The Thumb Picking/Travis Picking Guitar Series

Cover Photo

Table of Contents

  1. History of Thumb Picking
  2. Song Lessons
  3. Technique Lessons
  4. Song Lists by Level
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History of Thumb Picking

‘Thumb Picking’ and ‘Travis Picking’ are guitar styles that essentially use short repeated thumb patterns to accompany melodies and harmonies played by the other fingers.

This style may have emerged from a combination of African Kora technique or European ‘Oom-Pa’ alternating bass lines. Both styles have striking similarities to the early thumb picking techniques and the techniques emerged in an era when African and European cultures were blending in the United States. In the early recorded days, this was the ragtime-like style of Arnold Shultz and later the Muhlenberg county pickers like Merle Travis and John Prine. Other guitarists like Chet Atkins softened the backbeat and made a more urbane style that was taken up by famous songwriters like John Denver and Paul Simon.

There has been a continued interest in country blues players like Robert Johnson and fingerstyle guitarists like Merle Travis  that has led to thumb picking influencing many other genres. British Invasion Rock legends like Jimi Page, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards cite Johnson as a major influence, and thumb picking techniques have stayed popular through the songs of Bob Dylan all the way to modern artists like Tallest Man on Earth.

Song Lessons

Each song has a video lesson, tabs, chord diagrams, and insightful tips (if I got around to finishing it). The songs go in order from easy to more difficult and are grouped by the techniques they use. There is also a planned sequence for learning different techniques, so the easiest way to master the technique is to follow the songs in order.

Song Covers Playlist

Treetop Flyer

1952 Vincent Black Lightning

4 Stroke Songs

Country Roads

Blowin’ In the Wind

In Spite of Ourselves

Technique Lessons

If you’ve never done anything with Travis Picking before, I suggest getting your guitar and playing along with this introductory lesson by the great Don Ross or watching this extended intro by Thom Bresh.

Don Ross intro to Travis Picking

Travis Picking with Thom Bresh

Sound of Silence with Jerry’s Guitar Bar

The Landslide Series

This is a special series where I expand on fingerstyle techniques just from playing “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac.

Travis Picking Song TitleComposerTechniqueCRKey Fingering
/Sounds of silenceSimon and GarfunkelMini Travis Patterns, Expansions1Am
/begin againtaylor SwiftEasy Travis variations2G
/Blowin’ in the WindBob Dylan4 part bass, walks2C
/breathfaith hillfalse travis picking/G box3G
/Crazy LovePocofinger displacements3C
/get luckyMark KnopflerPinches3C
/In Spite of OurselvesJohn Prineplaced melody over 4-note bass3C
/Jesus: The Missing YearsJohn Prine4 note patterns3C
/landslideFleetwood Macimprovisation over patterns3G
/Leather and LaceFleetwood MacDescending Bass Riff3D
/Let Her GoPassengerPinches3Am
/Let’s Talk Dirty in HawaiianJohn Prine4 part bass, walkups3C
/Sixteen TonsMerle TravisBoom Chick technqiue3Em
/Such Great HeightsIron and WineSlow Groove3C
/Can’t Find My Way HomeSteve WinwoodChromatic Chords/Walks4D
/Casanova lamentFrank TurnerOpen G/False patterns4C
Country RoadsJohn Denver4 note patterns4A
Danny’s SongKenny LogginsWalking in key of D4D
Driving SouthThe Early Novemberbass lines over drone pattern4G
Dust in the windKansasisorhtythm/open C4C
Homeward BoundSimon and Garfunkelslow/mini travis4G
/Marry MeTrainOpen C4C
TuolumneEddie Vedder4C
Leader of the BandDan Fogelberg4G
blackbirdThe Beatlesfalse travis picking/G box5G Open
can’t take it backLucas Carpenteropen F/repeating thumb/5F Open
If I Had a BoatLyle LovettTrip Roll5G
Just BreathePearl Jam5C
kathy’s songsimon and GarfunkelOpen G/double stops5G
Leaves that are greenSimon and Garfunkelsyncopated melodies/bass lines5D
Nights Become DaysFrank Turner5G
The Boxersimon and Garfunkel5C
Wednesday 3 amsimon and Garfunkel5D
You can close your eyesJames Taylor5D
Alice’s RestaurantArlo Guthriecircle of 5ths/syncopations/patter6C
chicken friedzac brown6G
January at the Halifax Airport LoungeBruce Cockburnintegrating complex melodies6?
How to Rob a BankWilly Portersyncopations/bridge?7G
Lost JohnMerle Travis7G
That’s too much sugar for a dimeMerle Travis7Bb
/Treetop Flyersteven stills7Dm
Troubles will be goneTallest Man on earth7Open G tuning
Casino NightSonic 2double stops over boom-chick8C
Midnight SpecialMerle Travis8E
Nine Pound HammerMerle Travis8G
1952 Vincent Black LightningRichard Thompsondisplacements/polyrhythms/speed/improvisation9G, Drone Tuning
Kaouding CissokoToumani DiabateComplex Pattern shuffling, Fast rolls and Pinches10E