Merle Travis: The Troubadour with a Unique Fingerpicking Style

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Merle Travis, the American country singer-songwriter, left an indelible mark on the music industry with his unique fingerpicking style. His innovative approach to guitar playing, also known as “Travis picking”, still resonates with countless artists today. But who was Merle Travis, and what makes his style so special? In this article, we’ll delve into the life and career of this influential musician, explore the technique of Travis picking, and even provide tips on how you can learn to incorporate this distinctive style into your own playing. So, grab your guitar and let’s dive into the world of Merle Travis – the troubadour with a one-of-a-kind sound.

Early Life and Musical Career

Early Life And Musical Career
Merle Travis was an American country singer-songwriter and guitarist whose contribution to country music is impossible to ignore. His unique fingerpicking style and deep baritone voice set him apart from his peers, making him a true troubadour of his time. But before we dive into his musical journey, let’s take a closer look at his early life and upbringing, which laid the foundation for his prolific career as a musician. Throughout his life, Travis drew inspiration from other country legends such as Maybelle Carter, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Doc Watson, to name a few. So, let’s uncover the roots of Merle Travis’ musical legacy and learn how he became the artist we know and love today.

The Inspiration behind Fingerpicking Style

Merle Travis’ unique fingerpicking style was inspired by a number of sources, including his father’s playing and the music of African American blues musicians. The combination of these influences, along with his own creativity, led to the development of a technique that would become known as “Travis picking”.

Father’s influence

Merle Travis’ father was a musician who played the guitar in the fingerpicking style. As a child, Travis was drawn to the sound of his father’s playing and began to experiment with the technique himself. He would spend hours sitting with his father, watching his fingers move across the strings and trying to replicate the sound.

African American Blues

In addition to his father’s playing, Travis was also influenced by the music of African American blues musicians, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill Broonzy. He was particularly drawn to the way these musicians used their fingers to create complex rhythms and melodies on the guitar.

Combination and Creativity

These two influences, along with Travis’ own creativity, led to the development of the Travis picking style. He combined the fingerpicking technique he learned from his father with the rhythmic complexity of the blues musicians he admired. The result was a style that was uniquely his own and that would go on to influence generations of guitar players.

Inspiration Source
Father’s influence Travis’ father’s fingerpicking style
African American blues Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, and other blues musicians
Combination and Creativity Travis’ own creativity in combining his father’s style with the blues tradition

Travis’ fingerpicking style was at once both simple and complex, relying on a steady alternating bass line with intricate melodies woven throughout. It became a signature style not only for him but also for countless other guitar players who have incorporated its techniques and rhythms in their own music. The next section of this article will delve deeper into Travis’ legacy and influence on country music.

The Birth of Travis Picking

Merle Travis’ unique fingerpicking style, known as “Travis Picking”, revolutionized country music in the 1940s and 1950s. It all started when Travis was working as a coal miner in his hometown of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. He would often strum his guitar to pass the time, but found the sound to be lacking. He wanted to create something more complex and rhythmic.

Travis began experimenting with picking individual notes using his thumb and fingers instead of strumming the strings with a pick. This new technique allowed him to play multiple parts of a song at once, creating a rich and layered sound. He would use his thumb to play bass notes while his fingers would play melody lines and chords. This technique became known as “Travis Picking” and it quickly caught on in the country music scene.

Travis showcased his new technique in his 1946 hit song, “Sixteen Tons”. The song’s opening riff, played in Travis Picking style, instantly became recognizable and iconic. It helped cement Travis’ place in music history and inspired countless other artists to adopt his technique.

Travis Picking wasn’t just a flashy new technique, it was also incredibly versatile. It could be used for slow ballads or fast-paced boogie-woogie tunes. It could add depth and complexity to a song or stand on its own as a solo piece. Its flexibility made it perfect for country music, allowing artists to create unique and varied sounds.

Today, Travis Picking remains a vital part of country music history and a popular technique for guitarists to learn. Its unique sound continues to inspire artists and listeners alike.

