After my students develop a solid right hand setup and technique, I introduce them to what is arguably the most common fingerpicking style in popular music: Travis picking.
Named after the legendary country guitarist, Merle Travis, Travis picking is a pattern-oriented style of fingerpicking that can be heard in songs like “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel (and later Mumford and Sons), “Landslide” and “Never Going Back Again” by Fleetwood Mac, “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, and “Little Black Submarines” by The Black Keys.
Because of the “looped” nature of the picking pattern, the Travis style creates a beautiful bed of sound over which to sing or play a melody. For this reason, it is often used to accompany a singer, making it a sort of fingerstyle equivalent to strumming.
All guitarists – and certainly all acoustic players – can benefit from the mastery of basic Travis patterns. So let’s drop the plectrum and start fingerpicking, Travis style!
Travis picking success is based on an understanding of the following fundamental concepts:
1 – It is a “thumb-driven” style. Each pattern leads with the thumb, plays a steady bass line, and typically alternates with the fingers.
2 – It is common to use the thumb, plus fingers 1 and 2, but NOT finger 3.
3 – The thumb and fingers are usually assigned to strings within a string set.
STRING SETS AND FINGER ASSIGNMENTS
A string set refers to the combination of strings in use at a given time.
For example, you may play a picking pattern over a root-5 chord (like C) that primarily uses strings 5-4-3-2. In this case, that combination of strings would be the basic string set.
Once you’ve determined the string set for a chord, you can assign the fingers to specific strings. It’s pretty common to use a four-string set in Travis style (like the set 5-4-3-2 above), so the fingers are usually assigned as follows:
- Thumb plays the lowest string
- Thumb also plays the second lowest string
- Finger 1 plays the second highest string
- Finger 2 plays the highest string
Other root-5 chords like the A family (A, Am, A7) and the B family (Bm, B7) typically follow this string set as well.
When playing root-6 chords – like the E family (E, Em, E7) and the G family (G, G7) – the string set often changes to 6-4-3-2. Notice that it’s identical to the root-5 set, except for the lowest string.
Root-4 chords, like D or Fmaj7, usually use the string set 4-3-2-1. Finger assignments are identical to the root-5 string set.
[IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I don’t mean to imply that you must strictly adhere to any string set. Often players will deviate strategically from the string set, either with the thumb or fingers. However, this is a case of “know the rules before you break them”, so I recommend working within the string set first. I’ll give you examples for variations later.]
Basic Travis Patterns
Now that you understand the fundamental concepts of the Travis style, let’s turn our attention to the two basic patterns on which the entire style is built: “inside-outside” and “outside-inside”.
The words “inside” and “outside” refer here to the order of the fingers in the pattern.
Since finger 1 is on the string closer to the middle, or “inside”, of the fretboard, it is considered the “inside” finger. By contrast, finger 2 is on the string closer to the edge, or “outside”, of the fretboard, making it the “outside” finger. Therefore, the naming of the pattern tells you which finger plays first and which finger plays second.
The “inside-outside” pattern is played in four steps as follows:
1 – Thumb on lowest string
2 – “Inside” finger (finger 1) on its assigned string
3 – Thumb on second lowest string
4 – “Outside” finger (finger 2) on its assigned string
The “outside-inside” pattern is played similarly, but with the opposite order of fingers:
1 – Thumb on lowest string
2 – “Outside” finger (finger 2) on its assigned string
3 – Thumb on second lowest string
4 – “Inside” finger (finger 1) on its assigned string
Simply grab the chord of your choice, assign the thumb and fingers to the appropriate strings based on your desired string set, and play through the pattern repeatedly, as a rhythmic loop.
It is standard practice to play one pattern or the other in a song, not both, although there are no hard and fast rules. From a practical standpoint, mixing the patterns can be a bit confusing, but I have played a few songs that had mixed sections. My recommendation would be to master each one separately. Then, if you’re feeling frisky, try mixing them up. 🙂
[FUN EAR TRAINING POINT: If you are trying to figure out a Travis-picked song by ear and aren’t sure which pattern is being used, listen for the highest note (“outside” finger 2). If it plays immediately after the first bass note, then you know you have outside-inside. If it’s played last in the pattern, you know it’s inside-outside.]
The following are a few Travis examples for you to work on. Note that the string set will change with each chord.
[WEIRD GRAPHICS NOTE: For the first four bars of the first example, each chord’s pattern ends in a 16th note tied to a half note. I did it this way so the last note would ring out for two beats and give you a chance to gather your thoughts for the next chord. Unfortunately, due to some tablature software weirdness, the examples are not showing the tie mark between those two notes. Bottom line: let the last note of each pattern ring, then move on. The final two bars are meant to be played without a break in the action.]
The first example is the “inside-outside” pattern using G, Cadd9, D and Em:
The second example is “outside-inside” using Em, G, D and Cadd9. Note that I stop on the thumb on the final two chords to let the pattern breathe a bit and make the transition easier:
If your idea of “fingerpicking” used to be moving your fingers randomly through the strings, then this lesson was probably a major wakeup call! Hope you enjoyed it and got some insight into professional fingerstyle patterns.
In our next Travis installment we’ll take it up a notch by incorporating a very common technique known as the “pinch”. See you next time!