Elements of Travis Picking

Friday, January 11, 2008

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 synco- pated 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 includ-ing 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.

We expect strong beats to fall on certain beats of the bar, such as the first or third beats. We are used to them falling at least squarely on one of the beats. When they don’t, a slight rhythmic hiccup develops, like this:

In this case, the notes with the accent marks (>) are stressed on the second half of the first and fourth beats, while the thumb bass plays squarely on the downbeat. This results in a syncopated rhythm.

To understand upbeats and downbeats, simply tap a four-beat rhythm with your fingers on a table. When the fingers go down to make the tap, that is the downbeat. When the fingers come up, the highest point reached marks the upbeat, the point halfway be-tween the main beats. If a conductor was beating the time, his baton would travel up for the upbeat.

Here is a tune to play that includes syncopation. Notice that the “and” beats (which have accent marks) cause the syncopated effect, so give them extra stress.

This type of syncopation is at the heart of the Travis picking style, where it is used to give bounce and rhythmic interest to the guitar accompaniment. Here are some examples to try using the C, F, and G7 chords:

When you play this example, let the notes ring until the chord changes. It would be more accurate to write it like this:

However, this seems a little harder to read, and the effect is exactly the same as long as the notes are held.
Now let’s add more movement:

The next example adds another pair of eighth notes to each measure.

In this example, we start the movement right on the first beat for a change.

Here is a good-sounding practice example with more chord changes.

Finally, here is a complete song to try in Travis style. Notice the following points when you play it:

  • The bass note of the chord can be alternated for variety. For example, in the first measure, instead of playing the low C twice, the low G is used.

  • Similarly, in the second measure, the D is used as bass on the first beat instead of using the G twice.

  • Different patterns can be mixed. For instance, the first and second measures use slightly different patterns.

  • The real secret is to keep experimenting. Try varying both the notes of the chord and the rhythm patterns.

"Careless Love"

Additional lyrics:
When I wore my apron low,
When I wore my apron low,
When I wore my apron low,
You promised me you’d never go.
Now I wear my apron high,
Now I wear my apron high,
Now I wear my apron high,
You pass my door and go right by.
I love my mom and daddy too,
I love my mom and daddy too,
I love my mom and daddy too,
But I’d leave them both and go with you.

This traditional American folk song is just perfect for Travis-style accompaniment. Remem-ber, there’s no “right” way to accompany this song. Try experimenting with different bass notes and patterns until you come up with something that appeals to you.


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