The Legend of Merle Travis

The Legend Of Merle Travis
Merle Travis was a true troubadour who left an indelible mark on the country music scene during his lifetime. He was a formidable guitarist known not just for his virtuoso fingerpicking style but also for writing songs that spoke to the heart of America. Travis was a rebel with a unique approach to music that challenged the conventional wisdom of his contemporaries in Nashville. His innovative style influenced generations of musicians who followed in his footsteps, and his legacy continues to inspire artists to push the limits of what’s possible in country music. Let’s dive deeper into the story of this legendary musician and explore his immense contribution to the world of music.

Travis’ Influence on Country Music

Merle Travis’ impact on the world of country music is immeasurable. His unique fingerpicking style, known as Travis Picking, has not only influenced other musicians but has also become a defining characteristic of the genre. Here are a few examples of his influence:

  • Inspiration for Other Artists: Travis Picking has inspired many other musicians and guitarists, such as Chet Atkins, Thom Bresh, and Tommy Emmanuel. These guitarists have taken Travis Picking to new heights, incorporating their own style and techniques while staying true to the original style created by Merle Travis.
  • Revitalization of Country Music: Travis’ influence on country music was not just limited to his guitar playing. He was also an incredibly talented songwriter and performer, with hits like “Sixteen Tons” and “Dark as a Dungeon” becoming classic country songs. His style of music helped rejuvenate and modernize the genre during a time when it had fallen out of favor with mainstream audiences.
  • Pioneer of Electric Guitar Music: Travis was an early user of the electric guitar, using it to add a new level of depth and emotion to his music. He was one of the first electric guitarists to create a unique tone and style that would go on to influence other musicians in a variety of genres, not just country music.
  • Inspiration for Fingerpicking Style: Merle Travis’ fingerpicking style has become a hallmark of country music. Many musicians have adopted the technique as the backbone of their own musical style. Travis’ legacy can be seen in the music of other famous guitarists like Jerry Reed and Mark Knopfler.

Merle Travis’ contribution to the world of country music goes far beyond just his fingerpicking style. He was an innovator and an inspiration to countless musicians who followed in his footsteps. His music and skill on the guitar have left a lasting impression on the genre that is still being felt today.

Travis’ Songwriting and Discography

Merle Travis was not only a master of the guitar, he was also an accomplished songwriter and recording artist. Here are some of his notable works:

  • Folk Songs of the Hills – This 1947 album showcased Travis’ unique blend of country, folk and blues music. It included songs like “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Sixteen Tons” that would become classics of the genre.
  • Songs of the Coal Mines – This 1954 album further cemented Travis’ reputation as a chronicler of working-class life. The album features Travis’ signature fingerpicking style on songs like “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and “Re-Enlistment Blues”.
  • The Merle Travis Guitar – In this 1956 album, Travis pays tribute to some of his musical influences, including Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. He also showcases his own songwriting skills on tracks like “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “Cannonball Rag”.
  • In Boston 1959/At The Hillcrest Club 1960 – This live album captures Travis at his best, showcasing both his technical skill and his easy rapport with audiences. It includes classics like “Nine Pound Hammer” and “John Henry”.
  • Walking the Strings – This 1963 album is widely regarded as Travis’ masterpiece. It features intricate guitar work on tracks like “Blue Smoke” and “Barbecue Bust”, as well as stunning vocal performances on songs like “When My Baby Double Talks to Me”.

Travis was also a prolific songwriter who penned many country and western hits, including “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed”. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and his music continues to inspire generations of musicians to this day.

The Technique of Travis Picking

The Technique Of Travis Picking
Travis picking is a fingerpicking guitar style created by Merle Travis. It involves the alternating bass pattern between the thumb and fingers while playing the melody on the higher strings using the rest of the fingers. The technique creates a unique and intricate sound, perfect for country and folk music.

Thumb and Finger Positioning

The thumb is the foundation of Travis picking. The positioning of the thumb is crucial as it provides the alternating bass notes for the melody. The thumb should rest on the sixth, fifth, or fourth string, depending on the chord being played. It should also be pointed down towards the ground, plucking the strings towards the player.

The fingers, on the other hand, are used to play the melody. The index, middle, and ring finger should be curled and placed on the three highest strings. The pinky finger is not typically used in Travis picking. The fingers should also be angled towards the guitar, plucking the strings away from the player.

