This month’s lesson is an exercise in fingerpicking, syncopation, and groove. We’ll start with a familiar idea: the folk fingerpicking style commonly called Travis picking. (Even though it’s not really how Merle Travis played, as explained at the end of this column.) Then we’ll warp it beyond recognition.
There are countless variations on this basic picking concept, but they all share one trait: The thumb’s accented bass notes always fall squarely on the beat. That’s perfect for country ballads and coffeehouse folk rock. But with some sly rhythmic displacement, you can generate a vast collection of funky patterns evocative of Latin and African music. This video demonstrates the premise. If you find the idea worth pursuing, try working through the exercises that follow.
I play all of this with no pick—just my thumb, index finger, and middle finger. But you could also use a thumbpick and two fingers, or grip a flatpick between thumb and index finger and pluck the high strings with your middle and ring fingers. Heck, when I was a tween, I used a flatpick along with my middle finger, ring finger, and pinky. You’ve got a lot of liberty here.
We’ll start with eight possible rhythmic variations, all played over a simple C chord. These are all played exactly the same, but starting at different points within the measure. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy! After that, we’ll apply these patterns to more complex chord sequences.
If you’re a fingerpicking newb, the exercises in this column may help you find your feet. Meanwhile, this column deals with rhythmic displacement, as heard in all those song intros that trick you into thinking the downbeat is somewhere other than its actual location. We’re playing a similar game here.
A common version of the three-finger pattern appears in Ex. 1.
Ex. 2 is the same, except that the notes from first beat and second beat are reversed. In other words, everything has been shifted by a quarter-note. The “pinched” (thumb plus finger) accent still falls on the beat—but it’s beat 2, not beat 1. If you can play Ex. 1, Ex. 2 should be pretty easy.
In Ex. 3, the pattern gets shifted by an eighth-note, so that the pinch falls on the “and” of beat 1. For the first time so far, no thumb notes fall on the downbeats. This can be quite tricky at first. Be sure to engage the metronome in SoundSlice (by touching the metronome in the control bar). Tapping a foot probably helps.
Again, Ex. 4 is the same as Ex. 3, but with the beat 1 and beat 2 notes swapped. Now the “pinch” appears on the “and” of beat 2.
So far, this is all fairly straightforward. Now comes the hard part.
The Hard Part
The next four examples shift the basic pattern by 16th-notes. This can be incredibly confusing at first. I simply couldn’t do it the first few times I tried. I had to write down the patterns and read them from the page until they started to feel natural.
Be certain to use the SoundSlice click track here, preferably while tapping a foot. Without a backing rhythm, you’ll probably hear these as if they were played on the beat.
In Ex. 5, the pinch accent falls on the second 16th-note of the first beat. It’s harder than it sounds! It may help to imagine a string of words to represent the target rhythm. If, for example, Ex. 1’s rhythm can be expressed as “Where are we sailin’, Sally?” then you could represent Ex. 5 with “Sally, the ship is sinking.”
Ex. 6 is the same, but with the first and second beats flipped, so the accent falls on the beat 2’s second 16th-note.
The final two variations are my faves, because their accents align with many African, Latin, and funk grooves. With the accent appearing on the fourth 16th-note of a beat, you get a kinetic “push” into the subsequent beat. It’s similar to the effect you get with strummed rhythm guitar parts where a chord changes on the 16th-note right before a downbeat.
In Ex. 7, the accent falls on the fourth 16th-note of the first beat.
Ex. 8 is the same as Ex. 7, but with the beats reversed. This is the only variation where no notes are struck on the downbeat of each measure.
Just Add Chords!
The remaining eight examples feature the same patterns as the first eight. As far as your picking hand is concerned, it’s the same stuff. But chord changes and fancier voicings may make these feel more like music than dry exercises. Ironically, I find this second set of exercises easier than the first, even though they demand more from your fretting hand. With chord changes, it’s easier to hear these patterns as grooves, as opposed to abstract permutations.
Displacement for Days
I hope these exercises break muscle-memory habits while inspiring new parts and grooves. Remember, the point isn’t the exercises—it’s the process. More often than not, you can generate new ideas from familiar ones by displacing them in time. Or to paraphrase the old Yardbirds song, shift them over, under, sideways, and down.
Epilogue: Are You Sure Merle Done It That Way?
A few words about the term “Travis picking”—the style is named for the brilliant Kentucky guitarist Merle Travis (1917-1983), who fused rhythms from ragtime and early blues into a hard-charging style that influenced Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, and countless others. However, much of what we nowadays call Travis picking departs from Travis’ actual style.
As a California kid ignorant of country music, I grew up thinking of Travis picking as the guitar patterns heard on such songs as Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” (More recent examples include Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” and Taylor Swift’s “Begin Again.”) It’s a soft, flowing style, usually involving the thumb (or a thumbpick) and two fingers. But Merle himself used only a thumbpick and his index finger, anchoring his remaining left-hand digits on the pickguard. He was also fond of striking multiple notes with thumb and finger. His style is aggressive and rocking, as seen in this video. Put some drums behind it, and we’d call it rockabilly. Still, all accented bass notes fall squarely on the downbeats.