Learn the basics of Travis picking on guitar. Then explore Travis picking tabs, patterns & exercises to master this fingerpicking technique.
By Ben Nemeroff
Travis picking is a popular fingerpicking technique for guitar players. It gets its name from Merle Travis, an American country singer, songwriter, and guitarist—but it’s used in many different styles of music. The core concept of Travis picking is simple: you keep a steady beat with alternating bass notes using your thumb. At the same time, you use your index and/or middle fingers to play treble notes, often in a syncopated rhythm.
This technique is a great gateway to fingerstyle guitar for beginners. It will make it much easier to progress to more complex fingerpicking patterns in the future. Let’s get started with our lesson on the basics of Travis style picking.
Let’s start with this video lesson from Fender Play. Nikki will walk you through the basics of Travis picking and how to build a pattern from the ground up.
As you saw in the video, you’ll start by simply alternating bass notes with your thumb. To help you play along with Nikki, we’ve included the tabs for the patterns below.
Then use your thumb to pluck the bass notes, alternating between the 5th (A) and 4th (D) strings:
Pretty easy, right? Once you feel comfortable alternating bass notes with your thumb, introduce your middle finger. With this two-finger technique, you’ll use your middle finger to play the second string (B) in between bass notes. Here’s a tab to show you how that comes together when playing that same C chord:
Once you’ve got the hang of that, introduce your index finger. Now you’ve got three fingers in the mix. You can articulate more notes and build toward more interesting patterns. Your index finger will play the 3rd (G) string.
Depending on where you are in your musical journey, this may seem either too easy or a little tricky. If you’re struggling to get a clean sound, we have another great video lesson for you. Matt explains the concept of PIMA in fingerpicking, a way to know which finger on your plucking hand plays which note. He also provides some tips in the video on how to position your fingers and pluck properly.
Now that we’ve gone over the basics of Travis style fingerpicking, let’s try some exercises for building your finger dexterity. Apply the basic Travis picking pattern above while switching between the C and A Minor chords. Here’s what that looks like in a tab:
Pro Tip: It’s important to take the time to concentrate on your technique now so you don’t develop bad habits. Always start slowly with each exercise. Only when you’re playing it perfectly should you start to ramp up your speed.
Another way to exercise is to learn a song you love. You may feel inspired to take on bigger challenges and may progress more quickly. We were fortunate enough to team up with Leah Wellbaum from Slothrust for our Technique of the Week series on Instagram. She walks through the fingerpicking section of the Slothrust song, “Magnets, Pt. 2.” She expands upon some of the concepts we’ve discussed here and she demonstrates how fluid you can become with practice. If you watch Leah’s thumb, it’s simply going back and forth between the two bass note strings. It’s the way she alternates her index and middle fingers that makes it sound much more complex and melodic. She’ll also show you a common technique in which you pluck a bass note and a treble note at the same time. Check out the video and follow along with Leah for a challenge.
Pro Tip: Leah cites Elizabeth Cotten as an inspiration, and we couldn’t agree more. Cotten was one of the most influential guitarists in American folk music. As you continue to pursue fingerpicking, check out videos of Cotten's performances for ongoing inspiration.
Like any guitar technique, fingerpicking takes some time and practice. It may not feel natural right away, but soon your fingers will get more dexterous and the notes will start to flow. Within Fender Play, there are dozens of guitar technique lessons that build upon what we learned in this lesson. You’ll also be able to apply those skills to learning classics like “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. Spoiler alert: it uses Travis picking. Learning that song will definitely strengthen your fingers! What are you waiting for? Unlock our full library of songs and lessons with a free trial of Fender Play today.