Merle Travis and His Influential Use of Travis Picking in Country Music

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With its distinct sound, country music has produced numerous legendary figures over the years. Among the many greats to emerge from the genre, there is perhaps no one more deserving of recognition than Merle Travis. An influential guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Travis essentially revolutionized country music with his unique and creative use of Travis Picking. This fingerstyle guitar technique was a significant innovation in music, and it helped transform the way that guitars are played in country and other genres. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the life and work of Merle Travis, exploring his early years, his family’s musical background, and his contribution to country music’s legacy.

Who was Merle Travis?

Merle Travis was an American country and western singer, songwriter, and guitarist born in Kentucky on November 29, 1917. His birth name was Merle Robert Travis. He grew up in a poor mining family, and as a child, he learned to play music on a homemade guitar made out of a cigar box.

Travis was known for his unique fingerstyle technique called “Travis Picking”. It involved a steady bass rhythm played with the thumb while the index finger played melody and syncopated rhythms on the high strings. This technique made his sound instantly recognizable and distinct.

Travis’ musical influence was much wider than just the country scene. He also had success in mainstream popular music during the 1940s and 1950s. His song “Sixteen Tons” – a tune about the struggles of coal mining – was a massive hit and has since been covered by numerous artists.

Travis was inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His legacy has been significant, inspiring many guitarists to follow in his fingerpicking footsteps. He was a pioneer of country guitar picking and paved the way for many guitarists who would come after him.

Merle Travis’ contribution to country music and fingerpicking is immeasurable, and his impact on the genre has continued to be felt throughout the decades since his peak of popularity. His innovative style of fingerpicking inspired a generation and influenced other country guitar icons such as Chet Atkins and Les Paul. He was one of the key players in the development of the “Bakersfield Sound”, a grittier, more electric version of country music that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.

Travis’ unique style of playing was also influential in the early days of rock and roll, and his impact can be heard in the work of artists such as Buddy Holly. The use of fingerpicking added a new level of musicianship to country music and made the acoustic guitar a more versatile instrument that could stand out on its own.

Merle Travis was a true innovator whose musical legacy has continued to inspire and influence generations of guitarists. His impact on country and western music cannot be overstated, and his fingerpicking style has become a staple of country and folk music to this day. He had an immeasurable influence on the genre and helped shape the sound of country music as we know it today.

Early Years

Early Years
As we delve into the formative years of Merle Travis, we uncover the beginnings of a budding musician who would soon become a household name in the country music scene. Raised in a family of musicians, Travis was instilled with a love for music from a young age. His unique upbringing and early experiences would shape him into the artist he would later become. In fact, some say that Travis was just as influential as other country music legends, such as Buddy Holly or the creator of the gritty Telecaster sound, in revolutionizing the genre as we know it today. Let’s explore how his childhood paved the way for his eventual success.

Travis Family Musicianship

The Travis family was deeply involved in music, and Merle’s interest in the craft was a result of his family’s innate talent. Merle’s father, Robert, played the guitar and harmonica, and his mother, Mollie, sang and played the piano. Merle’s brothers also played the guitar and banjo, and as a result, Merle was surrounded by music from a very young age.

Merle’s brother, Jimmie, was a huge influence on his music career. Jimmie was an accomplished guitar player and songwriter and taught Merle how to play the guitar. Merle would often accompany Jimmie at local functions, and the two of them would perform together whenever they got a chance.

One of the most significant moments in Merle’s early music career was when he was introduced to the legendary guitar player, Mose Rager. Rager’s unique fingerpicking style expanded Merle’s knowledge of guitar playing and inspired him to develop his distinctive Travis Picking style.

Merle’s family, specifically his brother Jimmie, were critical to his musical development, and their influence is evident in his music.

The Travis family’s musical aptitude and passion for music were integral to Merle’s musical career. It fostered his love for music and motivated him to develop his innovative Travis Picking technique, influencing the future of country music.

Buddy Holly was another artist who was inspired by Travis’s music and guitar technique, and he then used it to achieve incredible success years later.

Move to Kentucky

Merle Travis was born in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky in 1917. Moving to Kentucky was a pivotal moment in his life and the start of his journey in country music. Merle’s family was a musical one, and he developed a love for music at an early age. His father was a guitarist, and Merle learned to play the instrument from him.

At the age of 18, Merle moved to Evansville, Indiana, where he worked as a songwriter and studio musician. However, he missed his hometown and eventually returned to Kentucky. It was during this time that he developed his unique style of fingerpicking, known as Travis Picking.

Merle’s move to Kentucky allowed him to fully immerse himself in the country and folk music of the region. He played in local bars and honed his skills as a guitarist and songwriter. It wasn’t long before his talent caught the attention of the music industry, and he was signed by Capitol Records in 1946.

Merle’s music was heavily influenced by his upbringing in Kentucky, and he often incorporated storytelling into his songs. His use of Travis Picking added an extra layer of depth to his music, and he quickly became known for his unique sound.

