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“Travis Picking” Finger Picking

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Travis Picking

“Travis Picking” is a style of finger picking named after Merle Travis. He was born in 1917, and basically thought himself how to play the guitar. His father played the banjo and that was all he had to give him any direction. So he incorporated the banjo techniques of his father in his guitar playing. He learned how to play on a home made guitar built by his brother. Is that cool…. or WHAT! He later used an old wind-up phonograph to help him learn songs. Now there was a man who was determined. This man was truly a wonder and a legend of his own time and he has been a wonderful influence on musicians even to this day. Myself included! He even has a style of guitar playing named after him. People often refer to “Travis picking” as we will be talking about in this section. That’s Cool! When playing the guitar Merle Travis would alternate from thumb to finger (he only used one finger, his forefinger). Each time he used his thumb he would alternate between the base strings and he would alternate the treble strings with his finger. When doing “Travis picking” today some guitarists still use only a thumb pick and one finger (Usually the first finger) in imitation of Merle Travis.

Check out this old black and white 1951 video done the year before I was born.

Merle Travis doing “Nine Pound Hammer”.

Travis Picking Today

The picking that Merle Travis did back then was called – “finger picking.”  Today there are some who hesitate to class this as being truly “finger picking” because of only using but just the one finger and the thumb.  However, the alternating of thumb to finger and the alternating of high and low strings as you go is what has become known as “Travis picking” no matter how many fingers you use while doing it. Today this is what many people mean when they refer to “Travis picking” or “Travis style” guitar.  So on this web site when your learning “Travis” picking patterns, I will NOT be teaching it exactly how Merle Travis did it.  Rather it will be the style of finger picking guitar that has become known as “Travis picking.”  Actually, like most things, his style has been developed and improved upon over the years by others.  What I teach on this site is the use of three fingers and your thumb in the picking patterns.  The little finger is used as an “anchor”.  I’ll discuss this in detail in a later section. 

The Way I Teach Travis Picking

Finger picking guitar the way Merle Travis actually did it, does have appeal to some guitarists because of its freedoms. However, due to it’s very nature it has some drawbacks and limitations as well.  These are what I try to avoid by teaching finger picking with three fingers and thumb.  Let me explain about this. Usually Travis picking (done as Merle Travis did with his thumb and forefinger) is not as clean as when using three fingers.  This is because the artist tends to be sloppy with all the ‘freedom.’ With a lack of precision in pick placement the result is that from time to time he may ’accidentally’ hits strings (notes) that he didn’t intend to hit.  This is very common with people doing Travis picking because it’s not just the thumb but also the one finger that is alternating between the different strings.  This makes for mistakes that can sometimes be distracting, strange sounding, and downright embarrassing. 

The advantage of using the method of finger picking that I use is that your three fingers are “assigned” each to an individual string and so you have no need to “think” about finger placement and if you are hitting each string correctly.  You will ”know” that the string is there because your hand isn’t moving around as much.   So with my method all you have to concentrate on is what you’re picking with the Thumb.  The fingers just naturally follow the thum with little or no thought.  So the rest of the picking pattern just comes rolling off your hand naturally without having to concentrate on it.  This is true however, only because of practice and repetition as I will discus in greater detail starting in the section, “HOW to Learn To Finger Pick.” The end result is that you can concentrate more on your singing which is very Very VERY important!  Singing mistakes are usually more obvious to people in gerneral then guitar mistakes.  This is because that’s usually what they are concentrating on.  The SINGING!  So it’s important for  you to “focus” more of your attention on your singing then on your guitar work.  To my way of thinking the three finger style of “Travis Picking” is a real plus because it helps you to do that.

Perhaps you’ve heard some who are concentrating so much on their guitar playing that their singing suffers.  Unfortunately this often happens.  It happens even to the best of them!  Don McLean is one of my favorite artists and has written some of the best songs.  He is truly a lyricist!  That appeals to me personally.  Don McLean’s “And I Love You So” is one of my favorite songs, but look and listen to this video of him singing this beautiful song in his younger years.  You’ll hear him go flat on his sustained notes that are early in the song.  



No doubt the above singing suffered in part because it’s Don’s first song before this audience (you can tell this because he is getting ready to play by putting on his finger picks) and he is understandable somewhat nervous.  In a nervous state it is easy to let your concentration on singing to drift.  Notice too, that he also uses two fingers in his Travis style, which is better then one, but not as good as three.  You can also see in this example that his singing suffers somewhat as he shifts his concentration to his guitar playing.  Notice that when he looks down and starts thinking about what he’s doing with his guitar, his vocal drifts and goes flat.  Nervousness can be a real problem especially when starting out but as the song goes on he improves.  He’s a pro!  The lesson to be learned here is this; Keep your guitar work as mindless as you possibly can.  Concentrate mostly on your singing.  Also, three fingers are better then two.  Two are better then one.  It’s simple … do the math.

Another disadvantage in using just one finger when doing Travis picking is it usually needs to be slower in tempo. It has to be!  This is because when using only the one finger the guitarist must slow down because he is moving his finger back and forth between strings, sometimes even his whole hand has to move up and down to hit the correct strings.  In contrast to this, when your three fingers, are “assigned” or “dedicated” to just one string, this allows the hand position to be more or less “stationary”.  Only the fingers assigned to the string needs to move directly to that particular string.  That’s simple… and it’s much easier to do once it’s learned!  The result can be a much cleaner, consistent and precise sound that can be picked at a much, much faster tempo and all with less concentration.  The guitarist can do this because with the three fingers being used he has better control with his picking hand.

Another advantage to learning to pick with three fingers is that with this better control comes the ability to accent particular notes more clearly and precisely then with the other styles of picking.  This is possible because all the guitarist has to think about  is  the “accent” an not about “finding” the correct string.  This ability to accent notes will make the over all sound of your music a more pleasing experience for everyone involved.  You and your audience. 

So with the method that I will be teaching you, you will actually be playing the same notes that Merle Travis would be playing but it will be much easier to for you to do.  Also it will be without as many mistakes, it can be faster, and much cleaner. 

Keep it clean!

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