Learn Travis Picking on Ukulele


Who is Travis? This is a question I hear almost every time I teach the delightful and extremely useful fingerstyle pattern known as Travis picking. Country and western singer-songwriter and guitarist Merle Travis (1917–1983) is the musician credited with popularizing the famous pattern—an alternating bass line picked with the thumb, along with syncopated melodies on the higher strings, as heard on classic songs like “Sixteen Tons.” In this lesson, we’ll look at two patterns that are the main building blocks of Travis picking—one of the must-haves in any ukulele player’s tool kit.

The Basic Patterns

With only four strings, fitting the Travis picking pattern onto the ukulele is a breeze. The alternating thumb simply goes back and forth between strings 4 and 3, and the index and middle fingers pick strings 2 and 1, respectively. Example 1 depicts the basic pattern on a I–IV (G–C) progression in the key of G major. I like to practice it out loud by saying, “Out-side-in-side-out-side-stop,” referencing the outer and inner two sets of strings. Start by slowly repeating Ex. 1 over and over until you get the feel for it. Keep each chord shape held down as long as possible, and feel free to focus on one chord—or even just the open strings—as you get the picking pattern going. When it’s starting to flow, add the chord progression.

ukulele travis picking lesson example 1

If you’re in high-G tuning as written, you’ll notice right away that some notes repeat on a different string. This can be a bit confusing at first, but it will sound very cool once you’re chugging along. Low-G tuning keeps the octave apart, so it will be more similar to Travis picking on guitar. Another important musical note is to put a slight accent on the “and” of beat 2 in each bar throughout. As I demonstrate
in the accompanying video, this gives the pattern a lilt that helps the syncopation do its magic.


Example 2 starts with a quarter note and the sound of the two outer strings picked simultaneously. This is a nice touch, as it outlines a bit more of the harmony, while allowing for a thicker texture on the first beat. Based on the same picking pattern as Ex. 2, Example 3 adds hammer-ons to the mix. [For more on hammer-ons, as well as pull-offs, see my lesson in the Fall 2020 issue.]

ukulele travis picking lesson example 2
ukulele travis picking lesson example 3

 It may take a bit of work at first to hold the chord down and only hammer one finger onto the next note, but with a little patience it will pay off. 

These patterns are interchangeable, so learn them both slowly and carefully until you can play them lightly and bouncily at a quicker pace. Once you’ve learned the patterns, they can be easily used on any song you like in 4/4 or cut time. 

Travis Hammer Lullaby

The patterns introduced in Ex. 3 are put to use in “Travis Hammer Lullaby” (p. 50), from my book Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele. Many of the chords are embellished with a hammer-on on the first beat of each measure. These articulations create a melody that sustains through the “and” of beat 3. Take special care to keep the hammer-ons even and in time. It’s easy to do them a bit too fast at first, which can result in an uneven, limping sort of sound. Once you’re able to play these patterns smoothly and evenly with both hands, they can be used for all sorts of songs in many styles. Travis picking is a powerful tool for accompaniment, whether in solo or ensemble settings. 

Try it on your favorite songs in common time and you’ll have a whole new way to enliven your playing.

ukulele travis picking lesson "Travis Hammer Lullaby" by Daniel Ward music notation