In the years following his move to Kentucky, Merle Travis became a prominent figure in the world of country music. His contributions to the genre continue to be celebrated today, and his influence can be heard in the music of countless artists.

Fun Fact: Buddy Holly was one such artist who was heavily influenced by Merle Travis. To learn more about Holly’s impact on country music, check out our article on Buddy Holly’s Country Music Impact.

Travis Picking

Travis Picking
When it comes to country music, there are certain techniques and styles that are inextricably linked to the genre. One such approach is the distinctive fingerpicking style known as Travis Picking. Named after the legendary musician Merle Travis, this technique has become a hallmark of country and folk music, and is instantly recognisable to fans of the genre. But what exactly is Travis Picking, and how did it come to be so closely associated with country music? Let’s take a closer look.

What is Travis Picking?

Travis Picking is a unique finger-picking style that was invented by Merle Travis, an American country and western singer and songwriter. It’s a highly intricate and complex technique that involves using the thumb to pick out the bass notes on the lower strings, while the index finger picks out the melody on the higher strings. Here are some key characteristics of Travis Picking:

  • Rhythmic complexity: Travis Picking involves a complex interplay between the thumb and index finger that creates a highly syncopated, intricate rhythm. This is one of the reasons why the technique has become so popular among country and western musicians, as it’s ideal for creating a lively, upbeat sound.
  • Thumb independence: The thumb plays a crucial role in Travis Picking, as it’s responsible for picking out the bass notes. This requires a high degree of thumb independence, as the thumb needs to be able to move freely and accurately between the different strings.
  • Chordal accompaniment: Travis Picking is also known for its ability to provide a full, chordal accompaniment to a song. By using alternating bass notes and melody lines, the technique can create a rich, full sound that complements the vocals and other instruments.
  • Influences from other styles: While Travis Picking is most closely associated with country and western music, it actually incorporates elements from a range of other styles, including ragtime, blues, and boogie-woogie.

Travis Picking is a highly sophisticated finger-picking technique that has had a significant impact on the world of country and western music. Its intricate rhythms, complex interplay between the thumb and index finger, and ability to provide a full, chordal accompaniment have made it one of the most popular finger-picking styles among musicians today.

Influence on Country Music

Merle Travis’ innovative use of Travis picking had a significant influence on the evolution of country music. This unique style of fingerpicking, which involves alternating the bass notes and melody lines, gave country music a distinctive sound that was new and exciting.

Travis’ picking style became synonymous with country music, and it continued to influence artists long after he had passed away. Many musicians, including Chet Atkins, Roy Clark, and Tommy Emmanuel, were inspired by Travis’ innovative use of fingerpicking, and they went on to develop their own styles.

Below is a table showcasing some of the top musicians who were inspired by Merle Travis’ Travis picking style:

Musician Influenced By
Chet Atkins Merle Travis
Scotty Moore Merle Travis
Jerry Reed Merle Travis
Tommy Emmanuel Merle Travis
Doyle Dykes Merle Travis

Merle Travis’ influence on the music world was vast, and it continues to be felt to this day. The distinctive sound of Travis picking has found its way into different genres of music, including rock, pop, and blues. His legacy not only lives on in the music he created, but also in the artists he inspired.


As time passed and Merle Travis continued to perform and create music, his legacy grew stronger and more influential. Even today, his unique style of fingerpicking, known as Travis Picking, remains a staple in country music and beyond. From his roots in Kentucky to his collaborations with some of the biggest names in the industry, Travis left an indelible mark on the world of music that continues to inspire and influence musicians across generations. Let’s take a deeper look at the legacy of this country music icon.

Continued Popularity of Travis Picking

Travis Picking, the innovative fingerpicking guitar style created by Merle Travis, has continued to be popular among musicians and fans alike. Here are some reasons why:

  • Versatility: Travis Picking can be applied to a wide range of genres, from country to folk to blues. Its rhythmic and melodic complexity and its ability to create a full and complex sound make it a versatile and appealing technique.
  • Challenge: Travis Picking requires advanced fingerpicking skills, which is why it’s a technique that many guitar players aspire to master. Its intricate fingerstyle patterns challenge musicians to develop their technique, making it a rewarding style to learn.
  • Distinct Sound: Travis Picking has a unique and recognizable sound that sets it apart from other fingerpicking styles. Its distinctive use of the thumb to create a bass line and the alternating finger patterns create a rich and full sound that is instantly recognizable.
  • Inspiration from Iconic Musicians: Many famous musicians, including Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, and John 5, have been inspired by Merle Travis and his innovative style. Their continued use and influence help to keep the popularity of Travis Picking alive.

It’s clear that Travis Picking has had a profound and lasting impact on the music world. Its continued popularity is a testament to its enduring appeal and the influence of Merle Travis on the guitar and country music as a whole.

