As we all know, fingerpicking is a guitar playing that, over the years, has crossed many genres. From Classical to Flamenco, Folk to Country, and even into Rock music.
And while you can use a pick to play some of the songs written for fingerpicking they rarely sound as good. It’s the style I am going to be concentrating on as I take an in-depth look at the top fingerpicking songs.
How Is It Played?
It uses a combination of thumb and fingers working together, and there are many different ways of applying the techniques for fingerstyle. And many players have developed their own techniques.
The basic idea is that you use your thumb to play the bass notes on the “Low” E, A, and sometimes D strings. Your first, second, and third fingers then play the “High” E, B, and G strings, where the melody and accompaniments are usually found.
As you can imagine, this style of playing opens up a range of playing options. And those possibilities are not genre-driven, as we shall see in my list of the top fingerpicking songs.
But it’s not just about styles and possibilities…
There is also the sound to consider. Playing fingerstyle produces a rich, warm sound, very different from the sound made when using a pick.
That is why many songwriters use the fingerpicking style to write their music. It creates a sound from the instrument that can lend itself to the mood of the songs. And it is at its best when the guitar accompaniment acts as a support and, in some cases, a countermelody to the tune.
So, let’s have a listen to some great guitar fingerpicking songs, starting with one of my favorites…
135 Top Fingerpicking Songs
Black Water by The Doobie Brothers
In my view, one of the most underrated bands there has ever been. Yes, they had their fan base, me included, but they didn’t get the recognition they deserved.
A band that had everything…
A good drummer and bass, great vocals, and some impressive guitar work. “Black Water” was taken from their 1974 album, What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.
It features a very southern, Delta blues, almost swamp style of music complete, of course, with finger-picking guitar. You immediately think of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. It was written by Patrick Simmons, who also plays the finger-picked acoustic guitar.
It’s interesting to listen to and consider where all the parts fit together. The finger-picked guitar is prominent throughout. Rattling away in the background. And, even when the drums come in, the guitar still sits neatly over them. A great way to start a list of some of the best fingerpicking tracks.
Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel
For some people, this is where the story of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel all began. It is marked by a plaque on a railway station in Widnes, a town in Lancashire, in the UK. That is where Paul wrote the song as he waited for a train to London in 1965. It is quite a tourist attraction.
It was released as a single in 1966. And is also a track from their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, And Thyme, released in America. In the UK, it was a track on their second album, The Sounds Of Silence.
A different type of fingerpicking style…
Slow, gentle, thoughtful, harmonic, and beautifully crafted. There is none of the frantic, speed-picking that you find on some tracks. It creates its own sensitivity with the way it is played.
That sincerity and the mood it creates are encapsulated in his solo performances. If you have ever been fortunate enough to sit, watch, and wonder as he plays it live, you will know what I mean.
It becomes a very special song when it is just him and his guitar. That is when you get the message. If you need to hear an example of how fingerpicking can lift a song to great things, this is one you should listen to.
From His Experiences
The song was borne out of his experiences in England, as much of his early work was. He missed his ‘Kathy,’ yes, her of “Kathy’s song,” who was very shy and didn’t want to live a life surrounded by fame.
It became more than a song, of course. And he played and sang it for fifty years and still does. It has become a musical plaque that is commemorated on a Lancashire railway station.
Jolene by Dolly Parton
What about the girls? At the risk of upsetting a few people, I have never been a country music fan. There are some artists I like. Linda Ronstadt, if she is country, Faith Hill, and Shania Twain. But, they are the more “rocky” types of country singers.
Then there is Dolly Parton. She is special in so many ways. Even though she has taken more than her fair share of criticism for various surgeries she has had, which we don’t need to go into. Perhaps it would be better to focus on her charity work and the donations she makes every year.
However, it’s the music that counts…
Over the years, she has written some great songs and given great performances. And, she doesn’t take herself too seriously as so many do. She is a country music icon in my book.
She wrote “Jolene” about a clerk in a bank who flirted with her husband. Released in 1973, it was also the title track of her album, Jolene. The single only reached #60 on the main American chart but went to #7 in the UK. Unsurprisingly, it went #1 on the American Country music chart.
A great example of fingerpicking with plenty of “hammers” going on. It is a great performance by legendary guitarist Chip Young.
Bron-Y-Aur Stomp by Led Zeppelin
In those early days, the recently formed Led Zeppelin adjusted the hearing of everyone who went to see them in West London. At the time, there was no hint that there might just be another side to this lot. But there was, and by the time we had got to Led Zeppelin III, it had begun to show itself.
This album included the hard-rocking “Immigrant Song” and one of their best-ever songs, “Tangerine.” But, it also moved us in a more folky direction with songs like “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp.”
In 1970, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page went to live in a remote cottage named Bron-Yr-Aur (the Golden Hill), in Gwynedd in North West Wales. It is an area of great historical significance with its modern-day capital of Caernarfon. From that period came much of the album Led Zeppelin III.
It takes a lot of influence from Pentangle guitarist Bert Jansch and his song “Waggoner’s Lad.” Unfortunately, Zep has had a history, some of it justified, of either “borrowing” or just “taking” other people’s material.
Therefore, it can be easy to liken plenty of their songs to similar work by others if you try. Whilst the influence is certainly there, “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp” is not one of those.
It has some excellent acoustic guitar fingerpicking work and a real “Celtic folk” feel. There was another side to the guys who deafened us all for years on end, and it was rather good.
A song about a dog?
The song is supposed to be about Plant’s dog, Strider. The dog was named after Aragorn’s alter character from Tolkien’s “The Lord Of The Rings.”
Someone who had read “The Lord Of The Rings” before the films made it “fashionable”? Could that be the definition of an educated man? That may be up for debate, but there’s no denying it’s one of the top fingerpicking songs.
Cavatina by John Williams
Let’s change the mood and the fingerpicking style a little and take a listen to this. Question: what do you get if you take a great melody and give it to a great musician? The answer is something like this.
Written by Stanley Myers, it is the theme of the film “The Deer Hunter.” While it is a modern-day piece from 1978, it probably ought to be classified as a classical piece of music. The title “Cavatina” comes from the Italian word for a simple song, something it very much isn’t if you have ever tried to play it on a guitar.
Bourree In E Minor by Johann Sebastien Bach
There aren’t too many well-known classical guitar pieces, but this is one. Originally, Bach wrote it to be played on the Lute as that was the stringed instrument of the time. However, the transformation to the guitar came easily.
A “Bourree” is a rather quick French dance, but the style of music that accompanies it is also referred to as Bourree. Not that Bach would have written this piece to be danced to.
How Strange The Change…
It is a happy song with a nice tempo. The sudden, some might say strange, change from minor to major on the very last chord of each phrase adds a playfulness to the piece. Paul McCartney once cited this piece as the inspiration for his song, “Blackbird.” Perhaps that is where we should go next.
Blackbird by The Beatles
After the release of their first album, Please, Please Me, very few people could have predicted where they would be just five years later.
Listening to the two albums back-to-back, it is hard to believe it is the same four people. But, five years later, The White Album was showing everyone just how far ahead of everyone else they were.
All about Paul?
“Blackbird” was one of the songs from The White Album that took them to a higher level. Written and played by Paul McCartney, it’s a song with good fingerpicking guitar and a very clever progressive chord structure. It is a relatively short piece, just two minutes in length.
McCartney has changed his mind about the meaning of the song a few times over the years. At one time, he said it was inspired purely by hearing a blackbird whilst they were in India.
Another time, he commented it was about a “black girl.” It is more likely to be a later comment about racial tensions in America.
He uses the idea of a bird with broken wings to describe the fractured society that is America and its racial tensions. The symbolism in the verses is quite pronounced and bears no relation to hearing birds in India.
