How to Play a Guitar for Beginners: Country Fingerpicking

Hey y’all, Crawford Smith here from with a lesson on how to play country-style fingerpicking guitar. This kind of fingerpicking, which is done by people like Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and John Prine, can make it sound like there are two guitarists playing at the same time, one holding down chords and bass and the other picking the melody.

This may seem like a complicated way to learn how to play a guitar for beginners. Never fear, though, because even novices can master the basic of this style of playing if they break it down into its component parts.

The key to Travis picking, as this style is sometimes called, is the thumb. The thumb is used to pick the bass line on the low E, A, and D strings and holds down a steady rhythm while the index, middle and ring fingers play the melody on the high E, B, and G strings. To get good at Travis picking, you should practice thumb technique alone for a while before adding in the melody.

This exercise is a two-chord jam in C major, C to G7. We’re going to use the standard 1st-position versions of these chords, which look like this:



Now, without further ado, here is the exercise! Pick all of these notes with your thumb. For the first four measures hold the C chord shape, then switch to the G7 for the last four measures.


This is an example of the standard down-up-down-up style of bass line use in this kind of fingerpicking. You’re shooting for a sound kind of like the bass parts in old Johnny Cash songs.


To fret the bass note on the low E string while holding the C chord shape, move your ring finger down to the low E. Even though in this exercise you’re not playing all of the notes in the chords, fret the whole chords while you play, because you will need to do this when you start incorporating melody.

Now here’s the hard part: you need to want to practice this pattern until your thumb doesn’t know how to move any other way! To be able to play melodies on top of this bass line, the thumb motion has to become almost a reflex. Practice this while you’re watching TV if you get bored.

Once you feel comfortable with this bass line, you can start experimenting with playing some of the other notes in the chords with your fingers while keeping the bass line up with your thumb. You’re on your way to learning country fingerstyle!

If you want to go deeper with this technique, I recommend you to check out this course in DVD:


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