After learning the common cowboy chords and strumming patterns many guitar players are unsure how to develop their rhythmic approach to get variety in their sound. One option is fingerstyle guitar. Playing with a pick is an essential skill, but learning fingerstyle techniques will add depth and sophistication to your sound.
One of the most popular fingerpicking patterns is called Travis Picking. The key to it’s sound is the alternating bass notes played by the thumb. As the thumb plays on low strings it alternates with fingers playing on high strings. The result is a driving rhythm with endless possibilities. The style is named after country guitarist Merle Travis. But it’s found in all flavors of guitar music including folk, jazz, blues, ragtime, pop, country, swing, world, latin, classical and chord-melody.
Travis picking guitar is a good place to start fingerpicking because it only requires your thumb, index, and middle fingers. Lets try a finger tapping exercise to get the feel of things. First we’ll assign letters to the fingers we will be using: T = Thumb I = Index M = Middle
Place your strumming hand on a flat surface.
Tap your fingers in the following order: Thumb(T) – Middle(M) – Thumb(T) – Index(I).
Notice how the thumb alternates between the other two fingers. If I were to use the letters and extend this pattern it may look like this:
T – M – T – I – T – M – T – I…
This pattern may continue indefinitely across a whole chord progression. Take a few moments to repeat this tapping pattern in order to achieve some muscle memory into your fingers before we play this on guitar.
Rhythm, Time, and Meter
To understand how to play a rhythm we must understand a beat cycle (or meter). A Meter is a counting system that measures music. Just as we count seconds to track time, in music we count beats to track musical time. This enables us to divide music into familiar pieces and forms (ie: chord progression, verse, chorus, bridge) that can be understood by how many beats they contain.
The most common meter is called Four Four time abbreviated as 4/4. Music in this meter is based on a four beat cycle counted as “one, two, three, four”. Each time the counting reaches four, the cycle repeats. Each group of four beats is called a measure (or bar). For example a ‘four bar phrase‘ could be described as having four measures or sixteen beats:
Now if we apply the tapping exercise above to a 4/4 meter we get this pattern:
As you tap out the pattern with your fingers, count the beats (1, 2, 3, 4). Notice how your thumb (T) lands on each beat while the index (I) and middle (M) fingers land in the space between each beat. The spaces would be counted as “and(+)” and marks half-way between each beat. The example above “1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +” would be counted as “one and two and three and four and one…” with your thumb landing on the numbers and your other fingers landing on the ‘ands’.
Now lets apply this pattern to a common D chord on the guitar.