Video Lesson: Generating New Ideas from Travis Picking

If you have spent any amount of time exploring the world of fingerstyle guitar, you no doubt have heard of Travis picking. (For a refresher, see “The Nuts and Bolts of Travis Picking”) Named after the country-and-western guitarist Merle Travis, it’s a popular style of fingerpicking that has since worked its way into the hands of many guitarists in all styles.

With a solid understanding of the fundamentals, you can begin to view Travis picking not just as a series of static patterns, but also as an approach that can be altered to fit your own style. This lesson will help you employ your existing Travis-picking skills as a tool to develop your playing in a more personalized and creative way.

Throughout this month, keep in mind that a common pitfall when referring to anything as a pattern—whether it be fingerpicking or strumming—is you may begin to believe there is only one correct way to play it. Starting to view patterns as merely templates from which to expand on can help you break out of monotonous ruts and provide a foundation for setting out on your own musical explorations.

Week One

While it’s true that Travis picking is an alternating-bass style, modifying the mechanics of your picking hand can lead to a new expanse of musical ideas. This week is about keeping your thumb on one string, rather than alternating between two or three, as is common with Travis picking.

Example 1a shows a common variation of the pattern as applied to an A chord. The thumb alternates between strings 5 and 4, and the index and middle finger are assigned to the treble strings. Looking ahead at Examples 2a–3b, note how the thumb changes to accommodate the chords with the root on the fourth and sixth strings, respectively. If you are new to Travis picking, practice Ex. 1a with other first-position chords to familiarize yourself with the general picking principles.


Example 1b retains the same idea on the treble strings, the only difference being the thumb isn’t alternating. As the thumb still plays each quarter note on the downbeat, the motion of that finger is essentially identical. Take time to note how these simple changes can yield an entirely different sound and feel.

Example 1c hints at new melodic ideas on the treble strings with the addition of the flatted seventh, G. The series in Examples 2a–b applies the same idea to D and D7 chords, while Examples 3a and 3b are based on E and E7 chords. When you’re comfortable with the variations, plug them into a simple progression, such as a 12-bar blues in the key of your choosing.

Beginners’ Tip #1

If you are unable to maintain independence between your thumb and fingers, slow down and pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s always a good idea to check in with a metronome at a slow tempo, say 40–50 bpm, and make sure your thumb is aligned with the click.

Week Two

You can make slight variations to the Travis pattern in order to accommodate different time signatures. If you have yet to explore playing in a meter like 3/4 or 6/8, a common way to get started is by playing arpeggios, as demonstrated in the simple repeating patterns of Example 4—great for providing rhythmic accompaniment in the key of A minor. Try picking each bass note on beat 1 with your thumb, followed by your index and middle or index, middle, and ring fingers.

For arranging a melody—or a more dynamic accompaniment sound—try some patterns like those shown in Example 5, a short progression also in A minor. Notice that the thumb picks the root on beat 1, and then the fifth or octave on beats 2 and 3. You could also play one bass note per bar—use the pattern established in Example 6 and duplicate it across the melody in Ex. 5.

After you’ve developed some familiarity with these ideas, try applying these techniques to other chords you know and see what you come up with on your own. Again, it’s important to remember that these examples are merely suggestions.

Beginners’ Tip #2

A time signature of 3/4 indicates there are three beats per bar instead of four, as in 4/4 or common time. To get used to 3/4, also known as waltz time, strum the chords while counting aloud.

Week Three

Up to this point, you’ve focused on picking-hand variations. Now, you’ll home in on the fretting hand. One of the ergonomic benefits of fingerstyle guitar is that you can pare down your chord shapes, playing just the necessary strings with your picking hand. Thanks to the fretboard’s redundancy—meaning the same notes repeat in several locations—there’s a staggering number of voicing possibilities for any given chord. The only limits are your patience and willingness to venture into the uncharted territories of the fretboard.

For Example 7, tune to dropped D in order to explore D major triads (remember, chords having three different notes) on the top three strings. As you play this figure, pay attention to how the notes of the picking hand change slightly within each chord shape. This is just a gentle reminder that the pattern is not set in stone. With further study, you can also integrate these ideas with minor chords by considering which string has the third on it, and then lowering it a half step, or one fret.


Now trying playing Ex. 7 again, but using the D minor voicings shown in Example 8. Although the notion of music theory can be intimidating to some, taking time to learn and understand triads will go a long way. For those interested, a great place to get started is Gretchen Menn’s series of Basics lessons in recent issues.

Beginners’ Tip #3

Dropped D—the same as standard tuning, but with a low D instead of E—offers an easy introduction to alternate tunings. To quickly drop your sixth string to D without a tuner, use the open fourth string (which is also D, but an octave higher) as a reference point.

Week Four

A convenient way to add harmonic interest and movement to simple chord progressions is to explore inversions and non-chord tones in the bass. Still in dropped D, Example 9 is a short progression with three measures of D and one bar of G, wherein each measure features a different note of the D major scale in the bass. Thus, you have a progression of D–D/E–D/F#–G.

Starting in the fifth measure, the example repeats with a similar idea in the bass, but the notes on the treble strings have been changed slightly for added melodic variations. As with all new ideas, don’t be overly concerned with getting it “right.” Remember to make sure you are listening and connecting with the music you are making. Inversions are a simple yet powerful concept that can inspire a whole new chordal vocabulary—a terrific asset for Travis picking.

Hopefully, you will soon start incorporating this lesson’s Travis-inspired ideas into your repertoire. For example, if you’ve got a song that you’ve been strumming, see if you can figure out a fingerpicking alternative. And if any of the ideas presented this month have flummoxed you, do not despair. Take joy in embracing the inherent mutability in music, and delight in those moments of unknown, for it is then that you may begin to hear your own musical voice. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey.

Beginners’ Tip #4

An inversion means the lowest note you are playing in the chord is something other than the root. So a D/F# chord, for instance, is a D triad with the third, F#, as the lowest note.



The expressiveness of guitar playing is greatly enhanced by slides and pull-offs, like the articulations in this etude. Start with a slide into a D chord in the first position, followed by a quick change to a D7 and then a fragment of a D chord at the seventh fret. Play the fifth-fret root of the G7 chord in measure 5 with your third finger, and use your first and fourth fingers for the notes at frets 3 and 6, respectively. Strive to play everything as smoothly as possible. 

Jamie Stillway is a fingerstyle soloist and educator in Portland, Oregon.


This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Jamie Stillway
Jamie Stillway

Based in the Pacific Northwest, Jamie Stillway is an in-demand instructor, and her unique, minimalist compositions and elegant guitar style have inspired players all over the globe.

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