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(w/Pick & Fingers Technique)

For many styles of music where acoustic guitar plays a prominent role, busting out a bit o' Travis Picking—that is, using your pickhand's fingers (or fingers + thumbpick, hybrid picking, etc.) to create a steady 1/4-note bass line (that alternates between chord tones) and generate little melodies—might just be what the doctor ordered, if your song merits something other than routine chord strumming.

In case you're curious, the plucking technique known as “Travis Picking” is named in honor of the legendary Merle Travis, credited as being the first to popularize the approach. In addition to country, Travis Picking also worked its way into the Rockabilly sounds of early Elvis recordings, courtesy of the great Scotty Moore. In later years, everyone from Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Lenny Breau to acoustic crooners like James Taylor, Jim Croce, Dan Fogelberg, John Denver, and Lindsey Buckingham made big waves with this timeless approach. The technique has also surfaced in a variety of folk music recordings!

Without further ado, let's take a closer look at the mechanics involved in this often perplexing style. Hopefully by lesson's end you'll be on the road towards developing better rhythmic independence between your bass and melodic parts, and walk away with some useful pluckin' patterns! Let's git...

A Note On Hybrid Picking

Before we start, note that all of the examples presented in this lesson are played (and notated accordingly) using pick-and-fingers technique, a.k.a. hybrid picking—an approach that combines elements of fingerstyle and pick-style techniques. In contrast to traditional “classical” fingerstyle technique [where the thumb (p) is usually responsible for plucking the bottom three “wound” strings, while the index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers are reserved for strings 3-1, respectively], in “hybrid picking” the pick is viewed as a replacement for the plucking hand's thumb, while the middle (m), ring (a), and (sometimes) pinky (c) fingers are used to pluck the higher strings.

In a nutshell, throughout this lesson you'll be using the pick to play all the bass notes on strings 4-6 (using downstrokes throughout), while the pickhand's middle and ring fingers are used to pluck notes on the E, B, and G strings. The following graphic should help clarify the various “plucking hand” terms and symbols you'll see in this lesson:

So why hybrid picking? For starters, many steel-string acoustic stylists use pick-and-fingers technique as an alternative approach for “traditional” fingerstyle playing simply to minimize the risk of shredding their fingernails (if they also play nylon-string, for instance). Further, in the likely event the songs they play also contain standard strumming moves, funky riffs, or lead lines, having the pick already in hand provides more flexibility! Further, incorporating palm muting into the world of fingerstyle guitar is a tricky task. That's part of the reason authentic “Travis Pickers” often opt to use a thumbpick. However, given that most folks are not accustomed to using a thumbpick (let alone own one!), pick-and-fingers makes perfect sense. 'Nuff said!

Alternating Bass Lines

At the foundation of any Travis Picking pattern lies a steady 1/4-note bass line, largely derived from the root and fifth of each chord being played. Given that the vast majority of exercises and plucking patterns in this lesson will be applied to a basic, open-position C chord (a chord containing the notes C-E-G), it makes sense that we take a close look at a “C” chord's foundational bass line right away!

Below [Fig. 1A], you'll see a “C(root)-G(fifth)” bass pattern with notes sounding on beats “one” and “three.” To play this properly, begin by fretting an open-position “C” chord—where your fret hand's ring finger grabs the root (C) on the 5th string (3rd fret). Next, in playing Fig. 1A, switch this finger back and forth between the 5th and 6th strings, alternating between the “C” and “G” (3rd fret, 6th string) bass notes. Use your pick to play these (downstrokes throughout), picking them with slight palm muting for proper “Travis Picking” effect. (NOTE: Keep in mind that, for Travis Picking to sound “country”-like, palm muting is key. For this plucking style to sound more “at home” in genres like acoustic rock, folk, etc., simply refrain from palm muting.) In Fig. 1B our introductory bass pattern is beefed up into a “C-E-G-E” line, where a different chord tone is sounded on each beat. (Again, grab each of the notes on the 5th and 6th strings by moving your fret hand's ring finger back and forth.) With the exception of Fig. 13 (this lesson's final figure), all the examples in this lesson will be built upon this bass line (Fig. 1B), so you'd be best served to get this down till it feels automatic.

Adding A Single Melody Note

If one of your goals as a Travis Pickin' pupil is to be able to improvise using this revered plucking style, you'll want to get comfortable with as many different finger combinations (especially index and ring finger combos on different strings) and rhythms as possible—all the while keeping your bass line flowing flawlessly!

In Fig. 2A below, a single note (“C”) is added to our earlier bassline, plucked on each individual beat (in synch with the bass line) using the ring (a) finger. Meanwhile, Fig. 2B illustrates our new “C” note stated in half notes (that is, sustained for two beats each). This requires a subtle form of rhythmic independence between your picked bass notes (the 1/4 notes) and sustained melody notes (1/2 notes) because these notes are not all plucked simultaneously (as in the previous example). Basically, you don't want your picked bass notes to (1.) drown out the pitches on your 2nd string, (2.) prevent them from ringing, or (3.) force them to stop ringing. (NOTE: From here on out, our bassline will appear in “downstemmed” fashion, with melody notes written “upstemmed.” This is a form of divisi notation—a notational style used to clarify independent voices appearing on a single staff.)

Hemiola Effect
(The Next Step Towards Rhythmic Independence)

By engaging in a rhythmic effect referred to as hemiola—the rhythmic relation of three against two (or four)—your plucking hand fingers are forced to sound notes in a variety of combinations. Similar to a polyrhythm, the hemiola effect in Fig. 3 results from maintaining our ever-present four-note bass line, while plucking our “C” (1st fret, 2nd string) every three 1/4-note beats. Again, you're pitting three against four.

Meanwhile, the hemiola effect employed in Fig. 4 results from maintaining our familiar bass line while plucking our “C” (1st fret, 2nd string) every three eighth-notes.

Adding Another String to the Equation

With this next handul of exercises we'll break in our plucking hand's middle finger (m), using it to sound the open G string in a variety of different rhythmic combinations. Fig. 5A alternates between our familiar “C” note on beats “one” and “three,” squeezing in our new “G” on beats “two” and “four.” The roles of these two melody notes are reversed in Fig. 5B.

Now let's up the rhythmic ante and unload some eighth notes! Fig. 6A and Fig. 6B expand upon the previous pair of examples by alternating between our new “C” and “G” notes at a more rapid rate—pluckin' at a pace of two evenly-spaced notes per beat! Party!

Hemiola Effect Using Two Treble Strings
(Another Step Towards Rhythmic Independence)

In Fig. 7 below, our new set of notes are run through the ol' hemiola ringer—akin to the earlier Fig. 4, featuring treble strings plucked every three eighth notes over our groovy bass line.

Pattern #1 (w/variation)

Finally! If you've gotten this far, you've survived enough rhythmic nuttiness to really start soaking up some useful Travis Picking patterns! Keep in mind, all these “patterns” may also be adapted to other open chord shapes (you just gotta make sure you're grabbing the right chord tones for a functional bass line!)

Fig. 8A illustrates a tasty li'l pluckin' pattern, suitable for everything from subtle acoustic rock, to foot stompin' country!

Fig. 8B depicts a slight modification to the previous example, in that it grabs a note on the high E string—that means we've just added another note to our ever-evolving Travis pluckin' prowess!

Pattern #2 (w/variation)

Fig. 9A is another useful Travis Picking pattern using our fun li'l open-position C chord. Notice that, in this case, the majority of “melody” notes occur on the upbeats (the “and” portion of each beat).

In line with the logic of Figs. 8A-B, Fig. 9B is a variation that incorporates the open 1st string, providing us with three “melody” notes for your pluckin' pleasure!

Patterns #3 and #4

These last two plucking patterns involving the almighty “C” chord feature extra notes positioned along various strings, providing more melodic options.

In Fig. 10, the fretting hand's pinky is used to grab a “G” note on the high string (3rd fret). This particular note, which is a chord tone (“G” is a C chord's “fifth”), provides us with a wider range of arpeggio notes to draw from—different C-E-G notes, spread to the upper reaches of our axe (in open position).

A development of the previous figure, Fig. 11 takes our expanded C chord's range (again, featuring a “G” on the high string) and adds a scale tone—the note “D” (3rd fret, 2nd string)—into its equation. (HINT: Use your pinky for this note!) As you'll soon see, the more comfortable you get with the basic mechanics of Travis Picking (passages largely derived from notes in each chord's arpeggio), you'll fnd it easier to start incorporating other scale tones into the picture. For fun, experiment by weaving other notes from the C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) into the framework of this type of plucking pattern. [HINT: In this particular chord shape, some of the more “grabbable” melody notes might be F (1st fret, 1st string), D (3rd fret, 2nd string), and A (2nd fret, 3rd string).]

