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Three Fingers vs Four Fingers for Lead Guitar Playing

Question by Alan

I read your sound advice about not parroting your inspirations for guitar and agree wholeheartedly. My question comes from observing these wonderful guitarists with reference to my own practice and playing.

With reference to scales practice, nearly every instruction I have seen and heard push that scales be practiced using the four fingers of the fretting hand, including the pinky.

That's all well and good. But every time I observe a great guitarist moving across the fretboard with wonderful melodic lines (sometimes fast, sometimes slow), they only ever seem to use the first three fingers, with their pinky more often than not hanging by the neck. Yes they use it for chords within the music they are playing but it is largely the first three fingers for the runs.

I look at Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Gilmour, Wes Montgomery, Guthrie Govan, even the technically brilliant John McLaughlin, nearly all the runs are three finger.

How does this square with what I am being pushed to learn in the literature? Perhaps I am not seeing the forest for the trees but I am losing faith in it all. I know ultimately it is up to the individual player to find their own style, but I'd like somebody/anybody to explain what is going on.

Hope you can give me some direction.

Three Finger vs Four Finger Playing

Alan, you're right, as many great players have shown, you don't need the pinky to play competently, quickly and expressively. However, ask yourself one thing...

Are these guitarists exceptional because they're not using their pinky very much, or because they've commited themselves to practice and study for years, regardless of their chosen technique?

Ok, that was obviously a loaded question!

When it comes to personal preference, such as using predominantly three or four fingers, it's not necessarily which one you choose that makes the difference, it's the consistent application of that choice (i.e. daily practice) that develops the muscle memory you need to become a competent player.

Obviously there is a huge difference between what a guitarist can acheive playing with two fingers vs three or four. But assuming you put the practice time in, the difference in potential outcome between three and four finger playing is clearly of little to no significance in terms of ability.

It's similar to the debate surrounding strict alternate picking vs economy picking. For every amazing player you can name who uses economy picking, there is another who swears by strict alternate picking.

It's not using one or the other that made them great, rather the persistence with which they practice their chosen technique.

So Why Do We Teach Four Fingers?

Given that it's more important to stick with one method of application and run with it, what tutors tend to do is go with the one that will be accessible for the most possible students in the beginner-intermediate stages.

For example, people with smaller hands will initially find their pinky is essential for making clean jumps between larger fret distances during quicker runs and phrases as their muscle memory develops.

That's not to say someone with small hands couldn't learn to play well without their pinky. It just means in those early stages, you might as well go with the option that will help in building your confidence and move you forward rather than cause frustration and pain.

You have nothing to lose in the long term by using four fingers, but much to gain in those initial stages by utilising that pinky.

I can't even say for certain whether or not more determination and effort was required of the three finger virtuosos at first. But again, teachers have to take into consideration the broadest base of potential students possible, and their various fret-hand profiles.

As a teacher, I have to consider every possible set of fingers that may touch the fretboard, therefore it makes sense to utilise the 4th finger in my diagrams, as the benefits of learning to use the pinky outweighs the benefits (if indeed there are any) of not using it.

Even those with larger hands and fingers may at first find it useful to involve their pinky, especially for those awkward 3-notes-per-string stretches, arpeggios that reach up a major 3rd on the 1st string or to avoid having to use "rolls" (where you collapse back a finger in order to fret the string above on the same fret). You might find it gives you more freedom to play certain licks in different positions.

And perhaps that's another key point here - the pinky can aid freedom of movement, no matter where you are on the neck.

Note that many guitarists with longer fingers tend to switch between using their pinky down the neck vs omitting it higher up the neck, as the fret spaces get narrower and the pinky can crowd the other fingers.

But this kind of adaptation will develop naturally, once you've become confident with patterns and sequences.

I hope this answers your question, Alan. If anyone has anything to add from their own experience, we'd love to read about it. Please use the comments link below.

