Travis Style Fingerpicking – Doc Watson


Travis Style Fingerpicking – Deep River Blues interpreted by Doc Watson

Travis style fingerpicking Doc Watson Style – Doc was of course a legend in the acoustic guitar picking world. Mostly known for his fast flat-picking with a plectrum, he was also a formidable finger picker, and his finger-picking prowess was very evident in his version of Deep River Blues.

Inevitably, we modern guitar players try to copy the old guys picking patterns but it’s a tough call, particularly with Doc’s finger-style guitar patterns. When starting to learn how to play acoustic blues guitar, it’s a natural tendency to try to capture the complexity in any way we can, which means we use several fingers to pick the strings, either with finger picks or bare finger tips.

Doc Watson - Acoustic Guitar Travis Style Fingerpicking MasterWith some ragtime, or Travis style fingerpicking tunes, this works quite well. However, the fact is that most master acoustic blues guitarists use just one finger and a thumb to make that syncopated guitar music, and Doc Watson did too. So how did he do it? Well, first of all, his forefinger was very quick and would move from one treble string to the next at lightning speed, giving the impression that two fingers were being used to finger-pick the song.

Next, his thumb mostly stuck to the alternating bass pattern, or the so-called Travis style finger-picking bass string pattern, but sometimes it would jump across to the treble strings to help out, either on the beat of off it, which gave that jumpy syncopated effect. Now this is difficult to do, especially if you try to play it too fast and takes a lot of practice. If you want to learn Deep River Blues this way, which is Doc’s way, then start out really slow and build up speed over some days or weeks.

In the video at the top of the page I show a way in which we can simulate Doc’s ping-picking sound by still using one finger, but simplifying the finger-picking pattern just enough to make it easier to play without robbing the music of it’s delightful original feel. The guitar is in normal tuning, but I inadvertently left the capo on the first fret, so I guess you’ll have to do the same is you want to follow this acoustic blues guitar lesson.

Here’s a bio article about Doc Watson – please take the time to listen to his original music and marvel at his Travis style fingerpicking:

Doc Watson

Singer, guitarist, banjoist

Doc Watson, a native of the North Carolina mountains, has been belatedly recognized as one of the nation’s best folk artists. Watson plays and sings traditional Appalachian string music—songs that were heard on rural front porches before radio began to homogenize American tastes. Blind since early childhood, Watson taught himself to pick guitar and banjo by listening to old recordings; his own award-winning albums contain numerous tunes that he listened to as a child while on his mother’s knee. People magazine contributor Roger Wolmuth suggested that for Watson, music “would become the means of passage from a life of darkness into one made rich and bright by his artistry.” Wolmuth added, “Watson’s blizzard-quick flat picking and warm, mountain-clear baritone have … established the soft-spoken Blue Ridge Mountain native as one of America’s premier acoustic musicians.”

Watson was pulled from the obscurity of his Blue Ridge birthplace by a resurgent interest in traditional folk music. He was almost 40 when a recording he made for the Smithsonian Institution led to invitations to such prestigious concert sites as the Newport Folk Festival, Carnegie Hall, and even the White House. Between 1960 and 1987 Watson undertook a full schedule of touring and studio work, often accompanied by his son Merle, who died in 1985. Wolmuth stated that Watson’s records “are often capsule courses in American music history. Hoedown dance tunes, gospel hymns, even ’50s rockabilly hits seem part of a cultural continuum when translated through his guitar…. To a mostly Northern audience more familiar with such folkie pretenders as the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four, [Watson and his family] represented old-time music at its authentic best.” Homespun and unpretentious, they were the embodiment of the family string band that had been a Southern tradition for generations.

Born Arthel Lane Watson in Deep Gap, North Carolina, Doc grew up in a large farming family of very modest means. His parents and eight siblings were crowded into a three-room house that admitted snow and rain through cracks in the siding. Watson was not blind from birth; he lost his sight as a young child through an undiagnosed illness. His father included him in the family chores. As Watson told Cara Ellen Modisett in The Roanoker, “He realized I didn’t need to sit in a corner because I was visually handicapped, and he put me to work, because he needed me and he knew I was strong and could learn to work.” Watson worked on the family farm, clearing land with a crosscut saw and planting. At other times he went to the town of Boone and sat on the street playing music in return for change. He told Modisett that a reporter at one of his concerts once asked him, “Are you ashamed you ever played on the street?” He replied, “No, I was selling something then, just like when you bought a ticket to get in here.” Laughing, he told Modisett, “That hushed [the reporter] up right quick.” He also commented, “Blind people, most of them, are oversheltered. People don’t understand. I went and did as I pleased.”

