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Introduction to Travis Picking

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One of the favorite styles among folk guitarists is called Travis picking. It is named for Merle Travis, a country guitarist who was one of the early developers of the style (Doc Watson was so impressed he named his son Merle).

The term “Travis picking” is used to describe a wide variety of fingerpicking styles, but generally it is a style of fingerpicking that involves a steady rhythm of bass notes played with the thumb while the 1st (index) and 2nd (middle) fingers play the melody on the treble notes (the higher strings).

Pictured below are the first eight measures of a Travis picking arrangement of Red River Valley. Notice that the thumb plays a constant alternating bass pattern, playing a bass note on each beat in each measure. At the same time, the 1st and 2nd fingers are picking out the melody of the song on the higher strings. This is a little like the “Melody & Accompaniment” arrangements that you learned earlier, but now instead of playing either the melody or the accompaniment you are now playing the melody and the accompaniment at the same time. This takes a considerable amount of time to get comfortable with and you may want to wait until you are comfortable with chord changes, strums, etc., before tackling this, but if you decide to work on this from the very beginning, that’s fine too.

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You will notice that on the chord diagrams the dots have been replaced by the numbers of the left-hand fingers that you should be using to hold down the chords. There are various fingerings that can be used in holding chords, but the ones recommended below are usually your best choice with Travis picking. For example, the G chord could be held with fingers 1, 2, and 3 (and usually are by beginners) but using fingers 2, 3, and 4 will make switching to and from the C chord much easier as well as free up you index finger to play something else when the need arises.

The right-hand fingering is added below the tablature staff to guide you in using the correct fingering:
T=Thumb     I=Index Finger     M=Middle Finger

Click here if you would like to go to the full Travis picking arrangement of Red River Valley.