Elements of Travis Picking
Once you can play and count two parts, it becomes possible to introduce a popular
style of guitar accompaniment often known as Travis picking. The name is used as
a tribute to Merle Travis, who popularized the style in the forties and fifties,
but the roots go back to the twenties, when enterprising guitarists such as Blind
Blake and Lonnie Johnson were seeking to reproduce the bounce of popular piano rags.
The piano style involved a regular bass pattern against which the melody moved with
dotted and off-beat notes to create a syncopated rhythm. The guitarists imitated
this by using the thumb to imitate the piano’s left hand while playing the contrasting
melody with the fingers, and some achieved a considerable degree of sophistication
with this technique. A famous rag by Lonnie Johnson was entitled “To Do This You
Gotta Know How,” and few would contest his claim.
Fingerpicking is most frequently associated with the steel-string acoustic guitar,
with thumb picks helping to emphasize the bass line. However, it can be played very
successfully on the Spanish guitar. Many fine singer-guitarists have favored this
style including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, James Taylor, and many, many others.
The technique differs from standard fingerstyle in that the thumb is sometimes
used on the third string when playing a repeated bass line. At the core of the style
is the bouncy off-beat style known as syncopation.