Video Lesson: Learn Travis Picking Nuts and Bolts


Extract from the December 2017 issue of Acoustic guitar | BY JAMIE STILLWAY

As you progress along the guitar awakening path, you are bound to come across Travis’ term “picking”. Named after country and western pioneer Merle Travis, it is a style of fingerpicking characterized by the constant thump of an alternating bass that emphasizes rhythmic patterns and melodies on the high strings. You might have learned a few basic picking patterns from Travis, but you don’t know how to start customizing them.

As with a lot of things in life, you have to take them apart to learn how to put them together. By taking the time to understand how to build some basic models, you can develop a solid foundation for adding your own ideas and variations.

It’s all in the bass
One of the defining characteristics of this style is the alternating, thumb-picked bass, 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 available to you for a given chord. For example, a G major triad is made up of the notes G, B, and D (root, third, and fifth, respectively). You can alternate between root and fifth (Example 1a), the root and the third (Example 1b), or a combination of the three notes (Example 1c). Getting a stable and solid feel is essential, so make sure you’re comfortable with these examples before moving on to the following examples.

Although these examples only show the possibilities of a G chord, be sure to familiarize yourself with bass notes for other chord forms. You can also explore the different sounds you get when cutting bass notes in the palm of your hand, by lightly resting the outside edge of your picking hand on the strings near the bridge of the guitar.

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

Examples 3a – c have the same pattern on the high strings as the previous set, but notice the change in the alternating pattern of the bass notes. Adjusting to this little detail can be more difficult than you think, so take your time to put it under your fingers and into your muscle memory.

A more syncopated approach to the high strings is observed 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 allusions to “Dust in the Wind” from Kansas or “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. If you are in the early stages of fingerpicking, proceed slowly, to make sure you have mastered the proper movement mechanisms while playing with rhythmic precision.

Thumbs, not scratching
Once you have familiarized yourself with the basics of the template, start incorporating it into your repertoire. Try finger-selecting a song that you usually strum and see how that changes the feel of the song. Example 5 is a simple ii-VI (Dm-GC) progression in C, and it shows 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 that there is no one “right” way to play the pattern.

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Hear a melody
The creative possibilities expand considerably when you start to incorporate more melodic ideas into the pattern. Based on G Mixolydian mode (GABCDEF), Example 6 uses the model of Ex. 4a. As with all examples, be sure to try these ideas in different tones. For more bluesy progressions, you can add some hammer-ons from the minor third to the major.
third, as shown in the G-to-G# and C-to-C# movements of Example 7. Remember to listen carefully to what you are playing, as you might hear something that will prompt you to start making your own melodies.

Make arrangements
A great way to start developing your own arrangements is to practice simple melodies. Take, for example, the melody of “Skip to My Lou”. Start by isolating the melody, to be sure you know it well (Example 8). Also familiarize yourself with the corresponding chord progression. Example 9 shows only one possible way to integrate the melody into a selection pattern. When you try this idea for yourself, start with an easy melody in a manageable tone. Hopefully after working through these exercises you’ll have some new tools to start developing your own creative vision for picking Travis.

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

Travis picking examples musical notation a tablature part 1
Travis picking examples musical notation a tablature part 1

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

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