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My first fingerpicking lesson


Sometimes I look back wistfully and muse upon odd events that have defined the directions I would take in life. Apropos my music, one of the events that had a profound impact was a casual ten minutes with a friend back in 1971 when he showed me my first fingerpicking pattern. Here it is:

Fingerpicking pattern

It’s such a felicitous pattern that it can be applied to every chord in the book requiring only the strings corresponding to the lower of the two bass notes being changed from the 5th to the 6th, or vice-versa, depending on which the root of the chord falls. It’s a pattern that I’ve shown many guitar players who have wanted to learn fingerstyle. It’s great to see that moment of epiphany light up in their eyes as they realize the latent possibilities of this pattern.

I have normally asked that the student start very slowly – slow enough that the pattern itself is hardly discernible – but firmly, not shyly as if you were trying to hide it away. In this way the student will ingrain the muscle memory (but see below) so that when played at tempo mistakes are less likely. Then – and only then – I suggest that the student increase the tempo by increments; getting faster and faster in the manner of a train picking up speed. Hey, presto! The player is a fingerpicker!

Caveat: the student should then make every effort to unlearn this pattern less, like me, it should get so deeply ingrained it becomes monotonous and the possibility of playing any other way becomes an impossibility!

Postscript: I’ve read people on internet forums call this, and alternate bass fingerpicking in general, “Travis picking”. I beg to suggest that alternate bass picking predated Merle by some years. Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake…

One thought on “My first fingerpicking lesson

  1. I concur with your take on “Travis Picking” – I never understood that either. The earliest alternating bass picking I can recall hearing is on Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag”, 1923 – I think. Perhaps it should be named after him….

    I saw a video of Merle Travis TV performances a few years ago, in which he responded to a presenter’s question – “What do you think of Big Bill Broonzy as a guitarist?” – with “Never heard of him”. I went off him in a big way from that moment, and have resented the term “Travis Picking” ever since!

    Regards, JK

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