the scratchplate. It’s really easy to play either way, but I’ve found more and more that I’m using just my fingers.
– Foreword by Eric Clapton from “The Stratocaster Chronicles