Growing up disabled, Watson drew solace from music. Both of his parents loved to sing, and his father could play several instruments. When Watson was eleven his father made him a banjo, using the skin of a recently-deceased cat. Watson learned to play by listening to his father and to old recordings by the Carter Family and Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. After briefly attending the Raleigh School for the Blind (he dropped out at 14), Watson went to work with his father, cutting wood with a cross-saw. He earned enough to buy his first commercially made instrument, a Sears Roebuck guitar.

Watson made his performing debut at a fiddlers’ convention in Boone, North Carolina. He was 17. The following year he began to play regularly on a radio broadcast from Lenoir, North Carolina. With professional musicianship in mind, he gave up his acoustic guitar and old mountain songs for an electric guitar and a repertory of standard country hits; soon he was a local favorite as a member of the Jack Williams Band. Watson played with the Williams group throughout the 1950s, supplementing his income by tuning pianos. Thus he was more or less a fixture in his mountain community when Ralph Rinzler visited in 1960.

Rinzler, a folk and bluegrass enthusiast, was the assistant secretary at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He had traveled south to record banjo player Clarence Ashley. Ashley introduced Rinzler to Watson, who somewhat grudgingly picked up his old acoustic guitar and sang some traditional tunes. Rinzler made a recording of Watson and his family, brought it north, and released it the same year. “Within months,” wrote Wolmuth, “the guitarist would be on tour, a local secret no more.” By 1963 Watson found himself performing before 13,000 fans at the Newport Folk Festival—he both benefited by and contributed to the new wave of interest in folk music among educated Northern audiences.

In 1964 Watson’s son Merle joined him on the road and in the studio. The two were inseparable, and Merle’s attentive care allowed Watson to travel to such exotic locales as Japan, Europe, and Africa. When Merle died in a tractor accident in 1985, the elder Watson, grief-stricken and bereft of his indispensable companion, began to restrict his concert appearances. He founded MerleFest, an annual music festival held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, every spring, in his son’s memory.

Watson has never produced a so-called “hit” album, but his numerous recordings on folk labels have brought him relative prosperity. A contributor to the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music wrote that Watson “is now a revered figure among old and young alike, drawing wild receptions quite out of keeping with his down-home musical style.”

Although Watson has played at bluegrass festivals and has even opened for bluegrass founder Bill Monroe, his music is not to be confused with bluegrass. Many of Watson’s songs, and his picking style as well, predate the advent of bluegrass—his is the sound of the old country string band, his songs the ballads of the hill country. His best-known tunes, such as “Tom Dooley,” “Shady Grove,” “Darlin’ Cory,” “Ground Hog,” and “Willie Moore” date to far simpler times in the nineteenth century. Watson’s resurrection of these earthy folk works formed “an antidote to a pop business [that was] … backsliding into blandness,” according to the reviewer in theIllustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music.

For the Record …

Born Arthel Lane Watson on March 2, 1923, in Deep Gap, NC; son of General Dixon (a farmer) and Annie (Greer) Watson; married Rosa Lee Carlton, c. 1946; children: Merle (deceased), Nancy. Education: Attended Raleigh School for the Blind.

Singer, guitarist, banjo player, 1933–; made first appearance at a fiddlers’ convention, Boone, N.C., 1940; played on radio in Lenoir, N.C., 1941; recording artist, 1960–; performed in America, Europe, Africa, and Japan; appeared at Newport Folk Festival, 1963, and Carnegie Hall, 1985; played special concert at the White House, 1980; performed music for film “Places in the Heart.”

Awards: Grammy Awards, Best Traditional Folk Album, 1973, 1974, 1987, 1991, 2002, and for Best Country Instrumental Performance, 1979; Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, 2004; National Medal of the Arts, 1997; National Heritage Fellowship, 1998; International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor, 2000; Scots Trad International Presentation Award, 2004.

