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Travis Picking: The Basics and Variations


from the Hal Leonard Acoustic Guitar Method
Perhaps the most common fingerstyle technique is Travis picking. Popularized by country legend Merle Travis, the technique usually involves the thumb alternating between two bass notes while the fingers “fill in the holes” on the treble side.

This first example demonstrates a basic Travis picking pattern that should help you get a feel for the technique. Note the fingering indications for the right hand: T = thumb, 1 = first finger, 2 = second finger, etc.

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Here we’re moving between C and G chords. Notice the difference in the thumb pattern: we’re rocking back our forth between strings 6 and 4 on the G chord. It should be noted that the “and” of beat 2 is often slightly accented in Travis picking patterns such as these, providing a gentle syncopation that helps create a sense of momentum. Also notice that we’re not playing string 5 during the G chord at all. This means, for all practical purposes, that we don’t have to fret that string. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with fretting that string if you so choose; the point is that you have the option.

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Now that you’ve got the basics down, let’s take a look at some common variations. In example A, we’re simply striking the first two notes on beat 1 at the same time, creating a quarter note instead of two eighths. In example B, the right-hand thumb is working overtime, substituting the low 5th every other time for the root. Example C omits the first treble note altogether, beginning only with a bass note on beat 1. Example D elaborates on C, making use of the third finger to create an interesting pattern. Example E introduces a right-hand shift, which is another option when accessing higher strings. Example F elaborates on this idea with syncopation.

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