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The art of Artificial Handicap
By: Aniruddha Biswas, Krishnagar, Nadia, WB, India

If you want to artificially handicap yourself then go ahead & play with 3 fingers. Its like you are just cutting off one-fourth (1/4) of your "Arsenal of Destruction". How to test my theory? 1st play any major scale box position (say box1) with 4 fingers. Then play the same with 3 fingers. Which is easier? 3 fingers or 4? If you ask me I'll always say 4 fingers because I want to use every possible resources given by God to achive whatever I want. There are people who are not satisfied with just 4 fingers & are using their right hand to do the 4-finger tapping thereby utilising 4+4 = 8 fingers!!! So do yourself a favour & use all 4 fingers of your left hand. By the way if you want to play blues & use only pentatonic (5note) & blues scale (6note) then you may continue using only 3 fingers. Hendrix, Clapton, Gilmour are gr8 (They are in my fav guitarists list) but they are predominantly blues player using pentatonic & blues scale. Guthrie Govan is one of the most versatile player who can play music of many genres. But if you are into jazz/metal/Neo-Classic etc & like to "SHREAD" then 4 fingers is the best way (you might not even survive as a shredder with just 3 fingers). Do yo ever watched players like Joe Satriani, Steeve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, Michael Angelo Batio, Chris Broderick, John Petrucci, Eddie Van Halen, Michael Schenker, Frank Zappa, Al de Meola, George Benson, Carlos Santana, Zakk Wylde, Dimebag Darrell, Nuno Bettencourt, Kirk Hammett, Django Rheinardt??? They all are 4-finger users. One notably gr8 guitaist using only 3-fingers who single handedly made a band famous is Slash. So there are exceptions. So its up to you my friend which road you want to walk (3 or 4 fingers) because once you choose one road theres no turning back!!!

Thank you
By: Alan

Thanks for your comments. Yes Aniruddha, I agree with your perspective. I should just get on with it. Incidentally, I managed to borrow a copy of John McLaughlin’s instructional DVD and notice that he plays scales three note per string and used his pinkie instead of his third finger over three frets in many scale moves keeping his third finger free to jump.
Hope I don’t sound too pedantic with this question/observation on this three finger stuff but it is something I picked up on. Al Di Meola. Yes tell me about him! I saw him live at Blue Note Tokyo bending strings with his pinkie. Jaw dropping technique. Suppose once you get to a certain level it is just a question of style. Will be happy if I can get a little bit towards that goal. Your words helped give me a bit of direction. Thank you .


All players that he counted have one extremely important thing in common that is Bending a string bending, pinky do not have enough power for that ok BB King used it he is legend but not the best in that game, also 3 fingers allows you faster runs and stronger control of the tone all of guitarist this boy asked for are TON BEASTS simple medical logic, but we need pinky when you play chords or wide scale shapes were you will not do bending on that note, you can use pinky for bending but that is not that imho, also some runs are easier to play with 3 fingers even with 2 try to play Django like he did and you will see, also with printing of many HM rock books and their outors forget were from that rock come from-blues will lern you to use 4 fingers run, i had that doubt when i was 17 my profesor who educated me wtout taking a penny from me explend me that i did not like it, he told me listen SRV, Buchanon, Page, all those players forget HM 100 m. who will run faster nonsense, i understood what He preached later, i have finished jazz academy and to be honest here i 'm due to i was searching some scale charts, so Kid go for 3 fingers do not hesitate listen those players you like and you can use pinky when it is must for wide 4 -5 notes per string runs but 3 fingers are the law that is fact for all players who wish to have bluesy sound.check how Gilbert P was plying in start of his carrier check him now, cheers wish you all the best to owner of the site and people who use it

