Travis Picking, named after Merle Travis, involves playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand (assuming a right handed guitarist). It is a great accompanimental style for folk and ragtime music amongst other styles.
I didn't pick up on its essence when, in my youth, I first tried to figure the pattern out by ear. Some day I'll show you what I came up with (its not a bad pattern just not the real pattern), however now we'll talk about the real thing.
What is its essence?
The essence of the Travis pattern is the steady bass against the syncopated figure played with the fingers. The use of the term "syncopated" is perhaps stretching it a bit. This term refers to a rhythm that is "off beat" with reference to the basic pulse. In this case the overall rhythm of the Travis pattern is not syncopated, however when you break the pattern down into its two elements, one part (played with the thumb) is on the beat, and the other part (played with the fingers) is sometimes in between the beat, hence the term syncopated. It is important to understand however, that when both thumb and finger are working together this should not produce a off beat jerky rhythm but instead a lively yet comfortable feeling groove with a steady pulse.
Here is a quicktime video of the lesson.
Travis Picking in Five Steps (5min quicktime movie, 9MB)
Learn this pattern, make up your own variations and you will be getting your feet wet in some very holy water.
Make the thumb the time keeper!
Get that steady bass going. The Travis picking pattern depends on the thumb laying down a steady pulse, over and over. This example uses a D chord. The Bass is alternating between the Fourth and Third strings. Practice the bass by itself over and over and over and over. The notation shows a repeat sign indicating that you should practice each step many times. The sound files do not play the repeats.
The middle finger plays at the same time as the downbeat (along with the thumb). This is sometime referred to as a "pinch".
The next element is adding the syncopation on the "and of two" played with the index finger. This stroke falls in between the steady bass pulse of the thumb. In the notation you will see two eight notes played during the second beat. This thumb play the one on the beat and the index finger play the second eight. Although the music seems to imply that there are two different "a" notes being played on the second count (an eighth note with stem up and a quarter note with stem down), there is just one and it is played by the thumb. This style of notation is used to show the "between the beat" nature of the notes being played with the fingers.
Next you add the middle finger on the "and of three". You could leave it at that. That's a decent Travis Pattern, perhaps THE basic pattern. But lets add one more common variation.
The last element to add is a syncopation with the index on the "and of Four".
The pattern shown at step 5 can be used with any song whose last three words of the title are: "in the Wind" i.e. Dust in the Wind, Blowin' in the Wind, Dogs Break in the Wind etc.It may take months to feel secure and confident at this speed. Have patience, use a metronome set to as slow as needed and play this pattern for 5 minutes no-stop. Then move the metronome setting up a notch every other day or so. After a few weeks (you didn't think this was going to be easy, did you?) your fingers will finally be trained to move in a manner that you first thought to be impossible. Don't quit on this one. If you get bored with the sound of the D chord, try other chords. For any chord play the first thumb stroke on the string that has the letter name of the chord. example: On a the C chord the R.H. thumb starts on the fifth string (which at the third fret is the note C). The thumb can then alternate between strings five and four.
Excuse the narrative, but for Dust in the Wind: Try this last Travis pattern on a C chord (move the right hand over one string so that the pattern spans string 2 through string 5) then lift your first finger (left hand) on the second repetition of the Travis pattern. Then add your fourth finger for the next pattern and on the fourth Travis pattern repetition use a regular C chord. Next an Am mutation (a mild one, it's OK) have a friend show you the rest. Tons of guitar players have learned that song, it's great, it's a Rock classic.
"Solo Finger Picking" by Jerry Snyder is a good book to start with if you want to continue to study this pattern.
Once you gain experience in this style you might want to try some more advanced applications of this pattern. I've enjoyed playing out of "Guitar Finger-Picking Styles" by Happy Traum (contains some Blues and Ragtime pieces using Travis style thumpin' bass) and "Classic Ragtime Guitar Solos" by Stefan Grossman (a compilation of several ragtime pieces by various composers and arrangers)
Here's an improvised Travis style ditty with muted bass notes using an age old chord progression.