You will quickly come to find the most important foundation is a solid rhythm. The focus of these first lessons is traditional roots style music, and if you break it down two distinct profiles begin to emerge, Travis style and Alternating Bass. Both are equally valid and invaluable in the proper situation.

Travis style, named after the inimitable Merle Travis who popularized it, is a widely used term that encompasses a variety of fingerpicking styles. It’s characterized by a syncopated melody over a driving rhythm, often on two bass strings playing the root and 5th. It’s also been called Cotten Picking, after guitarist Elizabeth Cotten.

Alternating bass is an extension of the Travis style. It adds another note, often the 3rd, making it sound much more sophisticated.

Here’s an example:

Before you get started:

-Read the tab, and listen to the audio example.

-If you’re having trouble, begin by playing only the bass notes and add the top strings when you can keep a solid rhythm.

-Nobody likes a metronome, especially me, but when starting out using one will help you’re timing immensely. Remember to start very slowly and make sure every note is sounding out clearly, tap your foot and get used to the rhythm.  80bpm might seem painfully slow to you, but if you can’t play it slowly you’ll never play it properly fast. These basics movements are very important, so take the time to get the master these simple lessons before moving on.

  • Once you can play them, try increasing the speed of the metronome gradually, 5-10 bpm at a time. Don’t increase it again until you can play it flawlessly.
  • The top strings are labeled with the recommended picking fingers:I=Index

    It’s important to note that all of these exercises can be performed with alternate fingers. There are no hard fast rules for these; the fingerings listed are to get your right hand ready for what’s to come. Try switching it up when you have them under your belt.

  • These first exercises are all played holding down an E major Chord. The right hand is what we’re focused on here, so if you want to sit in front of the television or read a book while working on your muscle memory try tuning the guitar to a chord like open G (DADGBD) and play all the strings open.
  • Lastly, when you play these, dampen the lower strings so bass notes have a nice rhythmic ‘chunk.’ (see The Main Elements of Picking for more info)

The next two examples make use of a dotted note, listen to the example for timing, and don’t forget to swing it!

These next two are a real workout. Remember to start slowly and make the notes ring out clean.

This final one is the same as the above, but played over a C chord. Try using the patterns from both 4a and 4b.
To hit the note on the 6th string move your left ring finger, indicated by the T: