Travis Picking: Very Basic




Introduction: Travis Picking: Very Basic

   The goal of this Instructable is to give a very basic introduction to Travis picking.  By no means should anyone consider this material comprehensive or authoritative. I did not go to music school nor did I study the guitar anywhere or under anyone. I've been playing for twenty years or so and these are just a few things I picked up along the way. 
    As a very brief introduction, Travis picking is named after guitar player Merle Travis. His style of playing forms the basis for a lot of fingerstyle guitar.
   As far as necessary equipment, all you need is a guitar and your hands. It helps to have long fingernails on your right hand but is by no means necessary. You can also buy fingerpicks at most music stores.

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Step 1: Conventions

      Some of you probably know some of this this stuff already, but just in case, I thought I'd repeat it here briefly. For those of you who already know how to read tab and form a few basic chords, feel free to skip ahead to step three.
     Before we start playing, here a just a few conventions concerning the left and right hand fingers. The fingers on the left hand are numbered 1 = index finger, 2 = middle finger, 3 =  ring finger, and 4 =  pinky. For the right hand, letters are usually used to differentiate differentiate the digits: P = The Thumb, i = index finger, m = middle finger, a = ring finger, and s = pinky. I added some tags to the photos below to illustrate this.
    Also worth mentioning is that for the example paterns, I've always used the C/G chord. My thinking was that it would be better to see the variations in the same chord. At the bottom of the page I have tabbed out the picking patterns for the rest of the chords which are A, E, G and D.
   Another convention that needs to be addressed is the string numbering. The strings are numbered one through six with six being the lowest toned string and one being the highest. I'll be using standard tuning which translates to tuning the strings in the following manner.
  Again I tagged the photo of the neck to make this a little clearer.
  I'll also mention tablature here. For those of you who haven't seen this before, tablature is basically music for people who can't read music. I think it's a godsend.  There are six lines, each of which represents a string on the guitar. The numbers on these lines represent which fret you should play.
     Also worth mentioning is that I was unable to figure out a way in which the tab's appear in larger print. If you click on the "i" box and choose Large, you get a more readable version.

Step 2: Chords

   Here are some pictures of the chords I tabbed out as well as some box depictions of them.  The pictures are pretty self-explanatory. The number in the circle represents which numbered finger on your left hand should be located at that spot on the guitar fretboard.
   I've included A/E, C/G, D/A, E, and G. I chose the C/G chord form for a video demonstration for the various patterns. Each step has a short video of me playing the pattern in C/G.
    You can Travis pick any chord but it would be impossible and pointless to show examples of too many more than this. Part of the fun of playing is figuring stuff out for yourself, so go ahead and do that.

Step 3: The Incredible Bouncing Thumb

  The first thing we'll play is what I'll refer to as "The Bouncing Thumb". I've provided the tablature for the usual chords and a short video performed with the C/G chord. Again, sorry about the size of the tab. You can get a better picture by clicking on the "i" and choosing large 
   You'll need to finger a C/G chord. Now with your right hand, you'll play the following strings using the thumb only. The picking pattern by string number is 5-4-6-4.
   This pattern with the thumb will be in every pattern, so spend as much time as is necessary to become fluent with it. 
   After you've mastered the C/G chord, move on to the other chords. When you're able to play all of them smoothly separately, begin to practice chord transitions, for example pick C for two measures, then G for two measures. Repeat until it sounds good. Don't lie to yourself. You'll know when it's good enough.

Step 4: Pattern One

   I'm assuming you've now spent weeks studying the aforementioned bouncing thumb technique and have mastered it. I'm sure no one even thought of skipping ahead.
   For those who did skip ahead, here's the proof that you need to practice that thing. Remember, this is the easy one.
   Some of you no doubt will in fact learn this pretty quick. I'll be honest and admit that it took me quite a long time to become reasonably fluid.
  They say a picture's worth a thousand words and I have no idea what a moving one is worth. That said, I'll try my best to explain what's going on here, but I think the video and tablature go a long way in explaining things.
   Again, I'll use the C/G chord as an example. Essentially, as you're playing the bouncing thumb pattern, 5-4-6-4, you play the highest two string,1 and 2, the same time you play the fourth string. I'm sure there's some rule somewhere about which two fingers you should use, but I'm not aware of it, so I'll say use any two that you're comfortable with. I tend to use the "m" and "a" fingers.(see picture below)

Step 5: Pattern Two

   This pattern is just a little bit trickier. As always you will have the bouncing thumb accompaniment. Again, I'll take the C/G chord as my example. 
   This time you'll be picking the two high strings, 1 and 2,  independently of each other.  Again, feel free to use whatever fingers feel most comfortable. As the thumb plays its usual 5-4-6-4 pattern(in C/G) you'll want to pick the second string with your "m" finger right before your thumbs picks the fourth string. At the same moment your thumb picks the fourth string, your "a" finger should pick the 1 string. Immediately after this, and before you thumb hits anything else, your "m" finger should pick the 2 string again. 
   Again the tablature and video do more than words can.

Step 6: Pattern Three

   The last pattern I'll show you uses synchopation. As per usual,  I'll consider the C/G chord with the accompanying 5-4-6-4 thumb line. This time, after you hit the 4 string with your thumb, you sound strings 1 and 2 simultaneously with the "m" and "a" fingers. The overall sound should be somewhat bouncy. Again, the video and tablature illustrate the process better than words can.

Step 7: Conclusion

   This is of course, not even close to everything there is to know about Travis picking. There are many more patterns and techniques out there. A google search returned over 4 million sites related to Travis picking.
   I would recommend practicing with a metronome at least at the beginning. As with most things, start slow and then speed up.
   I feel I should mention here that I used the software Power Tab Editor 1.7 to construct the tablature. It is available to download for free at

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    4 Discussions


    This is also reffered to flat picking, except flat picking tends to bemore of a roll thing with your right hand. Flat picking is heavy incowboy and traditional mexican music, ie mariachi.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

          Octopuscabbage:  Travis picking and flatpicking are the complete opposite.  I may be taking your comment out of context, but regardless; flatpicking is played using a pick, no rolling with your fingers. Travis picking is a type of fingerstyle.  Hybrid methods have many different names, if that's what you're talking about.

          As for the 'ible:  While I'm not in need of learning how to travis pick, as I've listened to enough Chet in my day to pick it up, but I do have one problem:  The dependence on tablature. 
         At some point, one has to use their ear and pick things out themselves.  I too started out with a few patterns, but after years of playing, you achieve complete finger independence, instead of said patterns.  I would suggest adding a link or two to a video, and telling the reader to figure out the bass part and the melody independently, and trying to meld the two together, instead of the numbers on a line approach.  Just my two cents (I have a personal vendetta against reliance on notated music, in case it isn't apparent...).


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Ah I understand what your saying, Being taught by my dad that what i had been doing was called flat picking.

    But its still cool.

    The way ive always started is by taking a chord, say e, and then travis picking it.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Very nicely done.  Thank you for taking the time to do this.