Some questions have been asked about whether McCartney played on the track and what guitar he used. The answer is, yes, he did. He was an accomplished fingerstyle guitar player, helped by some of the fingerstyle bass playing he sometimes employed.
And he owned a Martin D28, so it is likely to have been that guitar he used. “Blackbird” is a great example of a modern-day fingerpicking guitar song.
Never Going Back Again by Fleetwood Mac
This song written by Lindsey Buckingham was included on their Rumours album from 1977. It has a happy feel, despite it being one of the songs he wrote after his breakup with Stevie Nicks.
The song has an interesting theme that is simple in its understanding. He emphasizes that once you have made mistakes, you don’t go back and make the same mistakes again.
As a song, it demonstrates Lindsey Buckingham’s unique finger-picking style. He uses what is called the “Travis” technique. This is a way of fingerpicking that uses only the nails, ends of the fingers, or sometimes picks attached to the fingers. He uses a “Drop-D” tuning.
Landslide by Fleetwood Mac
A song written by Stevie Nicks while she was considering her future, it was included on the band’s 1975 album, Fleetwood Mac. One of the band’s most requested songs, they used it on every one of their tours except one.
A good vocal performance by her. But, it is the great fingerstyle guitar work by Lindsey Buckingham that lifts the song into the mode we might call special.
The tempo and style of the guitar are simple and the patterns repetitive, but they are so very effective. It is one of those finger-picking accompaniments that fit the song perfectly. And it’s still one of the most popular fingerpicking songs of all time.
Top Fingerpicking Songs – Honorable Mentions
I am running out of space here, so I will need to just list a few great tracks as honorable mentions:
- “Anji” by Paul Simon.
- “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman.
- “Dear Prudence” by The Beatles.
- “Sultans Of Swing” by Dire Straits.
- “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor.
Mister Sandman by Chet Atkins
You can’t have a list of the greatest fingerpicking guitarists and some of their music without including Chet Atkins. In some ways, the man who made the guitar talk to you.
I know of at least three people who picked up and started to play the guitar because of this man. They weren’t American Country Music fans at all, just loved the way he played. That is a testament to this man who had a lot of influence.
Freight Train by Chet Atkins
“Mister Sandman” goes back to the 50s and was one of his most recognized songs, as was this one. But, it came a decade later. Released in 1964 as a single, this is another song that, even though covered by many others, is still synonymous with Atkins.
Classical Gas by Mason Williams
We are moving towards the end of my list now, and this track just has to be included. Written and composed by Mason Williams, at the time, it was a stunning piece of work. Not only some great finger-picking guitar, but a large ensemble to support it.
Released in 1968, it achieved chart success reaching #9 in the UK and #2 in America. If the idea was to raise the profile of classically played fingerstyle guitar with a difference, then he succeeded.
Superstition by Jeff Beck
Another rock guitarist who always uses a fingerpicking style. Jeff Beck was “the man” in London in the mid to late 60s. And yes, that includes some who like to assume certain titles. Beck was just amazing, and everyone knew it.
This is a track that was taken from his first album in collaboration with the ex-Vanilla Fudge rhythm section Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice from 1974.
It is one of those songs that is always associated with Stevie Wonder. Yet, he had given it to Jeff Beck after he wrote it when the two of them were “just playing around with ideas and rhythms.”
So, what happened?
The idea was always that Jeff’s version would come out first, but it was delayed. Berry Gordy was no fool and recognized a big song when he heard one. He sent Stevie’s version out over the airwaves.
The rest is history. Except for when the pair played it together at a Hall Of Fame show. Beck doing his thing, as no one else can.
April Come She Will by Simon and Garfunkel
This is one of the nicest of all the songs we have listed here. I was shown how to play this fingerpicking style. Unfortunately, the person who showed me had forgotten more about playing the guitar than I would ever know. So, I had to adjust it to fit my inadequacies.
It is a song from their second album, The Sounds Of Silence, released in 1966. Also, it was included in the Dustin Hoffman film “The Graduate” along with other Paul Simon songs.
