Fingerstyle guitar is the technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers, as opposed to flatpicking (picking individual notes with a single plectrum called a flatpick) or strumming all the strings of the instrument in chords. The term is often used synonymously with fingerpicking (although "fingerpicking" can also refer to a specific stylistic subset; see below). Music arranged for fingerstyle playing can include chords, arpeggios and other elements such as artificial harmonics, hammering on and pulling off with the fretting hand, using the body of the guitar percussively, and many other techniques.
"Fingerpicking" (also called "thumb picking", "alternating bass" or "pattern picking") is a term that is used to describe both a playing style and a genre of music. It falls under the "fingerstyle" heading because it is plucked by the fingers, but it is generally used to play a specific type of folk, country-jazz and/or blues music. In this technique, the thumb maintains a steady rhythm, usually playing "alternating bass" patterns on the lower three strings, while the index, or index and middle fingers pick out melody and fill-in notes on the high strings.
The style originated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as southern African American blues guitarists tried to imitate the popular ragtime piano music of the day, with the guitarist's thumb functioning as the pianist's left hand, and the other fingers functioning as the right hand. The first recorded examples were by players such as Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie and Mississippi John Hurt. Some early blues players such as Blind Willie Johnson and Tampa Red added slide guitar techniques. Fingerpicking was soon taken up by Country and Western artists such as Sam McGee, Ike Everly (father of The Everly Brothers) and Merle Travis. Later Chet Atkins further developed the style.
Most fingerpickers use acoustic guitars, but some, including Merle Travis often played on hollow-body electrics.