A Funky Fingerstyle Challenge! Mutant Travis Picking

Here’s a fingerpicking idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, though I couldn’t figure out a great way to present it till now.

It’s a challenging series of ultra-syncopated variations on traditional Travis picking — a funky fingerstyle challenge.

I started down this path while trying to create one of those fake-out song intros. You know — the kind that starts with solo guitar, and you think you know where the beat is. But then the drums come in, and your head spins as you realize you were perceiving the downbeat in the wrong place. What if, I thought, you started with Travis picking that, unbeknownst to the listener, was displaced by a 16th-note? That would guarantee a rude awakening when the beat kicked in.

I tried the pattern that way and found it nearly impossible. It took some slow, brain-twisting practice to play those familiar alternating-bass patterns with the rhythmically accented thumb notes falling on offbeat 16th-notes. (And it took even longer for it to feel natural and start grooving.) Maybe the technique comes naturally to some minds, but not mine!

I expand on the notion here when a lesson covering all the possible permutations. It’s more than a mental exercise: The musical implications are vast. As cool as traditional Travis-picking is, and for all the variation it permits, it’s almost inevitably locked into a sort of barn-dance feel with the accents fixed on beats 1 and 3. Learning to shift those accents has many benefits: It develops rhythmic independence. It lets you deploy your thumb in unusual syncopations. And it unlocks a world of funky grooves suitable for Latin and African music, bitchin’ new hybrids, and of course, the fake-out intros that inspired the idea.

I hope you find the concept as compelling as I do. Happy picking!

You can download the notation and tab for these exercises here. It’s a PDF file that you can save and print.

12 comments to A Funky Fingerstyle Challenge! Mutant Travis Picking

  • Snakefingers

    First, this is an extremely cool post. As a musical idea, and a technical challenge, getting off the beat really opens up the musical possibilities and does make one’s playing compelling.

    Travis picking has come to mean alternating bass fingerstyle.

    Not to quibble, but Travis picking, at least when done by the man himself, slightly accents beats 2 and 4. Sometimes the emphasis is very slight-

    9 pound hammer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btVAuFMpNr4
    Midnight Special: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VikAbi4hTs

    Sometimes it’s bit stronger-
    Lost John: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s00MV1sY37c

    Another way to add interest is to play ahead of the beat. Here, Leo Kottke adds a bit of kick by anticipating the first beat. You can hear him do so for the fist minute or so-
    Medely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnQTC5ICGik

    The effect is not subtle, though.

  • joe

    Oh man, thanks SO much for those links. Reminds me all over again just how good he was!

    But actually, you’re not quibbling in the slightest. While Travis often emphasizes the backbeat with sort of a percussive frailing-like sweep rather than a pluck, in every clip above the bass notes fall squarely on 1 and 3. Nothing wrong with that! (I mean, listen how AWESOME it sounds!) But there’s nothing there like the syncopations I cover in my video.

    Man, does he swing!

    And those clips remind me yet again of the absurdity of Fender suing the pants of anyone who mimics their headstocks, while the design was so obviously ripped off from the Paul Bigsby guitar Travis plays in all three clips.

    Likewise with Kottke: Man, he’s funky, and his live sound in that clip is amazing. But again, the thumb accents fall almost exclusively on beats 1 and 3. Not a value judgment — simply a rhythmic observation.

  • Really, really interesting, Joe !!!

  • Roman

    Very cool work!

    Different kinds of picking…I love some of early John Faney’s stuff, he was so free and unconventional in that case, his playing flows absolutely naturally. “Some summer day” is a tune “to die for”, as for me.

  • Snakefingers

    “Man, does he swing!”

    Yep, most definitely, that was my point, how much the original thing has some swing. As for your syncopations- You’re right, there’s nothing like them in the Travis vids.

    Syncopating the melodic line is cool, but when you get the bass notes off beats 1 & 3 it crosses over to the amazing side of the street. Didn’t mean to shift attention from that.

    • joe

      I was thinking about, and I realize that a lot of what I think of as “Travis picking” is really less about Merle than about the folk-rock versions of the style I learned when I was a tween — like Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song” and Steve Stills’s “4 + 20.” I’ll always love those songs, but no one ever accused those guys of swinging.

  • Snakefingers

    Not musically, anyway.

  • Alfredo Odriozola

    The funny thing is, you go to a book to learn Travis picking and it’s all, index finger for this, middle for that, ring for that other. Whereas the man himself used just thumb and index, and probably remains inimitable.
    As for the post, it’s really interesting, to shift rhythms like that. Still trying.

    • joe

      You’re touching on SUCH a fascinating topic, Alfredo. To me, it’s one of the great divides between classical music and — pretty much everything else. Anyone who’s ever studied a classical instrument knows how much effort you put into building up equal power in every finger. Whereas in folk music, the attitude is more, “Hey, if I can play it all with two fingers, why make life more difficult?” Same with those blues players who NEVER use their fretting-hand pinkies. Part of me thinks, “Man, the opportunities you’re missing,” and the other part thinks, “If it ain’t broke … “

  • Snakefingers

    There’s a story about Rev. Gary Davis. Someone asked him why he only picked with two fingers. “Because that’s all I need,” he replied.

  • great lesson!I’m looking forward to trying these ideas out.

    thanks joe

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