Which Fingerstyle Blues Course?

TF Essentials image

Having received more than one question about this I thought I would post an explanation here of the differences between a few of the fingerstyle blues courses I have out with Truefire. Here goes:

If you’ve never done any fingerstyle at all I would recommend my Fingerstyle Blues Handbook courses as the place to start. Volume 1 is steady bass, Volume 2 is alternating (Travis style) bass. They assume zero fingerpicking skills to start. As such the material is more like excercises than tunes but they will give you a real foundation for the rest.

As to the difference between Fingerstyle Blues Factory and Essentials/Fingerstyle Blues: The whole first part of the Factory course is short, 2- to 4- bar licks, which you then string together into complete 12-bar choruses in the secod half of the course. Essentials just jumps right in with whole tunes, and assumes you can already manage most of the techniques involved.

If the Handbook courses are late beginner/early intermediate and Factory and Essentials cover solid intermediate ground, New School Fingerstyle Blues is pretty advanced material. It teaches a handful of complete tunes, most with multiple sections, with no real restrictions on difficulty. Several of the tunes appear on my solo guitar CD “David Hamburger Plays Blues, Ballads and a Pop Song.”

So that’s that. In case the terms “steady bass” and “alternating bass” are unfamiliar to you, here’s a bit of an explanation:

Steady bass refers to a technique where the the thumb repeats bass notes on a single string for whatever chord you’re on. For example, for the first four bars of a blues in E, you might just continually play the low E string the entire time, or four E quarter notes per measure.

The alternating bass has your thumb, well, alternating every beat between a lower and a higher string. So on that same E chord, you might play the low E (open 6th string) on the first beat, then second fret on the D (fourth) string on the second beat, back to the open E on beat three, back to the D string on beat four.

The alternating thumb style is also called Travis picking; many people learn a basic version of it called pattern picking. You can hear it in everything from Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and so on.

The steady bass is typically considered the province of the Texas bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, in whose styles it lends itself to a more improvisational approach on the high strings (because what the bass is doing is, on some level, less complicated than what’s required in the alternating thumb approach). It’s also present in more Delta-based styles like those of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker.

Overall, the alternating style seems to result in a brighter, bouncier feel while the steady bass conjures up darker, bluesier ways of playing. That’s the broad cliche, anyway. Both are fundamental to the fingerstyle blues approach. I imagine we designated the steady-bass course Volume 1 because the lack of alternating the thumb does give you one less thing to worry about, but I’ve found, in years past of teaching it live, that it still takes quite a bit of concentration and practice to keep the bass going consistently once the fingers (melody notes) get involved. And for what it’s worth, none of the original blues artists I mentioned above ever did this flawlessly either; they tended to play in a much looser, call-and-response style between the bass and the upper notes. But when learning from scratch, it’s not a bad idea to get that consistency down, so you can choose to get loose with it. But the short answer is: steady bass, thumb on one low string at a time; alternating bass, thumb switching between two notes in every measure.



  1. Hi David,

    I would like to say after screwing around on the guitar for years, I finally decided to do things right. I started with Finger-style blues handbook I and II about 7 months ago. I am proud to say I am able to play everything, provided the tab sheet is in front of me.Not to say I don’t struggle a little here and there! Now I am taking your Fingerstyle Blues Factory course

    The concept of learning licks in the different keys, and then putting them together to create full songs is dam appealing! So far I have played all the E licks, and now I am at, “A lick 9,High Root Boogie”. This is where I have encountered a real problem.

    The tabs don’t match up with what your playing on the video. So I’ve been trying to just follow the video but there is a lot going on. I know I could do it if the final example of the full riff was done slower. I’m trying to piece it together but it is really difficult. Is there anyway you could help?

    I already have purchased Essentials which is waiting for me once I get through Fingerstyle, if I ever get past A lick 9.

    Yours truly,
    A 58 year old who is finally on course to really playing the guitar.


  2. Hi Bill,

    My apologies for not replying sooner – I just figured out how to view and respond to the posts in my own blog! Crazy, but true.

    I will take a look as soon as I’m back in the studio on Monday and see if I can help you with this apparent conflict between the notation and the video. If I can clear it up at all, I certainly will be glad to, and thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    Glad you’re enjoying the course so far aside from the dread A9 chord!




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