Playing Travis Style Songs

Playing Travis style songs involves a lot of finger dexterity and coordination. The alternating bass pattern and melody should be played together in a smooth and flowing manner. It’s important to start slow and gradually build up the speed. One of the most popular Travis picking songs to learn is “Wildwood Flower.”

Travis Picking Exercise

A great Travis picking exercise is to practice playing the alternating bass pattern without the melody. Start by playing an open E chord and plucking the low E string with the thumb, followed by the G string with the index finger. Alternate this pattern with the thumb and index finger for several bars. Then, switch to playing an A chord and repeat the exercise.

Travis picking has inspired countless artists and developers to create their own music and guitar styles. Let’s explore some of the most notable names in the next section of this article.

Learning Travis Picking

Learning Travis Picking
For many aspiring guitarists, learning the fingerpicking style of Merle Travis can seem like an intimidating task. However, with the right mindset and approach, anyone can master this unique and captivating technique. In this section, we’ll explore the various elements involved in learning Travis Picking and provide some valuable tips and exercises to help you perfect your skills. So grab your guitar and get ready to dive into the world of Travis Picking!

Thumb and Fingers Positioning

To truly master the unique fingerpicking style of Merle Travis, it is essential to understand the proper positioning of your thumb and fingers. This technique involves a specific coordinated movement of the thumb and two or more fingers, creating a harmonious plucking pattern that is recognizable as Travis Picking.

To get started, it is important to position your thumb properly. The thumb should rest on the bass strings (strings 4, 5 or 6), while the two or three fingers (usually the index, middle, and ring) should fall lightly on the treble strings (strings 1, 2 and 3). Your thumb should be perpendicular to the fingerboard and should not move when the fingers pluck the strings.

Here is a step-by-step guide to positioning your thumb and fingers for Travis Picking:

  • Place your thumb on the 5th or 6th string (depending on the chord you are playing) and tuck it under the other fingers towards the palm of your hand. This “anchoring” technique helps you keep your hand steady and allows your fingers to move more independently.
  • Place your index finger on the 3rd string, your middle finger on the 2nd string, and your ring finger on the 1st string. Keep each finger curved and place the tips of each finger on the strings.
  • When you pluck a string, use the tip of your finger and pull the string towards the palm of your hand, creating a snappy, clear sound.
  • Each finger should lightly rest on the strings when not in use, ready to pluck the next note.

If you are new to Travis Picking, it may take some time to get used to the thumb and finger positions. Practice holding your hand in this position until it feels natural, then practice playing simple chord progressions to get used to the coordination between your thumb and fingers.

Remember, the key to Travis Picking is a relaxed and steady hand. Try not to grip the guitar neck too tightly and focus on the fluidity of your finger movements. With patience and practice, you’ll soon be able to play like the legendary Merle Travis himself.

Playing Travis Style Songs

To play Travis style songs, you need to start by understanding the basics of fingerpicking. Once you have mastered the basic techniques, you can then start incorporating the unique Travis picking style into your playing. Here are some steps you can follow to play Travis style songs:

Step 1: Start by practicing the basic fingerpicking pattern using the thumb, index, and middle fingers. Make sure you keep a steady rhythm and practice playing the pattern over and over until it becomes natural.

Step 2: Once you have mastered the basic fingerpicking pattern, you can start incorporating the Travis picking style. This involves adding in the ring finger to create a bassline while the thumb alternates between the root note and the fifth note of the chord.

Step 3: To add more complexity to your playing, you can incorporate syncopation. This involves playing off-beat notes to create a more interesting rhythm.

Step 4: As you become more proficient, you can start adding in more advanced techniques such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. These techniques will add more depth and complexity to your playing.

Step 5: Experiment with different chord progressions and try playing some of Merle Travis’ songs. This will help you gain a deeper understanding of his unique fingerpicking style and allow you to incorporate it more effectively into your own playing.

By following these steps and practicing regularly, you can start to incorporate Travis picking into your own playing and create your own unique style. Remember, it takes time and dedication to master any new technique, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t come naturally at first. Keep practicing, and you will soon be able to play Travis style songs with ease.

