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Doc Watson Guitar Lesson - Travis Picker Extraordinaire

Doc Watson Guitar Lesson

Although not a blues guitar player in the strictest sense, Doc Watson's finger picking technique calls for special attention. 

The relaxed sounds of this very popular Doc Watson Guitar Lesson - Deep River Blues and the intricacy of Doc's finger style creates a formidable item of guitar playing which is tough to re-produce. It is this complex, easy feel which possibly leads to a lot of teachers to over simplify Doc's method, or worse, make it too complex utilizing two or several fingers of the picking hand.

In actual fact, Doc picks with simply his thumb and one finger of his right hand to create this impressive feeling - let's take a look at how he does it.

I hope you like the guitar lesson! There are a couple of wonderful videos on Youtube of Doc Watson performing Deep River Blues.

Never mind the fact that Doc didn't write Deep River ( it was published and sung by the Delmore Brothers, a Country singing partnership, who recorded it as 'I've Got The Big River') Doc undoubtedly made it his own.

Doc's Right Hand Picking Technique

Re-working the song in a Travis picking way introduced delicate complexities, and yet produced a really relaxed feel. Many acoustic guitarists have a variation of Deep in their list of songs, and I perform this song routinely in public.

However, not many of us perform it in really the same way as Doc. Mostly, this is due the dexterity required. A lot of guitarists try to accommodate the complex picking technique ( as they see it ) by using two or more fingers on the right hand.

The resulting sound can be impressive, but doesn't really reflect accurately what Doc does.

Other individuals over-simplify the approach, which is a bit of a shame. In reality, Doc's approach on Deep River IS simple, but it's the sheer dexterity that floors us.

Did Doc Use One Picking Finger Or More?

Doc simply plays with one finger on his right hand. As you can imagine, this one finger (his first) moves fairly quickly and the thumb also moves across to assist with the syncopation now and again. The use of just one finger was the primary factor which struck me concerning Doc's picking technique.

doc watson deep river blues guitar lessonIt reminded me of the ragtime blues guitar of Reverend Gary Davis, who additionally used one right hand finger. 'One is all you need', he is noted to have said! Like Watson, the Reverend's picking hand thumb may leap across to the treble strings. Each guitarist's thumb and finger acted quite independently, with the thumb often breaking out of the set alternating bass form to create single string runs or syncopated off-beats.

The embedded online video beneath features a complete 15 minute guitar lesson for Deep River Blues
. It was initially posted in two parts. The first portion examines the one finger process and the basic picking structure, leading on to approaches that we might use to approximate Doc's sound, in case we can't manage to play exactly as he does! (This in all probability means most of us!)

The 2nd part will take a glimpse into the 'fiddly bits'. This is where Doc's thumb produces some fascinating sounds by moving out of it's bass pattern. We look at a break and also end-tag variations.

Of course, Doc Watson's flat picking is legendary, and I'm not sure when he came to fingerpicking, but it was probably under the influence of the music made by Merle Travis, whose skill was so unique that the style of using that alternating bass thumb pattern became known as 'Travis picking'. It's a bit harsh, as there were many fantastic pickers using the exact same patterns all over the States decades before - men like Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Boy Fuller and of course Rev Gary Davis.

Other site pages covering the alternating bass picking patterns of the old blues men:

The curious thing is that a select few of the guitarists using just their thumb and forefinger created some sounds that seemed far more complex than payers using more than one finger. In act, a common failing of modern guitar players is to over-complicate the techniques. When I use two fingers, I find that the music tends to speed up, so often use one finger to keep down the pace. Deep River Blues in Doc's style is quite leisurely paced, and he really takes his time with the delivery.

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Fingerstyle guitarists who use just the thumb and forefinger need to be very inventive to create the same kind of syncopation as a similar artists using two or more fingers. The first question is - What is syncopation?

First of all, we could describe syncopation in strictly musical terms, but I suspect it doesn't mean a lot to most musicians or hobby fingerpickers. Let's face it, most people want to learn how to play like Doc Watson and don't necessarily need to understand the technical reasons for why it sounds just great! In musical terms, syncopation in music is achieved by placing the accent on the off beat rather than the first beat. This is unusual to the ear and when done properly (as in the case of Scott Joplin and his piano rags), it can be very appealing - it's difficult to stop your feet from tapping!

A more accessible definition is to say that syncopation a change in tempo or rhythm that pleasantly surprises the audience. I like this definition. The change in rhythm, or melody variations, are not expected but please the ear when they do. It's very easy to hear the effect when listening to Scott Joplin - listen to The Entertainer below:


That all very well for a piano player who has 88 keys at his disposal, but how does a guitar player create these complex sounds and add syncopation to his music? You would think that as many fingers as possible should be used to pick the guitar strings, because of the complexity require, and in some cases modern guitarists do you use all of their fingers, just like classical musicians and flamenco players.