Paul at his best…
This is another song written by Paul Simon in 1964 during his sojourn in the UK. Its metaphorical lyrics about the seasons refer to the changes in the mood of a girl he knew.
At less than two minutes long, it doesn’t give you too much time to get into it. But then, maybe it doesn’t need to be long. The brief encounter with the music only enhances your longing to hear it again. And Paul Simon’s exquisite fingerstyle playing carries you away with its mood.
A great fingerstyle track from one of the songwriting masters and performers of the last 60 years or so.
Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits
Sometimes, you get a songwriter who naturally plays using a fingerpicking style. They will write their songs using that style, and in the case of the most talented, they will do something very special.
Often, you’ll hear the melody being played at the same time as the vocals, working together. You will sometimes hear the guitar playing a rhythmic tempo behind the vocals. But, now and then, you come across a “Romeo and Juliet.” Something special.
Mark Knopfler has succeeded in writing not only a great tune with a meaningful melody and lyrics. He has also constructed a counter melody for his finger-style guitar playing. A second melody that is as recognizable as the main tune.
This is a track from their album, Making Movies, and turned Dire Straits from a band with the potential to one of the great bands of the 80s.
It is not only the guitar composition that is special…
The story of the song mirrors William Shakespeare’s play but also includes some extra rather clever references. “Somewhere, there’s a place for us,” a line right from West Side Story gets mentioned. As does the 1963 song by The Angels, “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
Knopfler uses an open G tuning on his resonator guitar to full effect. It might sound simple, and maybe it is, but you can’t hide its genius. Great track from a great band.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Bob Dylan
And so, we come to the end of this look at some of the best guitar fingerpicking songs and another genius. The enigmatic Bob Dylan could be described as such. A modern-day genius in the same way as Mark Knopfler and Paul Simon.
This track was pure magic…
It was taken from his iconic album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The song was first performed in 1962 and was written when Bob was missing his girlfriend, who had gone back to Italy.
It is an interesting song in that it tends to make you think it is going to be negative and, in some ways, angry. Dylan was good at having a ‘pop’ at people through his lyrics.
But, the song has neither pessimism nor optimism. He may have written the song in an attempt to sing it to himself to make himself feel better. Whatever the reason, it is one of his greatest songs, and just listen to that finger-style guitar.
The Guitar Part
There seems to be some controversy over who played the fast fingerstyle guitar. It was thought it may have been one of his supporting musicians, Bruce Langhorne. However, it was Dylan himself.
I was unsure until I saw him play it live in concert. It was Dylan, and it shows what a good guitar player he is.
Blackbird by Alter Bridge
House of the Rising Sun by The Animals
Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix
Never Going Back Again by Lindsey Buckingham
Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Drive by Incubus
Wild Horses by The Rolling Stones
Is There Anybody Out There? by Pink Floyd
The Night We Met by Lord Huron
You’ve Got a Friend by James Taylor
Greensleeves by Traditional
Sweet Baby James by James Taylor
Can’t Help Falling In Love by Elvis Presley
You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis
Moon River by Henry Mancini
For My Father by Andy McKee
Never Going Back Again by Fleetwood Mac
Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You by Led Zeppelin
You Are My Sunshine by Norman Blake
Little Martha by Allman Brothers Band
Goodbye Blue Sky by Pink Floyd
Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits
Blackbird Song by Lee DeWyze
Landslide by Dixie Chicks
Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen
Behind Blue Eyes by The Who
Nothing Else Matters by Metallica
Vincent by Don McLean
Morning in Nagrebcan by Jose Valdez
Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You by Joan Baez
Classical Gas by John Williams
The River by Bruce Springsteen
Georgia on My Mind by Hoagy Carmichael
Scarborough Fair/Canticle by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles
- Greensleeves by Anonymous
- Harvest Moon by Neil Young
- Anji by Davy Graham
- Heartbeats by Jose Gonzalez
- Old Pine by Ben Howard
- Neon by John Mayer
- Lands End by Tommy Emmanuel
- When the Stars Go Blue by Ryan Adams
- The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin
- Close to You by Tommy Emmanuel
- The Ice Cream Man by John Brimhall
- Wherever You Will Go by The Calling
- The One I Love by R.E.M.