Influence on Famous Musicians

Merle Travis was an innovative musician who created a unique style of fingerpicking that has influenced generations of musicians. His influence can be seen in the works of many famous musicians, who have incorporated his techniques into their own music.

Musician Influence of Travis Picking
Chet Atkins Atkins was a close friend and collaborator of Travis. He adapted Travis picking to create his own style of guitar picking, which he called “Atkins picking”. This technique was a major influence on country and rock guitarists, including Mark Knopfler and Tommy Emmanuel.
Jerry Reed Reed was another close friend and collaborator of Travis. He took Travis picking to a new level, using it to play complex and intricate melodies, as well as accompanying his vocals. His style influenced several generations of guitarists, including Steve Wariner and Brad Paisley.
Lindsey Buckingham Buckingham, the guitarist for Fleetwood Mac, was influenced by Travis picking early in his career. He used the technique on several of his songs, including “Never Going Back Again” and “Big Love”. Buckingham’s use of Travis picking helped bring the technique to a wider audience outside of country music.
John Mayer Mayer has cited Travis as a major influence on his guitar playing and songwriting. He has used Travis picking on several of his songs, including “Neon” and “Stop This Train”. Mayer’s use of Travis picking has helped keep the technique relevant in modern music.
Ed Sheeran Sheeran has also been influenced by Travis picking, which can be heard on several of his songs, including “Tenerife Sea” and “Bloodstream”. Sheeran has adapted the technique to his own style, combining it with percussive elements to create a unique sound.

Travis’s influence on famous musicians demonstrates the lasting impact of his innovations. His unique style of fingerpicking changed the course of country and rock music, and continues to inspire guitarists today.


In conclusion, Merle Travis was a hugely influential figure in country music, both as a performer and as the inventor of the Travis Picking guitar style. His unique approach to fingerpicking, characterized by alternating bass notes and melody lines played with the thumb and fingers respectively, helped to define the sound of country music in the 20th century and beyond, and has inspired countless guitarists in the decades since.

Travis’ musical legacy extends far beyond the boundaries of country music, however. His fingerprints can be heard in the music of rock and roll pioneers such as Elvis Presley and George Harrison, as well as in the work of contemporary guitar virtuosos like Tommy Emmanuel and Chet Atkins.

But perhaps Travis’ greatest legacy is the enduring popularity of his signature guitar style. Over 70 years after he first developed it, Travis Picking remains an essential tool in the arsenal of any aspiring fingerstyle guitarist, and continues to captivate audiences with its intricate fingerwork and hypnotic rhythms.

For all these reasons and more, Merle Travis will always be remembered as one of the most innovative and influential guitarists in the history of American music. His legacy serves as a fitting tribute to his remarkable talent, and a reminder of the enduring power of music to inspire and delight us all.

Frequently Asked Questions

What inspired Merle Travis to start playing music?

Merle Travis was inspired by his father, who played the fiddle and banjo, and his uncle, who played the guitar. He began learning music at a young age.

What kind of guitar did Merle Travis use for Travis Picking?

Merle Travis used a Martin D-28 guitar for Travis Picking, which had a large, resonant body that helped create the unique sound of his picking style.

How did Merle Travis develop his Travis Picking technique?

Merle Travis learned Travis Picking through a combination of observing his own finger movements, listening to other musicians, and experimenting with different fingerpicking patterns.

What are some famous songs that use Travis Picking?

Some of the most famous songs that use Travis Picking include “Sixteen Tons,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and “Cannonball Rag,” all written by Merle Travis himself.

Was Merle Travis only a musician, or did he have other talents?

In addition to being a musician, Merle Travis was also an actor, appearing in several Hollywood films during his career.

How did Merle Travis influence other musicians?

Through his use of Travis Picking and his innovative songwriting techniques, Merle Travis greatly influenced other musicians in the country music genre, including Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash.

What is the significance of “Sixteen Tons” in Merle Travis’s legacy?

“Sixteen Tons” is one of the most famous songs written by Merle Travis, and it became a hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in the 1950s. The song’s theme of a working man’s hardships struck a chord with audiences and has become a classic in the country music cannon.

Did Merle Travis win any awards during his career?

Yes, Merle Travis won several awards throughout his career, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

What kind of reception did Travis Picking receive when it first emerged in the country music scene?

When Travis Picking first emerged, it was met with skepticism by many in the country music community, who were used to a more traditional style of guitar playing. However, as it became more popular, it gained widespread acceptance and admiration.

What is the lasting impact of Merle Travis’s music today?

Merle Travis’s influence on country music is still felt today, with many musicians continuing to use Travis Picking in their own playing. His innovative techniques and songwriting skills have inspired generations of musicians and continue to be studied and admired by fans of country music around the world.


About the author

Hi there! I’m Jack Little – an avid country music fan with tons of live country performances in the past. I used to play banjo in a country band with my best friend John Peters, who’s a true country harmonica master. Those were great years and I’m still mastering new banjo playing techniques, writing my own country songs and lyrics, and collecting banjos!

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