How To Play Travis Guitar In The Doc Watson Style


There several techniques used by Doc and others to create syncopation. First of, it almost goes without saying that control of the thumb and finger must be complete, which means that the movement of one doesn't depend on the position or movement of the other. Doc's forefinger was very adept at moving across the treble string in any direction and could move rapidly even while he was singing.

Secondly, his thumb might strike any string at all, often using alternating thumb and finger strikes to create runs on a single string before moving back to the Travis style alternating thumb pattern we all know. The thumb could also cross over the finger work to make complex arpeggio style runs with a syncopated beat. Once again, it's the combination of these fingerpicking movements that creates the interest for the listener. If we pick one riff or lick again and again, it gets to be expected and it quickly loses it's appeal.

Looking closely at Doc Watson's right hand technique, you'll notice he wears a small thumb pick and a clear plastic finger pick.

How To Play Guitar Using Finger Picks - Better Than Bare Fingers?

As with most things, finger picks have pros and cons.

Advantages of Finger Picks:

              • They are a natural amplifier
              • Produce a clear and sharp sound
              • Fit more easily between the guitar strings
              • Protect the fingers
guitar fingerpicksStrike any guitar string with a bare finger and then do the same thing wearing a stainless steel or plastic pick. The sound is much louder and generally lasts longer. This is because a hard surface (the pick edge) is striking the hard surface of the string. This can be a great advantage when recording for example, or playing in noisy bars. As well as being louder, finger picks also produce a cutting sound that can be heard through traffic noise, or in other noisy places, so great for busking. When combining picks with a naturally loud guitar such as a National Steel (à la Floyd Council) the loudness is dramatically increased.

Disadvantages Of Using Finger Picks

              • They wear out the strings fast!
              • Make too much noise
              • Sounds Metallic
              • You can lose them!
Because finger picks are hard, it stands to reason that both the strings and the picks are going to wear out very quickly. This isn't too critical for the picks, as they are quite cheap - just a few dollars according to my last purchase. However, if you use relatively expensive coated strings and are used to changing your strings quite often, then it can become very expensive. For example, a professional player with 3 or 4 gigs per week, or someone playing on the streets every day might change the guitar strings once a week.

I speak from experience when I tell you - you will lose them! It's not a good idea to rely on one thing, whatever it is you do, so if you cannot play without picks, if you mislay them you are totally screwed. In my own case, just once I had to go on stage to play with bare finger because I lost my finger picks. Another time, a thumb pick broke and I hadn't bothered to buy spares the day before, so be warned.

In quiet situations, they can be just too damn harsh and metallic sounding. If you're playing a delicate folk or blues ballad, the hard sound of pick meeting string can be hard to control and be totally out of place. In this case, or when recording in the studio, bare fingers might be best.

The Pros and Cons Of Fingerstyle Guitar With Bare Fingers

There tends to be more control with bare fingers, simply because your finger tips can feel the strings and vary the contact time, but also the pressure used. There are some fantastic guitar players out there who use either their finger nails or false nails to pick with (Ralph McTell, James Taylor) but this still seems unnatural to me, particularly when playing the blues, although it works quite well the bouncy ragtime style of many old blues men.

I suppose the big issue with bare fingers is the physical discomfort associated with it. It depends on how hard to pluck the strings, but in general you would need to grow callouses on one or more fingers to play comfortably. Of course, out bodies can adapt to anything. It was my habit to use two steel finger picks to play ragtime blues, and one day I lost one of the picks. I realized that I used my forefinger about 70% of the time and my second finger for additional strikes, so I simply wore one steel pick on my forefinger and left the second one bare - it worked well for me!

Over a period of time, I learned to use picks, or bare fingers, depending on the song and the feeling I wanted to convey to  my listeners. That way I got the best of both worlds.

How To Play Deep River Blues Doc Watson Style

I've played Deep River both with bare finger and with picks. The approach is a little bit different for each, and it also depends on plastic or stainless steel. The angle of attack is important, and using picks changes this (or can do!) When buying steel picks, it's a good idea to bend over the tip so that the contact point is exactly the same as when using bare finger tips. This means you don't have to make an adjustment for the angle of attack, for the fingers at least.

The thumb is a different matter, because the contact point sticks out considerably form the bare contact point, and in fact the whole angle of the thumb needs to be different. Once you get used to the different way of fingerpicking with each style, it becomes natural to use either depending upon your needs.

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