Travis Picking Deconstructed

You have probably heard it in a song before, as it is a widely used pattern in popular music.

Travis Picking is named after it’s creator; Merle Travis. It involves playing a steady bass note pattern with the thumb alternating between 2 bass notes. And is filled out by some syncopated rhythms with the other fingers, usually on the higher strings of the guitar.

For simplicities sake, we are going to start out with one guitar chord, which we are going to fret for the whole tutorial, all the focus here will be on the strumming hand. We will use a simple chord, A Minor. Once you are fretting A Minor all the attention for the reminder of this tutorial will be on the strumming/picking hand.

Step 1: Fret The Chord of A Minor


1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
| 0--------------- |
| 1--------------- |
| 2--------------- |
| 2--------------- |
| 0--------------- |
| 0--------------- |

Step 2: The Alternating Bass Notes

This is the foundation of this technique. First you must develop a steady rhythm with the alternating bass notes, plucking them with your thumb. Pluck the Open A first and then the 2nd Fret on the D String. At this point you should only be using your thumb plucking back and forth in a steady rhythm. It’s important that you get a rhythm of “1 and 2 and 3 and 4″, hitting the notes on the 1, 2, 3, 4; because as we add more notes the rhythm will be harder to keep.


| 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + | 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
| ---------------- | ---------------- |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |
| ----2-------2--- | ----2-------2--- |
| 0-------0------- | 0-------0------- |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |

Step 3: Adding A Pinch

This is called a pinch. As you pluck down on the A String with your thumb, you also pluck the 1st Fret of the B String with your middle finger.


| 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + | 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |
| 1--------------- | 1--------------- |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |
| ----2-------2--- | ----2-------2--- |
| 0-------0------- | 0-------0------- |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |

Step 4: Your First Syncopation

Now here comes the fun part. We are going to add a note right between the alternating bass notes. Remember your rhythm should be the same. 1, 2, 3, 4 but there is an eighth note between the first 2 quarter beats, played with the index finger.


| 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + | 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
| ---------------- | ---------------- |
| 1--------------- | 1--------------- |
| --2------------- | --2------------- |
| ----2-------2--- | ----2-------2--- |
| 0-------0------- | 0-------0------- |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |

Step 5: Your Second Syncopation

Now you just basically keep adding notes. So after you hit the second alternating bass note you put another note in before the 3rd bass note; all the while keeping the rhythm intact. It helps to count out loud or tap your foot, “1 and 2 and 2 and 4 and…”.


| 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + | 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |
| 1-----1--------- | 1-----1--------- |
| --2------------- | --2------------- |
| ----2-------2--- | ----2-------2--- |
| 0-------0------- | 0-------0------- |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |

Step 6: The Last Syncopation

Again we are adding another note between the 3rd and the 4th beat. Keep in mind that the 2 lowest notes are plucked with the thumb, the G String notes are always plucked with the middle finger and the B String notes are always plucked with the Index finger.


| 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + | 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |
| 1-----1--------- | 1-----1--------- |
| --2-------2----- | --2-------2----- |
| ----2-------2--- | ----2-------2--- |
| 0-------0------- | 0-------0------- |
| ---------------- | ---------------- |

Your Finished

There you go. These are the basics of Travis Picking. The patterns and chord changes can get alot more complex. The pinch and syncopation can change throughout a patterm. and you can combinine Travis Picking with other techniques such as hammer-ons to make it even more dynamic. But most patterns follow this basic technique. I suggest just sticking with one pattern until you master it, then look around for other patterns and songs to play that utilize this technique.