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A Look at Travis Picking
Difficulty Rating: Intermediate
Lesson by: Kirk Lorange
Here's a look at some "Travis Picking". The steady bass pattern with added lines above style of playing is named after Merle Travis who is the master and he does it with thumb and just one finger. Paste his name into YouTube's search slot and check him out. Chet Atkins and my old pal Tommy Emmanuel are great Travis pickers also, of course. I think Tommy calls it "Boom-Chick" style.
The lesson here is not as basic as it gets, in fact it's quite challenging, but if you simply take your time, it all comes together eventually. By "time" I mean days and weeks, not minutes or hours. This is all about thumb/finger independence, and it can drive you nuts at first. As soon as you even just start getting a little loco, stop, take a break and come back to it. The aim is to keep it all as precise as possible at the beginning so that you really are disciplining those fingers to do what YOU want, not what they want. Once you get the feel for it, of course, you can begin to play around with it.
I've based this around the I-IV-V chords of the key of E, so E, A and B7. There's a little diminished chord thrown-in near the end, but chord-wise, it's pretty straight forward. This kind of playing is all based around chord shapes and this tune use very well known open shapes. If you buy the downloadable lesson, you'll see those shapes on the virtual fretboard anchoring down all the notes that come into play.
The bass line
Everything hinges off the bass line. It plows through it all, relentlessly thumping out that 4 on the floor bass line. The pattern uses the three bass strings for each chord, and the first note is always the root. The tab shows the bass line notes as pale orange. You'll hear in this lesson that I've played one measure of bare bass line followed by second measure with the added syncopated line above. The most important thing to realize is that the bass line in the second measure is exactly the same as the first time through.
So, before you even attempt to add the lines above, just get that bass line happening. Play over and over ... and over. Not only is the pattern tricky to get down pat, the way it feels is also crucial. That steady but bouncy vibe needs to pin it all down. Most Travis pickers use a thumb pick, in fact would no doubt tell you "it ain't Travis pickin' if you don't wear a thumb pick", but I do it without anyway, when I do it, which is very rarely. I had to spend quite a while getting my fingers re-accustomed for this lesson. I'm still a long way off.
The other bits
The little lines that appear every second bar are the tricky bits. To get them fitting into the feel without letting the steady bass line falter is no mean feat, but once you do get it, it's yours forever. So long as you practice daily! They are little phrases, and the notes they use are also a big part of this flavor. In this little invention, I've used notes that color each chord. The E uses chord tones and a 6, so the overall flavor is E6; the B7 uses chord tones and a 9, so the overall flavor is 9th; the A is weird, it uses a flat 3 in a major chord, a real clashing sound going between the b3 and 3, but done on purpose in this case to give it that twangy hillbilly sound. It's a bit of a stretch, reaching for that b3 ... persist.
I suggest you look at those little phrases separately like you've done for the bass line. Learn them exactly and really listen to them on their own so you really do know them well.
Playing it all together
There's only one way to get the whole thing working together, that's to take it very s-l-o-w-l-y. When you feel confident that you know the bass line like the back of your hand, and the phrases like the back of your other hand, start working on playing them both at once. The tab will always be there to remind you of what finger pluck goes with which thumb pluck. You'll see by the tab that there are lone thumb moves, lone finger moves and dual moves, where the thumb and finger plucks at the same time. The essence of this style is to get those three elements working together.
The end bit
You'll see at the end that I break away from the pattern completely and play a little ending passage. I do like to end things off, so if you want to learn it, it's there. Don't get too hung up on it though, the main thing to learn here is the feel and patterns associated with this style. If you get into it, you can turn any tune ever written into one of these. Tommy and Chet do it all the time. There isn't a tune written that can't be broken down into these elements and Travis picked. The phrases simply become the melody line of whatever tune.
The tune I've done here is more of an accompaniment than a melodic tune; the video below will show you how it can work with another player. The other player is me in this case, playing the dobro; the picking guitar is the one in this lesson. I call it "You Don't Say" because the interplay between the two reminded me of a couple of housewives gossiping over the back fence. Notice that the slide lines occur over the bare bass line, leaving holes for the phrases on the acoustic to answer back.
A Look at Travis Picking - TAB