Travis Picking Exercise

One of the best ways to learn and master Travis picking is to practice with specific exercises. Here are some exercises that can help you improve your fingerpicking skills:

1. Basic Travis Pattern
Start with the basic Travis picking pattern using a simple chord progression such as G-C-D. The pattern is:

Thumb – Index – Thumb – Middle – Thumb – Ring – Thumb – Middle

Try to stick to this pattern and make smooth transitions between chords. Once you have mastered this pattern, try adding variations like palm muting and changing the bass line.

2. Triplets Exercise
This exercise involves adding triplets over the basic Travis picking pattern. The pattern is:

Thumb – Index – Middle – Index – Thumb – Index – Middle – Index

Repeat this pattern while playing a simple chord progression like G-C-D. Once you have gotten the hang of this, you can try adding percussive taps and bass runs to make the exercise more challenging.

3. Chord Progression Exercise
Pick a simple chord progression and create your own patterns using Travis picking. For example, you can practice playing Am-F-C progression using the following pattern:

Thumb – Index – Thumb – Middle – Thumb – Index – Thumb – Middle

Then, switch to a different pattern using the same progression. This will help you develop your own fingerpicking style.

4. Speed and Accuracy Exercise
This exercise involves practicing Travis picking at different tempos. Start by playing the basic pattern at a slow tempo and gradually increase the speed as you become more comfortable. Use a metronome to maintain the beat and practice until you can play accurately and smoothly at a fast pace.

Remember, the key to mastering Travis picking is practice and patience. These exercises will help you develop speed, accuracy, and creativity with your fingerpicking style. Practice regularly and soon, you’ll be able to create your own unique fingerpicking patterns and impress your audience.

Artsit and Developers Inspired by Travis Picking

As a trailblazer in the country music scene, Merle Travis’ unique fingerpicking style, known as Travis Picking, has inspired a generation of artists and developers alike. The intricate technique, combining melody, bass, and rhythm lines, has been emulated by many, but few have been able to master it as well as Travis. In this section, we explore some of the most notable artists and developers who have been mesmerized by Travis’ innovative approach to fingerpicking and how they have incorporated it into their own work. From the legendary Chet Atkins to the tech-savvy developers, Travis Picking continues to enrich and influence the world of music.

Chet Atkins

One of the most well-known musicians who was influenced by Merle Travis and his unique fingerpicking style is Chet Atkins. Atkins, often referred to as “Mr. Guitar,” was a country music icon and an incredible guitarist in his own right.

Atkins was introduced to Travis picking early on in his musical career and quickly became enamored with the technique. He incorporated Travis style playing into many of his own songs and helped to expand the popularity of the fingerpicking style even further.

One of the key differences between Atkins and Travis was their use of the thumb during fingerpicking. While Travis often used his thumb to play the bass line and rhythm, Atkins used it to play the melody in addition to his fingers. This gave his playing a unique sound that set it apart from Travis’ style.

Atkins’ mastery of fingerpicking led him to an incredibly successful career in music. He worked as a session musician for many top artists and even became the head of RCA Records’ Nashville division. Throughout his career, Atkins won multiple Grammy Awards and was recognized with numerous other accolades for his contributions to the music industry.

Chet Atkins’ contributions to fingerpicking
Incorporated Travis picking into his own songs
Expanded the popularity of fingerpicking style
Used thumb to play melody in addition to fingers
Became head of RCA Records’ Nashville division
Won multiple Grammy Awards

Atkins was a true master of fingerpicking and his contributions to the technique will never be forgotten. Many modern guitarists still look to him as an inspiration and continue to incorporate his techniques into their own playing. The legacy of Merle Travis and his unique fingerpicking style lives on through the work of musicians like Chet Atkins.

Thom Bresh

Thom Bresh is a name that many might not recognize, but his contributions to the world of music, and specifically to Travis picking, make him a legend in his own right. Bresh is the son of the famous guitarist Merle Travis, and much like his father, he picked up the guitar at a young age and quickly developed his own style.

The Style of Thom Bresh

Bresh’s style is unique and combines the best of his father’s style with his own flair. His use of fingerpicking techniques, combined with percussive elements, creates a sound that is instantly recognizable. Bresh has an uncanny ability to make his guitar buzz, rattle, and pop in a way that is both captivating and exciting.

