The Secrets of Travis Picking

March 15, 2006

“As early as the time I could wear a thumbpick and keep it on there, I was trying to play this style,” says Bresh, who started on the guitar at age three, became a Hollywood “stuntboy” by age 12, gave Howard Roberts—yes, the Howard Roberts—a Travis picking lesson at age 14, and has been everything from a television host to a country singer to even, arguably, a stand-up comedian in times since. “This style, as Travis put it, is in my genes. The style of Merle Travis is a thumb style, and it’s what I heard—I was raised on it. It was in me, and I thought it was just the coolest sound, because it sounded like a whole bunch of instruments coming from one guitar. In it, I heard rhythm parts, I heard melodies, I heard chords and all this wrapped up in one.”

The Roots of Travis Picking

“When Travis was a kid, he lived in Muhlenberg county, Kentucky, by the coal mines where my grandfather and uncle worked,” says Bresh, who was raised primarily by his stepfather, Bud Bresh. “Back then, people didn’t go to the movies or watch television for entertainment. There wasn’t any of that. There was only the coal camps. They were segregated and all the black people stayed on one end by themselves. They had their campfires going, and those old blues guys would be sittin’ around. They were mine workers, but they had a guitar or two and they’d play stuff like this all night [plays/sings droning country blues dirge]. Travis was fascinated by that sound.

“On the other end of camp was a man named Mose Rager. He was a barber. Mose used to play guitar at the company store with his buddy Ike Everly, who was the Everly Brothers’ father. They played together costantly, and Mose had this lively thumb style that Travis thought was just amazing. Travis was too shy to ask him how he did it, so he did what I would later do—he’d get the sound in his head, take a picture of it, and go off by himself and figure it out on his own. The result would not be a direct copy of Mose or Ike’s playing, but his own version of what he’d heard them do coupled with what he’d heard the black workers play. So from those two sounds came this style that has become known as Travis picking.

“Travis was, of course, the one who was fortunate enough to go off and start getting on radio and taking that style further. Plus, instead of just accompanying himself or playing songs that he would make up like Mose and those guys did, he would listen to the songs of the day—like ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie’—and he’d learn how to play them with his thumb-style approach. Nobody else was doing anything else like that.

“Chet Atkins told me, ‘You know, I used to hear your dad on the radio and I couldn’t understand what I was hearing—I thought Merle Travis was some sort of duo or a group or something, because I heard [so many parts happening simultaneously]. Then I saw him play with the thumb, and that’s when I got totally enthralled by his style, and I’d never miss him on the radio. I’m glad I got drafted, because then I didn’t get to hear him for a while. Otherwise I probably would have been a direct copy of him and never done my own thing.’”

Thom Thumb

“Travis picking is a thumb style,” emphasizes Bresh, holding his main Travis picking guitar—a D’Angelico Thom Bresh Special. “You gotta get your thumb independent. Here’s a basic exercise to start with: Take a plain old open E chord and do this over and over until you get it solid [Ex. 1].”

At its simplest, this phrase requires that, with downstrokes of your thumb (a thumbpick is suggested for that authentic “tic tac” tone and feel), you merely alternate between the root of the chord, E, and the 5, B, on the downbeats and strike the octave, E, on the offbeats (every other eighth-note) as shown. But you can also expand your downstrokes to include more chord tones, such as those in parentheses. (“I get aggressive and sometimes strike entire chords with the thumbpick,” shares Bresh.) Muting of the lower strings—a trademark of Travis picking—is crucial. It creates a distinctive timbral separation between the thumb part—the bass part—and other parts plucked with the fingers on the higher strings.

“It’s very important that the low strings are muted,” says Bresh. “The old timers called it ‘choking the strings.’ It’s done by laying the heel of the plucking hand on the strings right next to the bridge. You learn to control the strings—even the higher strings—by muting.”

The Upper Voice

The next step, recommends Bresh, is adding pitches (mostly open strings) plucked with the fingers while maintaining a thumb-picked bass line [Ex. 2]. This repeating E-B7 lick acts as a simple introduction to the multi-tasking that Travis picking requires. Things gain a more authentic Travis sound when you spice up the upper voice with some syncopation [Ex. 3], applying a vibrant country swing feel to the sixteenth-notes. “No matter how crazy the lick—even when he was doing rolls—Travis only plucked with his thumb and one finger, his index,” says Bresh, who, unlike his father, often plucks with many fingers on his picking hand. “When Travis played, these three fingers [holds up middle, ring, and pinky] were just planted on the guitar for support.”

