One of the most interesting guitar styles is “Travis picking” which, when played well allows one guitarist to sound like two by playing the melody on the treble strings of the guitar plus the accompaniment on the bass strings.
Merle Travis is known for two things, the hit song of the fifties, “Sixteen Tons” and the “Travis picking” guitar playing style. He was a prolific songwriter and was more famous generally for his songs while other guitar players were blown away by his guitar style. Travis used only his thumb and first finger to pick the guitar strings but his playing was so intricate sounding that many guitarists assumed he was using two or three fingers to pick out his melodies.
When you begin to learn Travis picking you can choose whether or not to use a thumbpick or just your thumbnail. Merle Travis himself used a thumbpick but lots of guitar players find thumbpicks awkward to use. The chief characteristic of the Travis picking sound is the regular line of bass notes which sounds like a separate guitar playing bass. Also if you prefer to play a nylon string acoustic guitar, that is okay because it is the effect of the thumb and fingers working together that is important.
To start Travis picking put your left hand pinky on the sixth string at the third fret, your ring finger on the fifth string at the third fret and your index finger on the second string at the first fret:
Start by playing the strings as an arpeggio to see how they sound, then use your thumb to pick out a slow but steady bass pattern. Start on the G note on the sixth string and then on the open G on the third string. Next pick the fifth string and then the open third string again. So now you have played a bar of four bass notes: G G C G. Play each of these notes with your thumb until you can hear that ringing bass pattern in your playing.
Now you can add melody notes using the other fingers. The tab below is a suggested picking pattern making use of two melody playing techniques. One is fitting the melody notes between the bass notes and the other is plucking the melody notes simultaneously with the bass notes. Plucking two notes together is quite a different feeling from alternating notes on thumb and fingers so you will need a little practice to get it all flowing smoothly.
You will eventually get tired of playing the same chord so feel free to start working on Travis picking using the D, E or whatever chord takes your fancy. If you finger an E major chord you could make a bass line consisting of the E on the open sixth string, the E on the fourth string, the B on the fifth string and then the open E again. With this pattern use your index finger of your right hand to play any melody notes you can fit in and then use the first, second and third fingers to try plucking melody notes at the same time as bass notes to see how it sounds.
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