pls regding who play with how many fingers some players are in wrong category

Steeve Vai,Eddie Van Halen especially Michael Schenker is 100% 3 fingers Django Rheinardt!!! used 4 come on is this joke? he use 2 only for some chords he supported pinky with 3d due burns he had ONLY FOR SOME CHORDS, and half of those shredes this man above mention use 3 fingers in fast runs ESPECIALLY from 10 the 12 fret- till 24 pls pls do not give wrong information i hope for the owner of the site that aim is to tech young students how to play I MEAN PLS Carlos Santana, Zakk Wylde USE 4 FINGERS? pls i recoment to all students take videos of those players and chek out how they play in fast runs when they use bending, but pls Michael Schenker who is strictly 3 finger player and django 2, i can not belive in this, but ok we all have rights for our opinions but pls truth is one , cheers miki

sorry for my spelling mistakes and special regards FOR ALAN

sorry for my spelling mistakes due to fast typing and did not re checked it, forgive me but i hope it was understandable, also i was shocked when i saw strictly 3 fingers players in groups were they do not belong, alan you are smart young player and your best teacher believe me (trough years you will figure that out of course you will need teachers but better to have 1 good ten 10 bad ones) just do what do and walk that road and you will became great player due to nowadays kids do not have soul and good tone you figure out the reason congratulation, cheers and special friendly regards for ALAN a future guitar God just continue what you do that is compliment from pro player with Jazz academy in Graz Austria and i do not use all what i learned there due to some jazz professors will tell you no bending- run away from them, lol, cheers

Lets clear the meaning of 4fingers & 3 fingers
By: Aniruddha

Hi Miki, I think you have totally misunderstood my comment. What I meant was 3 fingers = using only Index, midlle & ring fingers (Pinkie is never used). So Index+middlle+pinkie = 3 fingers. Whereas 4 fingers = Index, middlle, ring, pinkie. We need not use all the 4 fingers at a time on the same string!!! Lets say we are playing Major scale box 1 in any key. So the fingerings will be :- low E (2 - 4), A (1 - 2 - 4), D (1 - 3 - 4), G (1 - 3 - 4), B (2 - 4), high E (1 - 2 - 4). Here Index=1, Middle=2, Ring=3, Pinkie=4. As you can see we are not using 4 fingers on the same string. In fact its quite rare to use 4 fingers together in a scale run, practicing box positions or while soloing. Of course the players I mentioned before use mostly 2 note or 3 note per string runs. By the term 4-finger users I meant they are using all 4 of their fingers but not necessarily at the same string. As per bending goes I use my Index+middlle+ring for maximum power & control. Well I also use Index+mid+ring+pinkie for bending when the I need to bend to a higher note just after playing a note with pinkie cause its nearly impossible+illogical+uneconomical to do anything else. Obviously I like to shred. But I am not necessarily a speed-freak. I use a hell lot of bending & vibrato too. So you can very well guess I love to give my licks some bluisy feel (obviously Gilmour is one of my inspirations). I respect my seniors cause they can teach us many invaluable things. You are way senior & thus much more experienced than me. So I can learn a lot from seniors like you. For me guitar playing is like a RELIGION. We guitarists are just the DISCIPLES & nothing else. So we must share our ideas to help spreading this wonderfull religion. Amen...

too late
By: annoyed

God dam it to hear this after all these years, that you can manage with just three fingers. Because my pinkies are broken and fused I never bothered to learn the guitar, didn’t think it was possible and now it’s too late because I am too old.

By: Genotype

"God dam it to hear this after all these years, that you can manage with just three fingers. Because my pinkies are broken and fused I never bothered to learn the guitar, didn’t think it was possible and now it’s too late because I am too old."

So let me get this straight...

You made excuses not to play and now you find you could have learned, you made more excuses not to play? smh

3 finger is better for my lead
By: fenderguy

Personally, I feel that if you need to do a large bend thats a whole step or more higher than where your finger is planted its advantageous to use 3 fingers instead of four. My third finger is much stronger than my pinky and will get the string to where it needs to be with alot of vibrato when I need it. I tend to stretch my three fingers out rather than using 1 finger for each fret to get a more soulful sound for rock, funk and blues.

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