A Guide To Travis Picking On Guitar

Travis picking got its name from a country guitarist called Merle Travis. It’s a very popular fingerstyle technique within the genre of folk guitar. The main premise is that the thumb maintains an alternating bass pattern between two or sometimes three notes on the bass strings of the guitar in a regular quarter note rhythm while the lead lines are played on the treble strings in a syncopated rhythm against the bass notes. It produces a very full sounding and intricate guitar sound which is highly rewarding to listen to. Look out for a dedicated guitar lesson on the site soon demonstrating this pattern.

You’ll hear guitarists use Travis picking in blues guitar, ragtime guitar, folk guitar and so forth mostly on steel string acoustic guitars. Some famous song examples would include “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas or “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” by Bob Dylan. If you’re a beginner who is yet to learn how to play basic fingerstyle guitar then you should leave learning to Travis pick alone until you’ve mastered some easy fingerpicking guitar first with beginner acoustic guitar lessons. Country fingerpicking, which includes Travis, is more complex and requires that you have some experience in using your fingers for fingerstyle patterns in general.

How To Get That Travis Picking Effect?

In order to achieve a classic Travis picking sound on guitar you’ll need to concentrate on the timing you use when hitting treble strings against the repeating bass string pattern. First you establish a steady and regular alternating bass on the chord and then play the treble strings in an offset way on the up-beats against it.

Let’s begin by holding a D chord and using your thumb you should play alternating bass notes between the 4th and 5th strings in a regular quarter note rhythm. Some players like to use a thumb pick but it’s optional. This changing bass is the rock solid foundation which never breaks so try to get so comfortable with it that you can play it automatically. From here we can start to offset the treble strings against it. We use a combination of single treble notes on the off-beat and “pinches” where the treble note is played simultaneously with the bass note. Very soon I’ll upload a video example with tab so you can follow along and learn your first Travis picking guitar pattern!

There is also a popular variation in Travis picking called ‘the roll’. It’s where you pluck on every off-beat. There are many variations we can employ with the style of Travis fingerpicking simply by including or excluding notes on the off-beats of the pattern. The one thing which never gets left out however is that rock solid foundation of the alternating bass lines. The best way forward is to try out some of the easiest beginner patterns first and once you have them down you can try to improvise your own Travis picking patterns to come up with new variations. You’ll get a great effect if you’re able to switch between different patterns from chord to chord as well. In this way your Travis guitar sound will become more intricate and professional sounding.

The Travis Picking Accompaniment Style

You’ll find Travis picking easier to master if you form a mental image in your mind of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ strings. What we do is concentrate upon 4 strings only for each chord we play. Taking the D chord as an example again, the 4th and 1st strings would be the ‘outside strings’ while the 3rd and 2nd would be the ‘inside strings’. Typically the thumb and middle finger play the outside strings while the thumb and index fingers play the inside strings.

For Travis guitar you can then visualize a “phrase” like this…

Pinch – Insides – Outsides – Thumb

So that would translate to the 4th and 1st strings played together (the pinch), then the 2nd and 3rd strings (the insides), off-beat 4th and 1st strings (outside) and the thumb would represent the bass note on its own. All of this will become much clearer when you see and hear it in the video lesson.

Travis Picking Solo Style

The other side of Travis picking is that you can use it to play both the melody and bass parts together for exciting solo guitar pieces. The bass notes are once again always constant and alternating while the solo or melody is put on the treble strings in a combination of both pinches and off-beat notes. Unlike accompaniment Travis style guitar where we order chords together in groups of 4 strings at a time, solo Travis picking breaks free of those rules in order to allow for maximum flexibility in being able to perform the melodic lines fully. The best place to begin would be to search for some free Travis picking tabs online and go through them bar by bar very slowly.