The Woodshed

Travis picking, is there any hope?


Am I the only guy who has watched a ton of youtube lessons on Travis picking and is still struggling? Who else had a challenge learning how to Travis pick and how did you over-come it?

I can do the bass, I can do all sorts of nice melodies but putting them together is proving to be a real challenge for me. At this point I'm planning to spend a week or how ever long it takes doing the most crude and minimal picking and hope in time I can add more to it.


A key to learning any kind of fine motor skill activity is to do the passage at a very slow speed without increasing the tempo until you have fully mastered it. Then increase the tempo somewhat and rinse and repeat, increasing the tempo in small increments until you can eventually play the passage at normal tempo.

The other key is repetition, repetition, repetition.


a week!! haha..come back in a decade my friend!

those guys worked on it a lifetime..travis nicked it from the everly brothers dad..ike.. these guys had guitar in hand their whole existence on earth!! hah

if its how your meant to play they'll be no other way

luck..(but be yourself too!)



Just kidding. It does take a lot of patience though.


It takes some time to get the thumb and fingers working together. When I started it took a long time. The first song is the hardest and then it gets a little easier because at least you now know you could do one. Learn that first song really well, don't let it go and learn another one. The book that helped me was by Tommy Flint (Anthology of Fingerstyle Guitar). He had some great old tunes in there with some nice chord progressions with the thumb too. Don't give up and be patient.


No hope. Don't deceive yourself.

– Billy Zoom

hahaha..oh classic..that made my day!!



Well, let's check out Travis and Maphis duet on Eight More Miles to Louisville... this is maybe as good as life gets.


Well, let's check out Travis and Maphis duet on Eight More Miles to Louisville... this is maybe as good as life gets.

– DCBirdMan

great album!..and merle and joe are split in you can hear who's who..and constantly be stymied as to who you like more!! ha..forget it..2 masters

"no hope!" haha



Yeah I have taught myself some reasonably complex things before but this is killing me. What I usually do is take it one piece at a time, and my previous "one week" comment meant just doing the fundamental bass line without any melody. I know it will take me ages to master it, if ever. I'm pretty good at ordinary finger picking and at some point I know it will all click but dang my brain hurts. No matter how long it takes I will get this down, at least a passable version!


Are you talking about using only the thumb and index like Merle did? Or gaining syncopation with the thumb and all three fingers? (please say three!)

I studied classical guitar and thought it would be a breeze to switch over to Travis picking with my background, but it wasn't. It's a totally different style and things didn't "click" until I discovered Paul Pigat's "Travis Picking: Hillbilly Fingerstyle Guitar" instructional DVD. It's somewhat expensive but worth it, in my opinion. I can play in the style of Chet (and Merle) a lot better now because of it. It might be just what you're looking for.


Check out this website: I'm not affiliated with it. It got me on the right track to travis picking. It starts out super basic working between your thumb and fingers which I think is great, and slowly progresses to more complicated chord progressions.


All I can offer is more of the same. Be patient with yourself. Freight Train is a real good starting place.


PM sent.

– Windsordave

Oh, come on, Dave - please share with the class!


Oh, come on, Dave - please share with the class!

– Bluecap

I just sent along my dissertation I'd posted a few time before on my method of developing an independent thumb that's better than any advice anyone on any video or in print preaches. It will shorten dramatically the time needed to develop this technique and is very satisfying while being a hell of a lot more fun that the standard advice. Most here have seen it so I didn't paste it here again.

Once you can accomplish this groundwork for fingerpicking, videos from Paul, Thom Bresh and Alonzo Pennington will take you the rest of the way to learning the REAL way to pick like Merle Travis.

If someone wants to read my method, then drop me a PM and I'll gladly send it along


I have a truly independent thumb. It does whatever the hell it wants to do, whether I like it or not.


Seriously, it took me a few years of sporadic, frustrated attempts until I managed to unlock my thumb from my 'melody fingers'. Then one day, it just worked. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my adult life.


The thumb part is most important, in my books. That's why I always recommend just practicing the thumb part until it sounds killer, but very few want to take the time. Shortcuts are there, but also bad habits in the process and a finished product that is not as good. Take the time to get the thumb down good, no matter how long it takes, and then start adding simple melody lines as you are comfortable with it. It's always tempting to go read the last chapter of the book right off the bat, but you'll be sorry.


I'm not much of a thumb picker at all, really — I can clip along in an 'old Sun' style, but only up to a point. When I 'programmed' my right hand to do this I used my thumb (obviously) plus my index and middle fingers. My ring finger and pinky just came along for the ride, and my ring finger only joined in for pulling three finger chords.

How I wish that all those years ago I'd used my thumb and index finger to hold a flatpick for the alternating bass, with my middle and ring fingers playing the licks on the higher strings. Then I could switch seamlessly (well, more or less!) between fingerpicking and flatpicking. But it's too late — there is no way I can teach my ring finger to do what my middle finger currently does, and no way I can teach my middle finger to do what my index finger currently does. Their lines of demarcation were set down decades ago, and now they just don't wanna change.

I've been trying to use a Fred Kelly Bumblebee that (it sez 'ere) works as both a thumbpick and flatpick. Not on my right hand it doesn't. I remain a guitar-pickin' dinosaur.

And getting back to Mr Travis — how the hell did he do all that with just his thumb and one finger?


It really does take a while, and what everyone has said is absolutely true. I'm by no means an expert, but I can pull off some things....but I'm still working on it. What helped me was starting simple. For example, play a simple E chord, and just stay on that chord until you can keep a steady beat on the low E while mixing in the G, B, and E strings. Add some fretted notes in the chord shape to start getting a basic melody down. But....don't move off that E chord til you can play it convincingly by Travis picking. Then go to an A chord and do the same, then a D, etc, etc....that's how I had to do it to gain any kind of competency. Mixing in those other notes will help it not be so monotonous. Good luck! Also check out the Mark Hanson's book on Travis Picking. There's exercises there that will get you started.


I'm no expert on Travis / Hybrid picking but the most progress I ever made was from Paul Pigat's instructional DVD's. They don't seem to be available anymore. Amazon has Travis Picking and Rockabilly Guitar for $199 each. As much as I like them, that qualifies as unavailable for me. I'm glad I bought them when LearnRootsMusic was selling them.


You need to get that thumb playing a strong and well timed beat, without it you won't get to where you want to go. Play the alternating thumb through different chord changes and don't think of moving on till that is down to a tee all over the fingerboard. You have to know all chord positions from 1st to 12th fret. Then you can add in some notes with the fingers on and off the beat but not too fancy until you have that down too. Anything beyond that you don't need to worry about for now.

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