5 Tips To Decode A Fingerpicking (or any!?) Song

A powerful and empowering way of learning a song and decoding music is transcribing. This article is about 5 important tips when transcribing a fingerpicking guitar song. Some of these tips and principles can be applied when transcribing any song as

Mr. Johan Nilsson
21 January

If you hear a fingerpicking song and want to be able to play it, a powerful and empowering way is to simply transcribe it yourself. It can be more or less tricky to figure out what is going on. However, here are 5 tips that can be helpful for you to decode a song.

First of all, you are in favor of some ear training and music theory knowledge. If this is something you wanted to ramp up and would like support with it, please contact me and I am happy to support you in developing these useful skills.

Alright, let’s jump into the juicy stuff!

1. Listen for harmony. Jot down what you hear on a music- or chord sheet. This will provide you with essential information about key, harmony, and structure.

2. Listen for the bass line. In fingerpicking songs, it is common to craft the bass line with chord notes, 1, 3, 5 and/or 8. The bass notes usually jump between one or the other in quite a structured way. For example, some common patterns for a 4/4 bar where every note is worth a quarter each (they are played on each beat), and the numbers represent the scale degree of a particular chord:
| 1 5 1 5 |
| 1 5 3 5 |
| 1 3 -4* 3 |
| 1 8 5 8 |
* -4 can be seen as the fifth below the 1/root note.

Another way is to go scale wise between chord notes. Of course, there are many variations for each song and style, but these examples and way of approaching bass lines can good you an indication and idea.

3. The melody. It is common for a melody to be top notes. The ear picks up the top notes in a song fairly easy and a melody line is therefore usually placed on top. That fits also well on a guitar as the thumb (one finger) is usually taking care of the bass line, which in general contains fewer notes than the more commonly expressed and variated melody that is played with more fingers (1, 2, 3 or 4 fingers).

The melody usually contains chord material or scale material. In comparison to a bass line, it is more common with variations and “abnormal” notes. However, if you figure out the “on the beat” notes it can give you a good skeleton to work from.

4. The “stuff” in between. As far as fingerpicking is concerned, what is not a bass line or a melody can be seen as rhythmical picking patterns containing chord and scale material. This is an important element that gives a song the “picking character”.

5. Ask for support. I would encourage people to give it a try and pick out as much as you can with these tips. However, if you are stuck, you are most welcome to contact me for support.

I hope this article is helpful for you when transcribing fingerpicking songs. Remember that some of these tips/principles can also be applied when transcribing any tune as they have key elements.

All the best and I wish you good luck!
Johan Nilsson, The Guitar Education