- Love Will Keep Us Alive by Eagles
- Dust Bowl Dance by Mumford & Sons
- The Blower’s Daughter by Damien Rice
- Dearest by Buddy Holly
- Catch the Wind by Donovan
- Time After Time by Eva Cassidy
- The Times They Are AbyChangin’ by Bob Dylan
- Dear Prudence by The Beatles
- House of the Rising Sun by Traditional
- Love in Vain by Robert Johnson
- Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley
- BronbyYrbyAur by Led Zeppelin
- Spanish Romance by Traditional
- Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel
- Lands End/Ascent by Eric Johnson
- Romanza by Anonymous
- Classical Gas by Tommy Emmanuel
- Sunflower River Blues by John Fahey
- The Heart of Life by John Mayer
- She Talks to Angels by The Black Crowes
- Never on Sunday by Manuel and The Music of the Mountains
- I’m Not In Love by 10cc
- A Song for the Life by Rodney Crowell
- Tears by Django Reinhardt
- Manha De Carnaval by Luiz Bonfa
- Love Song by Tesla
- Tears in My Eyes by Joe Satriani
- Wonderful Slippery Thing by Guthrie Govan
- Dust My Broom by Elmore James
- Classical Gas by Eric Clapton
- Tears In Heaven by Eric Clapton
- Fast Car by Tracy Chapman
- The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel
- Blackbird by The Beatles
- Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Bob Dylan
- Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce
- Dust In The Wind by Kansas
- Norwegian Wood by The Beatles
- The Wind by Cat Stevens
- Fire and Rain by James Taylor
- Your Song by Elton John
- Crazy On You by Heart
- Needle and the Damage Done by Neil Young
- Yesterday by The Beatles
- Angie by The Rolling Stones
- Angie by Bert Jansch
- Classical Gas by Mason Williams
- Eruption by Van Halen
- Black Mountain Side by Led Zeppelin
- Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You by Led Zeppelin
- Here Comes The Sun by George Harrison
- Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver
- Cavatina by Stanley Myers
- I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow by The Soggy Bottom Boys
- Hotel California by The Eagles
- Julia by The Beatles
- Here, There and Everywhere by The Beatles
- The Girl From Ipanema by Antonio Carlos Jobim
- Something by The Beatles
- A Thousand Years by Christina Perri
- Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd
- Let It Be by The Beatles
- Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson
- Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
- Windy and Warm by Chet Atkins
- Perfidia by Xavier Cugat
- Angelina by Tommy Emmanuel
- Freight Train by Elizabeth Cotten
- Going to California by Led Zeppelin
- Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain & Tennille
- Message In A Bottle by The Police
Looking For More Great Music?
We can help with that. Take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Songs About California, the Best Songs About Fire, the Best Songs About Fighting, the Best Songs About Cars, the Best Songs About Magic, as well as the Best Songs About Heroes for some more great song selections.
And, you’ll need to hear those tunes. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones Under $200, and the Most Comfortable Headphones you can buy in 2023.
Fingerpicking Good – The Top Fingerpicking Songs
Quite an apt way to describe the music we have looked at. There is something about playing the guitar in this style that adds plenty to the song and the instrument. Whether it be John Williams, Chet Atkins, Bob Dylan, or Mark Knopfler, the class shines through. It is easy to understand why some genres benefit from playing fingerstyle.
But, it is harder to think that you could play “Money For Nothing” or “Heavy Fuel” and make it sound right. Yet, Knopfler does, as can others like Jeff Beck.
There are so many great fingerpicking players and songs not even mentioned. Tommy Emmanuel and Steve Howe from Yes are a couple. It is a technical and creative way to play guitar. What you can achieve and create using fingerstyle is almost endless. These players have proved that.
Until next time, happy listening.