How to Read PIMA Symbols on Guitar

When learning how to play Acoustic and Fingerstyle Guitar, one of the first things that you can run into when playing songs are the PIMA symbols.

These four letters, P-I-M-A, come from the classical guitar world, and are used to indicate which finger plays which note in your picking hand.

Though they are not used as commonly in the fingerstyle realm as they are with classical guitar, these four letters will appear in sheet music when learning songs, and so knowing what each of these letters means will help you play the right notes with the correct fingers when playing acoustic guitar.

Here are those four letters and what they mean as a handy reference.

P – Thumb

I – Index

M – Middle

A – Ring

Now that you know what the four PIMA symbols mean when you see them on an acoustic guitar arrangement, here is an example on the staff for you to check out and identify which finger goes with which note on the staff.




As you can see, having an understanding of the PIMA symbols, even if you don’t play classical guitar, will come in handy when reading any music for acoustic or fingerstyle that relies on these letters to indicate which finger plucks which string in the song.


Do you teach your students the PIMA system? If so, share your thoughts on this subject in the comments section below.

2 Replies to “How to Read PIMA Symbols on Guitar”

  1. When perfecting a fingerstyle piece it is really important to work out a system of fingering for the right hand. The examples show the arpeggio free stroke style where each finger / thumb is allocated to a string. In pieces which include a melodic line it is important to alternate right hand fingers (usually I and M), and avoid awkward string crossings. A good example of this is the grade 5 acoustic piece ‘Mourning Air’ where I start the tune with finger M. This makes for a comfortable string crossing from the E to the D at the end of bar three and the beginning of bar 4 by using M’ for the E and I for the D. The following D, E and F should be played with M, A and M to allow a smooth transition from the D to the E. Finally the first three notes of bar 4 can then be played with I, M and I to end the phrase. I will always help students to understand the necessity for, and pencil in right hand fingering if it is not suggested in the music.

  2. Yes, although I teach very little classical music. I think it’s useful to get things like PIMA in right at the start. it can then be used for any finger style I teach in the future, including travis picking.

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