Thom’s Contributions to Travis Picking

Thom Bresh’s contributions to Travis picking cannot be overstated. He is a true master of the style and has pushed it in new directions that continue to inspire guitarists today. Bresh has also worked to keep his father’s legacy alive, teaching Travis picking to new generations of guitarists to ensure that the style, and the memory of his father, continues to thrive.

The Legacy of Thom Bresh

Thom Bresh’s legacy is one that will be remembered for years to come. He has inspired countless guitarists with his technical skill and unique style, and his dedication to keeping Travis picking alive has ensured that the style continues to thrive. Bresh is also an innovator, constantly pushing the boundaries of what can be done with the guitar and inspiring future generations of musicians to do the same.

Born September 18, 1948
Instrument Guitar
Style Travis picking
Notable Works “The Magic of Merle Travis”, “Homemade Sin”, “A Family Affair”
Awards Inducted into Thumbpickers Hall of Fame in 2006

Thom Bresh is a true master of Travis picking and a legend in his own right. His contributions to music have ensured that the legacy of his father, Merle Travis, will continue to thrive for generations to come.


After delving into the life and legacy of Merle Travis, it’s clear that he was a true genius of country music. His innovative approach to fingerpicking revolutionized the genre and continues to inspire musicians to this day.

Despite facing many challenges throughout his life, Merle Travis remained dedicated to his craft and left behind a lasting legacy that has influenced countless artists. His unique fingerpicking style, now known as Travis Picking, has become an essential part of many country songs and has been used by artists across different genres.

By exploring Travis’ early life and musical career, we gained a better understanding of the events that led to the birth of Travis Picking. It’s fascinating to learn about the inspiration behind this influential technique and to see how it evolved over time.

Travis’ influence on country music cannot be overstated. He was not only a pioneer of the genre but also one of its most prolific songwriters. His songs continue to be celebrated and covered by artists today, which is a testament to their timeless appeal.

Anyone interested in learning Travis Picking can follow the techniques outlined in this article. It’s important to note that practice is the key to mastering this technique, but the effort is certainly worthwhile. With time and dedication, anyone can learn to play like Merle Travis.

Finally, it’s essential to acknowledge the artists and developers inspired by Travis Picking. The fact that his legacy continues to inspire musicians even decades after his passing shows the true impact of his work.

Overall, Merle Travis was a true legend of country music, and his contributions to the genre will be remembered for generations to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes Merle Travis’ fingerpicking style unique?

Merle Travis’ fingerpicking style involves a combination of bass notes and syncopated melody lines, which creates a full and complex sound.

What inspired Merle Travis’ fingerpicking style?

Travis was inspired by the rhythm of trains passing by his childhood home, and he developed his fingerpicking style from imitating the sound of the train wheels on the tracks.

What is Travis Picking?

Travis Picking is a fingerpicking style developed by Merle Travis, known for its alternating bass pattern played by the thumb and syncopated melody lines played by the fingers.

What kind of influence did Merle Travis have on country music?

Merle Travis is credited as one of the pioneers of country music and his fingerpicking style has influenced countless musicians in the genre.

What are some of Merle Travis’ most famous songs?

Some of Merle Travis’ most famous songs include “Sixteen Tons,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and “I Am a Pilgrim.”

What is the technique of Travis Picking?

The technique of Travis Picking involves a steady alternating bass pattern played by the thumb, while the fingers play syncopated rhythms and melodies on the higher strings.

Who was inspired by Merle Travis’ fingerpicking style?

Many artists were inspired by Merle Travis, including Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Thom Bresh.

What is the importance of thumb and finger positioning in Travis Picking?

Thumb and finger positioning are key elements of Travis Picking, as they affect the sound and speed of the picking. Proper positioning allows for more accuracy and control over the strings.

What are some tips for learning Travis Picking?

Start with simple patterns and gradually increase in difficulty. Watch tutorials and use slow-motion playback to study finger placement and timing. Practice consistently and be patient, as it can take time to master this technique.

What is the best way to practice Travis Picking?

The best way to practice Travis Picking is to start with simple patterns, and gradually increase in speed and complexity. Practice regularly and be patient, as it can take time to master this technique. Record yourself to listen back and identify areas for improvement.


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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