Video Lesson: Learn the Nuts and Bolts of Travis Picking

From the December 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JAMIE STILLWAY

As you progress on the path of guitar enlightenment, you’re bound to encounter the term Travis picking. Named after country-and-western pioneer Merle Travis, it’s a style of fingerpicking characterized by the steady thump of an alternating bass that underscores rhythmic patterns and melodies on the treble strings. Maybe you’ve learned some basic Travis picking patterns, but aren’t certain how to begin making them your own.

As with many things in life, you’ve got to pull it apart to learn how to put it together. By taking the time to understand the construction of some basic patterns, you can develop a solid foundation for adding your own ideas and variations.

It’s All About the Bass
One of the defining features of this style is the alternating bass, picked by the thumb, so start by taking an isolated look at the bass notes.

You may find it helpful to have a basic knowledge of chord theory in order to understand all the notes at your disposal for any given chord. For example, a G major triad is made up of the notes G, B, and D (the root, the third, and the fifth, respectively). You can alternate between the root and the fifth (Example 1a), the root and the third (Example 1b), or a combination of all three notes (Example 1c). Getting a steady, solid feel is essential, so make sure you’re comfortable with these examples before moving on to the next examples.

Although these examples only show the possibilities of a G chord, make sure to familiarize yourself with the bass notes for other chord shapes. You can also explore the different sounds you get when palm-muting the bass notes, lightly resting the outer edge of your picking hand on the strings near the bridge of the guitar. 

Get into Treble
After you can keep a steady bass rhythm, it’s time to add notes on the treble strings, picked with the index (i) and middle (m) fingers. The series in Examples 2a–c provides a methodical way of doing so, with the addition of quarter notes, eighth notes, and the “and” of the eighth notes. Keep a G chord held with your fretting fingers throughout, and let all the notes ring as long as possible.

Examples 3a–c have the same pattern on the treble strings as the previous set, but notice the change in the alternating bass-note pattern. Adjusting to that one small detail might be harder than you think, so take your time in getting it under your fingers and in your muscle memory.

A more syncopated approach to the treble strings is seen in Example 4a, one of the most common Travis-picking patterns. Try this pattern with a C chord, as in Example 4b, and you might recognize hints of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” If you’re in the beginning stages of fingerpicking, proceed slowly, to ensure you’re nailing the proper mechanics of movement while playing with rhythmic precision.

Thumbs, Not Strums
Once you develop a familiarity with the basics of the pattern, start integrating it into your repertoire. Try fingerpicking a song you usually strum, and see how it changes the feel of the song. Example 5 is a simple ii–V–I progression (Dm–G–C) in C, and it demonstrates how to apply the pattern to a succession of chords that have varying roots on the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings. You can apply these ideas to any chord progression—and remember, there’s no single “right” way to play the pattern. 

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Hear a Melody
The creative possibilities expand greatly when you start incorporating more melodic ideas into the pattern. Based on the G Mixolydian mode (G A B C D E F), Example 6 uses the pattern from Ex. 4a. As with all of the examples, remember to try these ideas in different keys. For more bluesy progressions, you could add some hammer-ons from the minor third to the major third, as shown in the G-to-G# and C-to-C# moves of Example 7. Remember to listen closely to what you’re playing, as you may hear something that inspires you to start creating your own melodies.

Make Some Arrangements
A great way to begin developing your own arrangements is to practice with simple melodies. Take, for instance, the melody of “Skip to My Lou.” Start by isolating the melody, to make sure you know it well (Example 8). Also acquaint yourself with the corresponding chord progression. Example 9 shows just one possible way to integrate the melody into a picking pattern. When trying this idea for yourself, start with an easy melody in a key that’s manageable. With any luck, after working through these exercises, you’ll have new tools to start developing your own creative outlook on Travis picking. 

Jamie Stillway is a fingerstyle soloist and educator in Portland, Oregon.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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