Addresses: Booking—Folklore, 1671 Appian Way, Santa Monica, CA 90401, website:

In the liner notes to Watson’s 2000 release, Foundation: Doc Watson Instrumental Collection, 1964–1998, Dan Crary remarked on Watson’s blending of technical skill with these old songs: “Doc’s playing is blazing virtuosity and homespun country; deceptively simple and deeply subtle; smooth grace and raw energy; it’s utterly original and it’s like you’ve heard it all your life.” Watson’s playing is notable because, despite his deep well of virtuosity, he does not display it simply to impress an audience. If he plays a tune fast, showing off his stunning flatpicking ability, it is only because the tune should be played fast, and for no other reason. His music shines with honesty and clarity. In Popular Music and Society, George H. Lewis wrote, “In listening to his wonderful music, one is struck with, in addition to Watson’s musical innovativeness and virtuosity, his simple humility and the joy that playing music gives him.” Watson told Modisett, “I won’t put on no airs of no kind.”

Watson reduced his touring schedule after Merle’s death, and spends as much time as possible with his wife, Rosalee, on his family property near Deep Gap, where his son is buried in a family plot. His daughter, Nancy, lives nearby. Watson does not practice every day. He told Modisett, “I’m 81 years old and I’m pretty well versed on the material I need to use.” He added, “No, I don’t play every day. Don’t need to.”

“I sure wouldn’t have gone on the road with the guitar,” he said. “But a man’s got to do what he can do. When they let you in this world, they hand you a little box. It’s invisible, of course, and it’s got a few talents in it. And if somethin’ happens that you can’t lean on one, why, you got two or three more you can get hold of.” Watson’s particular “talent box” produced a musician who has helped to retain, re-establish, and revitalize a vibrant form of American expression—the old-time country sound.

Selected discography

The Doc Watson Family, 1963.
Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City, 1963.
Country Music and Bluegrass at Newport, 1963.
Treasures Untold, 1964.
Doc Watson, 1964.
Doc Watson and Son, 1965.
Strictly Instrumental, 1966.
Home Again, 1966.
In Nashville: Good Deal!, 1968.
Doc Watson On Stage, 1968.
Ballads from Deep Gap, 1971.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. I and II, 1972.
The Essential Doc Watson, 1973.
Then and Now/Two Days in November, 1974
Elementary Doctor Watson/Then and Now, 1974.
Memories, 1975.
Doc and the Boys, 1976.
The Doc Watson Family Tradition, 1977.
Old Timey Concert, 1977.
Lonesome Road, 1977.
Look Away, 1978.
Live and Pickin’, 1979.
Reflections, 1980.
Red Rocking Chair, 1981.
Doc and Merle Watson’s Guitar Album, 1983.
Riding the Midnight Train, 1984.
Down South, 1984.
Pickin’ the Blues, 1985.
Portrait, 1987.
Favorites of Clint Howard: Doc Watson and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, 1988.
On Praying Ground, 1990.
My Dear Old Southern Home, 1991.
Remembering Merle, 1992.
Songs for Little Pickers, 1993.
Bill Monroe and Doc Watson: Off the Record, Vol. 2, 1993.
Songs from the Southern Mountains, 1994.
Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, 1994.
Southbound, 1995.
Docabilly, 1995.
Doc Watson: The Vanguard Years (4 CD set), 1995.
Watson Country, 1996.
Mac, Doc, and Del, 1997.
Doc and Dawg, 1997.
Home Sweet Home, 1998.
Third Generation Blues, 1999.
The Best of Doc Watson: 1964–1968, 1999.
An Evening with Doc Watson and David Holt, 1999.
Foundation: Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection, 1964–1998, 2000.
Doc Watson and Gerdes Folk City, 2001.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. III, 2002.
Songs from Home, 2002.
Round the Table Again, 2002.
Lonesome Road and Look Away, 2002.
Legacy, 2002.
Trouble in Mind: Doc Watson Country Blues Collection, 2003.
Then and Now, 2003.
The Three Pickers, 2003.
Tennessee Stud, 2003.
Doc and the Boys: Live and Pickin’, 2003.
Sittin’ Here Pickin’ the Blues, 2004.

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It was a fact that Doc was also very humble. One of my guitar students told me he searched Doc out where he lived in the 80s and knocked on his door! He explained that he was a great admirer and fan, and was just passing through to say hello. Doc promptly invited him in and they ate dinner together – that’s real class – RIP.