The Other Thumb

If you read the fine print in Ex. 2, you may have noticed that the two low F# pitches in bar 2 are to be fretted by the fretting-hand thumb. “Travis fretted notes with that thumb a lot more than people realize,” says Bresh. “Travis had a lot of very unorthodox chords. For instance, you’d never see Travis playing a regular barre chord. Instead of playing a G barre chord like this [Ex. 4], he fingered the same notes like this [Ex. 5], with his thumb on the root. Why? Because throwing his thumb over the neck to hold the root freed him to get his 1st finger behind where the barre would have been—freed him to throw in notes on the 2nd fret. Then he could play licks like this [Ex. 6]. Travis would even go as far as to hit two notes with one finger [Ex. 7]. Here, holding two notes with the tip of your 3rd finger frees up your 4th finger to add the A at the 5th fret of the high string.

“Travis would also use his thumb to fret two bass notes at once [Ex. 8]. And while we all play this version of E7 [Ex. 9], Travis didn’t. He had crazy versions of chords, like this E7 [Ex. 10]. Here, the thumb is fretting G#. He knew you didn’t have to have the root on the bottom, as long as the low note was in the chord. He’d take his E7 shape and use it to play licks like this [Ex. 11]. In this lick, he’s just sliding that E7 shape back a fret with each new bar.

“And here’s another good hand-buster for you—a nice big E7 that leads nicely into A9 [Ex. 12]. He’d use a pair of chords like that for licks like this [Ex. 13]. This whole style requires you to be within the chord shapes most of the time because you’re holding chords, maintaining bass parts, and keeping rhythm. You can’t stop all that just because there’s one note you can’t reach—you have find a way to reach it.”

Roll With It

“The funny thing about Travis is he was very humble and wouldn’t take credit for anything,” says Bresh. “If someone complimented him and I was sitting right there, he’d say, ‘Well, I ain’t no Thom Bresh, but thank you very much.’”

But Travis did have his cocky side. “Travis used to joke and say, ‘If I’d spent as much time practicing the guitar as I did chasing pretty girls, I’da been Chet Atkins,’” says Bresh. “Chet and Merle, of course, were the best of friends. They were like brothers. There was never any jealousy between them that I knew about.

“A big difference in how they played was in the feel. Travis was all about feel and groove—banging on the strings, stomping his feet, everything shaking. He’d often bang two bass notes or more at a time with each strike of his thumbpick. And he always patted his foot in 4/4, like those old-time players. Chet, however, played very clean and articulated and thought in two [i.e., in cut time].”

Another big difference between the two country legends was in how they handled another exciting element of Travis picking—rolls. Travis managed to pluck amazingly fast rolls with just his thumb and index finger. Bresh, however, generally sides with Atkins on this topic, often choosing to employ the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers to pluck flashy rolls like Examples 14 and 15.

Triple Tasking

It’s next to impossible to keep your foot from tapping when Travis riffs are being played by someone with even a fraction of the skill and vibe of a guy like Thom Bresh. The style is so rhythmic and melodic, only a cadaver could resist its lively pulse. And on riffs like “Sidewalks of Bordeaux,” Bresh evolves the style into a triple-decker, even-sixteenths funk approach. Here’s how this three-layer riff stacks up:

• On the lowest level (the lowest three strings) Bresh thumbs a typical Travis-style palm-muted, thumb-picked bass line [Ex. 16].

• On the middle level (the third string), between each bass note, Bresh adds a staccato C at the 5th fret that is plucked with the index finger [Ex. 17]. (“It occurs on the natural after-beat of each bass note.”)

• Finally, on the upper level (the highest two strings), Bresh adds what could be perceived as a horn part harmonized in parallel fourths and plucked with the middle and ring fingers [Ex. 18]. Merle Travis meets Stevie Wonder!

Chip Off the Ol’ Block

“For me, there was no instruction—no nothing,” says Bresh of how he learned the art of Travis picking. “I’d say to Travis, ‘Show me this lick,’ and he’d say, ‘Nah, you’re doing fine. You just keep doing whatever you’re doing. The important thing is your thumb—that it’s as solid as can be.’ And I’d say, ‘Show me some of those chords,’ and he’d say, ‘No, you’re finding ’em just right.’ And he wouldn’t show me anything, because what I was doing was taking his records and Chet Atkins records and playing them over and over, learning from them. I’d wear them out so bad they’d become unplayable and the needle would just slide across the vinyl. I had those records in my head. I could just go somewhere by myself, turn them on in my mind, and search on the guitar until I found the lick I was trying to decode.

“In later years, Travis and I did some concerts together, and he finally said, ‘Let me show you a couple things because if you don’t play ’em just the way I did, my harmony part won’t work.’ Then he started showing me things that he did. But that was only after I learned most of what I needed to know about the style on my own. So when guitarists say to me, ‘Oh, I wanna get the tablature on that,’ I say, ‘Why? Just get it in your head and find it.’ You don’t need to do exactly what I or anyone else did, just do what you hear and do it your own way. Then, the next thing you know, with all the influences you have, you’re going have your own flavor. You’re going to add to the soup.”

Special thanks to for arranging this interview.

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