Merle Travis, born in 1917 in Rosewood, Kentucky who was extremely successful singer songwriter with hits such as “Sixteen Tons”, “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke that Cigarette!”. However, his development of the guitar style now known as Finger Picking is perhaps his greatest legacy.
During his early years Travis was influenced by the black country blues guitarist of the day and often quoted Mose Rager as a direct influence on his style.
Travis used the thumb and index finger to produce a driving rhythmic sound which complimented his vocal lines and also allowed him to play his own instrumental breaks. This was achieved by playing the bass line with his thumb, and an often syncopated melodic line played with his index finger. The Travis Picking style is based on a repeated pattern, and once mastered on one chord, can be easily applied to any chord progression.
As you will notice when playing the examples following the style uses only the thumb and index finger with the occassional use of the middle finger. The ring finger is rarely used in true Travis Picking but many other offshoots of this basic style use all three right hand finger and thumb to great effect.
The example below is based on an open D Major chord. The patterns can be used individually or in combination for a more interesting feel.
Right hand fingering used in the next example are based on the standard classical guitar conventions. Thumb is indicated by a (P) and Index is shown as (i). To learn more on these fingering indicators click here. Left and Right Hand Fingering.
Start slowly before building up to a brisk tempo. Many examples of these patterns can be found in contemporary music. e.g. “Dust in the Wind”, “Landslide”.
Twelve Bar Blues progression in D Major. Notice in this example the string set combination changes on the G Major and A Major chord but the pattern remains constant throughout.
If you would like to try another Travis Style piece, you can download an arrangement of Landslide written by Stevie Nicks, and performed by Fleetwood Mac. The song relies heavily on the distinctive finger picking guitar part based on Travis style.