Moving From Beginner Fingerpicking Techniques to Travis Picking

Moving From Beginner Fingerpicking Techniques to Travis Picking - The Twelfth Fret

From Beginner Fingerpicking Techniques to Travis Picking

In my last article on fingerpicking, I introduced some of the basics needed to turn simple chord knowledge into some basic finger-picking techniques.  Now, I’d like to introduce some slightly more advanced right hand techniques and start getting into some intermediate level exercises with a focus on Travis style picking.

Travis picking is a very distinctive and specific right hand technique that takes its name from American music pioneer Merle Travis (1917-1983). Although the technique bears the name “Travis” today, and Merle did a great deal to both popularize and expand on the technique, it is undoubtedly an older technique from various stringed instruments including the banjo that reaches back before the era of recording.  I consider Travis picking to be anything that is built around an alternating thumb while the fingers either fill out the arpeggio above the alternating bass or add a melody line above or even both at the same time.  Here’s Merle playing the style that bears his name.  Notice how he plays chords and then breaks into a solo and then back to chords again all while keeping the bass line going.

Travis picking or alternating thumb-picking as it’s sometimes referred to involves using the thumb of the right hand to mimic the kind of bass line you might hear from an early upright bass player in a country or bluegrass type style jam.  The technique from there expanded outward in many different directions with lots of variations.  Songs like Kansas’ Dust In the Wind, Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide or Never Goin’ Back Again, The Beatles’ Dear Prudence, Led Zeppelin’s Going To California all use this style in some variation.  Some guitarists, like Chet Atkins, almost exclusively employ this technique in their playing of covers and others like Sam Beam (Iron and Wine to site a more contemporary example) almost exclusively use it in their original compositions. 

Here is one of my all-time favourite Travis-picking tunes.  Notice the bass lines here particularly in the middle section which is meant to mimic the sound of a steam engine rolling down the track.  I chose this video in part because you can’t see Leo Kottke playing in this video.  Just close your eyes and listen to the separate parts. It’s easy to hear why people originally didn’t believe guys Like Merle Travis were playing solo when people first heard them live on the radio all those years ago.  I love Leo’s driving rhythm on this track and the recording of his guitar is perfect.

Alright, Enough History, How Do I Play Like That?

The first thing you want to do when you begin to practice is decide what notes you are going to alternate with your thumb to create your bass part.  There are no rules here, but there are some pretty common standard approaches.  As I pointed out in my previous article you are generally going to keep your thumb on the lower sounding three strings and your fingers will generally play the higher sounding strings but there will be lots of exceptions where there will be crossover.

Start with an open Gmajor chord in first position (320003.  Once you have that down, take your thumb and alternate it between the 6th string and the 4th string evenly counting 1-2-3-4.

I should point out here that while it is possible to use this technique in different time signatures, it is almost exclusively used in 4/4 time. 

The most important thing with Travis picking is this alternating thumb so make sure you have this down before you start to add anything above.  The worst and most common mistake students make when trying to learn this technique is trying do too much at once and then inadvertently using a finger for one of the bass notes.  That can be hard to unlearn so remember: Thumb, thumb, thumb, thumb.  1-2-3-4. 6th string 4th string 6th string 4th string.

Once you are comfortable with the alternating bass notes it’s time to add some action in the upper strings.  I’ve generally found that filling in all the spaces between the alternating bass notes to be easier for students to grasp at first than actually doing less.  Most people seem to grasp the even motor rhythm of the eighth notes more easily than the syncopation between quarter notes and eighth notes together even though that’s technically doing less.

To add our upper part we are going to play 4 new notes between our 4 bass notes with our fingers creating an even rhythm of 1+2+3+4+.  On our G major chord that is going be index finger on the 3rd string, 2nd finger on the second string index finger on the 3rd string 2nd finger on the 2nd string.  All together we will play the following strings 6th, 3rd, 4th, 2nd, 6th, 3rd, 4th, 2nd.  Thumb index, thumb middle thumb index thumb middle.  It will be obvious that this pattern is actually a half bar pattern played twice, but it’s a great way to start.


Once you have this under your fingers we are going to change one thing that will completely change the sound of our pattern.  Our bass notes are going to stay the same but we are going to add a new note above.  Our new pattern will change the note following beat 4 from the 2nd string to the 1st string.  We will play this new note with the 3rd finger of our right hand.  So our new pattern will be strings: 6th, 3rd, 4th, 2nd,6th, 3rd. 4Th, 1st.  right hand: thumb, index, thumb, middle, thumb, index, thumb, 3rd.

Let’s try this pattern on a first position C chord now.  On this chord the most common alternating bass is between the not C on the 3rd  fret of the 5th string and the note E on the 2nd fret of the fourth string.  So with the thumb that will be strings: 5th, 4th,5th,4th our fingers will play the same strings as the G chord 3rd 2nd 3rd 1st.  Putting this all together we will get strings 5th 3rd 4th 2nd 5th 3rd 4th 1st.  That will be right hand: thumb, index, thumb, middle, thumb, index, thumb, 3rd

The next thing you want to practice is putting these two chords together smoothly and evenly.  One thing to be aware of with all finger-picking is that you don’t have to have the entire new chord down at once on beat 1 like you do when you strum.  Pay attention to when you actually need to have new notes ready as a note might not be played until half way into the bar or even later.  In this video  I’m playing a G chord with my 2nd 3rd and 4th fingers.  I’m doing this because I can then hold on to the last note of the G chord while I begin to play the next C chord.  If I let it go right away to get to the C chord I would have created a pretty noticeable seam between the two chords. This kind of thing won’t always be an option depending on what you’re playing but whenever it is you should take advantage of it.  It will create a much smoother transition between chords.

Of all the finger-style patterns the variations of the Travis style are going to give you the most mileage for your money.  From rock to blues, to country to ragtime to bluegrass this pattern is everywhere and with a bit of practice will really open up your playing to some new sounds.

~David Martin, The Twelfth Fret Music School