Here’s an article all about a distinctive, important technique in guitar playing—particularly in styles like country, folk, and blues—and that’s Travis picking. We’ll cover the background, where to hear it, the theory, and how to do it, and get you Travis picking right away. Good luck and enjoy!
What is Travis picking?
In short, Travis picking is the name for any kind of fingerpicking in which your thumb—often aided by wearing a thumb pick—alternates consistently and rhythmically between the lower strings, while your fingers play a melody above. Therefore, it effectively creates a blended sound of low and high of a melody being accompanied by underlying chords and bass notes, making one guitar sound at times like two or three. More detail on its origins, where you can hear it, and how to do it, below.
Songs that use Travis picking:
- “Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam
- “Green Green, Rocky Road” by Dave Van Ronk
- “Deep River Blues” by Doc Watson
Why is it called Travis picking?
It’s named after Merle Travis, the legendary American Country guitarist and singer-songwriter credited with bringing this sound and style to the world. Though this style would inspire and spawn a great many notable others across the 20th century, many of whom added their own twist, Merle Travis is widely recognized as the first to bring it to the mainstream—hence the name Travis picking!
Which guitarists are famous for Travis picking?
Obviously, Merle Travis is where your listening and research should begin. Next up is probably Chet Atkins, a hugely famous 20th century guitarist. His style does have some significant differences, but it is absolutely based on Travis picking.
Folk legend James Taylor can’t be excluded—someone who incorporated Travis picking into a sweeter, more melodic aspect of folk than the playing style is often used for. Then there’s contemporary virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel. Like everything he does, he makes Travis picking extreme! Check him out if you don’t already know him. It’s also important and satisfying to trace the roots of the style through the years and study its progression and evolution.
Where do I start?
Get a thumb pick! Well actually, get a few of them, because like flat-picks (normal plectrums), they have a habit of disappearing. After that, it’s essential to start with some basic exercises. Travis picking has certain elements that are formulaic and repetitive to create the rhythmic canvas that is one of its hallmarks. This means that naturally, muscle memory is crucial.
It’s a good idea to begin with exercises involving just the alternating thumb, moving it back and forth in one of the many recognized thumb-picking patterns. As this becomes second nature, you can begin to involve the higher range fingerpicking on top. But be patient! If it goes wrong, it’s likely that you haven’t spent enough time getting the patterns ingrained, and your thumb motion automatic.
Really what you’re working towards is going to be learning some songs. Have a listen through the artists named above, have a look at the tabs or tutorials, and identify some songs that, while being a good challenge, seem within reach of whatever your current technical level and confidence with Travis picking. Then get to work! If it seems difficult, there are two main approaches you can try:
Horizontal: Working through a whole line, section or song playing only the thumb part, then adding the fingers when that’s done.
Vertical: Starting with both thumb and fingers from the outset, but taking it literally a beat at a time, to slowly establish the guitar part.
Try both—it’s often about finding a balance. Most importantly: keep listening, and keep playing!