Exclusive Guitar Lesson – The “Travis Picking Technique” (Australian Guitar Magazine)

Steve Flack Guitar Teacher

Id like to share a lesson that I did a few years back for Australian Guitar Magazine on “Travis Picking”.

It’s a style of guitar playing that was developed by Merle Travis (hence the name) who was trying to reproduce on the guitar what he’d heard the Ragtime piano players do.

Merle Travis (Country Music Hall of Fame)

While keeping an alternating bass line with the left hand, Ragtime pianists were able to play the melody with their right hand; creating a big full sound between the contrasting rhythms of the right and left hand parts.

Hearing this Merle Travis worked out a way to copy the bass part.

This was by alternating his thumb while his fingers were free to play the melody over the top making the same sound on the guitar that the Ragtime pianists would produce on the piano.

The Britannica entry on Ragtime is really interesting… but like a lot of these encyclopaedia articles that tell people (who already know what they already know and need a translation for the rest of us) it reads:

“Ragtime, propusively syncopated musical style and forerunner of Jazz and the predominant style of American popular music from about 1899 to 1917. Ragtime evolved in the playing of Honkey-Tonk pianists along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the last decades of the 19th century.
It was influenced by the Minstral Show songs, African American banjo styles, syncopated (or off beat) dance rhythms of the “Cakewalk” and also elements of European music.
Ragtime found its characteristic expression in formally constructed piano compositions.
The regularly accented left hand beat in 4/4 time was opposed in the right hand by a fast bouncing syncopation that gave the music its powerful forward impetus”.

What is Syncopation?

Syncopation, simply put, is when we displace the “accents”.

In 4/4 time the strong or accented notes are on counts 1 & 3 while 2 & 4 are weak beats.

If we accent or emphasis counts 2 & 4 then we have the basic form of syncopation and this is the driving rhythm behind Reggae.

There are smaller divisions of the beat so in between each beat we have the “off” beat.

We then count 1&2&3&4& so playing on the &s is also syncopation.

An interesting experiment is to count aloud 1&2&3&4& but clap only on the &s & you’ll see that it creates a curious rhythmic feel.

A lot of AC/DC’s riffs are based around anticipating the beat by playing on the off beat or the & before the beat which gives the listener a feeling of motion.

So Ragtime has in the left hand a strict “boom-cha-boom-cha” feel while the right hand would explore a contrasting rhythmic and melodic theme.

The king of Ragtime was Scott Joplin who wrote over 40 “Rags” for piano, “Maple Leaf Rag” maybe the most popular.

Scott Joplin “King of Ragtime”

Born in 1868 and died in 1917 he had a renewed period of popularity in 1974 when his rag “The Entertainer” was used as the movie’s theme to the smash hit movie “The Sting” staring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

Ragtime was the inspiration and precursor to later styles of American music.

Merle Travis

Merle Travis built his career around the boom-cha-boom-cha alternating thumb picked bass line and he was a runaway success.

RCA the opposition record label could see just how popular he was so they went looking for a guitarist capable of taking him on.

They found a young guitarist called Chet Atkins to fill the role and do the job.

RCA needed a guitarist that had a mastery of the “Travis” style and Chet Atkins was more than able.

America has produced so many music powerhouses and Chet Atkins is one of these talents that have made an impact.

Chet Atkins (Country Music Hall of Fame)

He has a very big story, his achievements and the long list of names that he worked with is impressive but so is the list of younger guitarists that he influenced.

One of the next generation of guitarists influenced by Chet is Tommy Emmanuel who is today considered to be the elder statesman of the Travis style.

Tommy had learnt everything that Chet Atkins had recorded by his late teens.

I was fortunate enough to interview Tommy for Australian Guitar Magazine and I’ll be sharing that interview with you soon but now let’s take a look at the lesson on Travis picking…

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