Pattern #5 (C7 Shape)

To wrap up our “pluckin' patterns,” here's a pretty involved passage used to outline a C7 chord [Fig. 12]. This chord, which adds a “b7” (the note “Bb,” courtesy of your fret-hand's pinky) to our basic C chord, is sonically more suited for country and blues. However, some famous classic rock songs—like the tasty Harry Nilsson nugget, “Coconut” (some of you may know this track as the closing cut in the film Reservoir Dogs)—revolve around this sound almost exclusively.

In addition to using notes straight out of a C7 chord's arpeggio (C-E-G-Bb), the example below adds melody notes like F (1st fret, 1st string; fretted w/index finger) and D (3rd fret, 2nd string; fretted w/pinky) to the equation. Note the “pull-off” on the second string in the final measure (beat “four”).

In the Style of Fleetwood Mac's “Landslide”

For fun, I reckon I'll close out this monster Travis Picking lesson with a little passage [Fig. 13] I created as a “solo interlude” for use in the classic Fleetwood Mac song, “Landslide.” (The tune's normally played with a capo at the 3rd or 5th fret... I forget!). This li'l arrangement features mucho melodicism along the upper strings (particularly the 2nd string), phrased with various hammer-ons/pull-offs for maximum ear-pleasing effect. Enjoy!

Like This 100% Free Acoustic Guitar Lesson?

To help support this site's free online guitar lessons, please check out my brand-new “full band” album of original compositions, MANNERISMS MAGNIFIED (now available through, iTunes and AMAZON.COM), featuring me performing all the instruments (voices, guitar, bass, real acoustic drums, piano, accordion, and mandolin). I also produced, arranged, engineered, and did all the artwork/illustrations—intimate audio AND visual, lol! (Details can be seen in my YouTube: ALBUM PREVIEW/documentary.) I’d love to hear your thoughts! Thank you :)

For More Travis Picking...

If you're hankerin' for more Travis Picking, there is a pretty massive amount of Travis Picking patterns in a book I did called THE GUITARIST'S SURVIVAL KIT (pages 13-15). Tons of open-position ones, for virtually every “normal” chord, as well as a big section on fully-fretted, moveable versions (tricky!). The level of difficulty ranges from intermediate to pretty darned advanced. There are 11 totally unique chord patterns in all, each at least two bars long! Hope you like...

The Guitarist's Survival Kit Written by Dale Turner. For guitar. Includes instructional book and examples cd. With introductory text, instructional text, musical examples (tab and standard notation) and guitar chord diagrams. Instructional. 48 pages. 9x12 inches. Published by Hal Leonard. (HL.695380)
See more info...

See also...

Merle Travis Rare Performances 1946-1981 Vol. 1 performances by Merle Travis. For Guitar (Fingerpicking). concert/documentary. Grossman-Gtr Workshop. Country. Video. Size 4x7.5. Duration 60 minutes. Published by Grossman's Guitar Workshop. (95243VX)
See more info...

Merle Travis-Sixteen Tons Rare Performances 1946-1981, Vol. 2. by Merle Travis. For Guitar (Fingerpicking). concert/documentary. Vestapol. Country. Level: Intermediate. Video. Size 4.13x7.5. Duration 60 minutes. Published by Grossman's Guitar Workshop. (95901VX)
See more info...

The Real Merle Travis Guitar Performed by Merle Travis. Homespun Tapes (Instructional). Video cassette. Size 4.7x8 inches. Published by Homespun Video. (641014)
See more info...

Merle Travis Guitar Style by Merle Travis and Tommy Flint. For Guitar (Fingerpicking). method. Non-Series. Country. Level: Beginning-Intermediate. Book/CD Set. Size 8.75x11.75. 176 pages. Published by Mel Bay Publications, Inc. (93344BCD)
See more info...

The Merle Travis Collection Performed by Merle Travis. Guitar Recorded Versions (Authentic note-for-note transcriptions). With notes and tablature. Size 9x12 inches. 96 pages. Published by Hal Leonard. (690233)
See more info...


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Dale Turner (2003)