Merle Travis – Guitarist Spotlight

The pioneer of guitar playing with the most influence upon fingerstyle is Merle Travis.

In fact, long before the term fingerstyle became popular, the technique where the thumb plays an alternating pattern on the bass strings while melody and harmony are played in upper register was known as “Travis picking.”

Guitarists from Phil Ochs to Leo Kotte, Paul Simon and James Taylor to John Mayer and Bonnie Raitt, Mary Flowers to David Lindley all owe a great deal to the boy from Kentucky who took a picking style rooted in Black blues music and expanded it to include elements from ragtime, Western swing, jazz, offering a rich tapestry of tones deceptively subtle in its complexity.

Here he is circa 1951 playing one of his most well known compositions, on his equally famous Martin D-28, which he had altered to include a neck based on the electric guitar that he designed and had built for him by Paul Bigsby in 1948.

The direct lineage leading to Merle Travis includes fingerpickers like Blind Blake, as well as local musicians from his old Kentucky home. The direct lineage of Travis pickers that followed include luminaries such as Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. But while such players and their own musical disciples use a similar syncopation, they tend to play a single bass note on the 1 and 3 beat, where Travis often played two bass strings at the same time. And where most fingerstyle players use two or three, and sometimes four fingers to play above the bass line, Travis used only his index finger to create such intricate arrangements.

This video is from 17 years later and gives a clearer view of his typical picking style.

Merle Travis was equally at home on electric guitars, favoring large Gibson hollow body models like the Super 400, before and after his solid body Bigsby period. And like George Barnes before him, he had a signature model built by Carlo Greco at Guild Guitars during the 1960s, known as the Merle Travis Soloist. And like the Barnes model, only a handful was ever made.

Here he is with his son Thom Bresh pretending he hadn’t seen or played Cannonball Rag before.

Bresh has carried on his father’s legacy, while establishing his own reputation as a world-class guitarists. He will get his own Guitarist of the Week in due time.

Finally, here is Merle Travis and Chet Atkins together. No video, but a couple of old hands doing what they do best, play guitar.

Related Reading

Merle Travis – Country Music Hall of Fame

Thom Bresh Official Website

More Guitarists in the Spotlight

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