Questions we hear from a lot of beginners include, “How do I strum this? Should I play full chords or single notes?” And, of course, I’m going to chime in with, “What about a combination of both?”
The truth is that it’s all up to you. If you want to copy what the guitarist on a recording does, then you just listen to what he or she is playing. If you want to come up with something yourself that will sound perfectly fine of its own accord, then you need to experiment. You have to know what different strumming styles are going to sound like. So let’s take a song and try out a few ideas.
These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.
I’ve chosen Otis Redding’s (Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay as our “Easy Songs for Beginners” lesson for today. It will be a bit of a challenge, I think. But I also think you’re more than up for it. After all, this is the twenty-first song, isn’t it? Time for some work! Okay, work that is both easy and fun!
First, let’s grab the chords and examine the song structure. It’s pure formula: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus. As always, my chords (and lyrics) may be different than others you’ve seen or heard. Have a peek:
In our arrangement, we’re going to make one chord substitution:
I’ve substituted B7 for B because it will be an easier chord to play and it doesn’t change the tone of the song drastically enough for someone to notice. Also, I want to stay away from barre chords at this point in our studies.
Now, let’s try playing this with a simple strum. Let me give you a pattern to use:
Nothing really to it, right? Most strumming is just a matter of a steady down-and-up stroke of the strings. In the simplest form, think of striking down on the beat and up at the off-beat (or half-beat). Get your hand going in a steady motion of down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up.
But playing every single stroke would get monotonous pretty quickly. The trick to strumming, if you want to think of it as a “trick,” is in keeping your wrist, hand and arm going but NOT ALWAYS STRIKING THE STRINGS. This is how you create patterns.
What I’ve done is broken up every measure into eighth notes (two per beat, so eight per measure, since we’re in 4/4 time). We’ll keep the eighth notes steady and pick and choose which ones to play the strings on and which ones to leave empty, if you will.
Here we’re playing a downstroke on the first beat but not striking the strings as we move our hand back up. We hit them again with a downstroke on the second beat and also with an upstroke on the offbeat between the second and third beats. We miss the strings on the downstroke of the third beat and then hit them on the upstroke (in the last half of the third beat), and then both down and up on the fourth beat.
Play this pattern while holding the G chord. Once you feel comfortable with the pattern, let’s do a whole verse and a chorus:
So, why did I choose this particular pattern for this particular song? Truth be told, I could have gone with many others. But this one has a lazy feel to it. It’s not busy, yet it keeps things moving along. In other words, it sounds good. And sometimes things are that simple.
We could play the whole song this way. There’s no reason we couldn’t, except that then the lesson would be over! And you know I couldn’t just let it go at that, right?
So let’s take what we know and add to it. Maybe we’ll even learn something!
Let’s start with an observation. There are lots of different ways to strum, if only because there are all sorts of patterns to play. But in addition to patterns that involve straight chords, you can also simply play individual notes. We touched upon this in our very first lesson, The Simplest Song. Merely adding a bass note (usually the root of the chord) can add a whole new dimension to your strumming. When you go from single notes in the bass, as in “Horse With No Name,” to simple bass lines (as in Fire) and then onto more complex riffs (Hey Hey My My), you are adding new layers of complexity to your playing. Equally important, you are developing a repertoire of patterns that you can use throughout your playing. The more you learn about music, music theory and the guitar, the more you will find yourself creating your own riffs and fills.
Shall we start with an introduction? On the recording, the bass starts out the song with a little riff (actually, just the root and fifth, or G and D notes) while we hear some recorded ocean noises. I hear waves, seagulls, and if you listen intently you might hear a crab scuttling across the sand… We don’t have a bass, so we’re going to have to do this part ourselves:
You can do this one of two ways: first, you can simply set up your fingers to play both of these notes, as I’ve pointed out in example 3A. Personally, I prefer to slide my finger up to the D note from the C. I do this with my ring finger, sliding it from the third fret to the fifth.
Now we could simply play our bass notes and strum the chords, but let’s have some real fun! The chord progression of this song lends itself very nicely to a walking chromatic bass line. We’re going to use one between the following chord changes:
Be sure to notice that we are now creating an “anticipation” by hitting our chord changes a half beat sooner with the bass note, and then following up with the full chord in the next measure. You can probably already hear how this now sounds a lot more like the recording. Some players will use the whole chord instead of just the bass note, but for right now we’ll concentrate on the single notes, okay? Practice these transitions for a little bit and, when you’re ready, join me in playing the intro, one verse and one chorus in this manner:
We’re progressing nicely, don’t you think? Again, you could stop here and play the whole song this way. But since we’re on a roll, I want to throw in one last idea.
We started out by strumming full chords and we’ve moved on to strumming full chords with a single bass note. Now I want to strum the occasional arpeggio and mix that into our other two styles. Arpeggios, as we’ve learned in past lessons such as House of the Rising Sun, are the notes that make up the chord, played one at a time. In essence, we’re playing the individual strings that make up a chord and not all of them at once. Let’s listen to a slowed-down audio of the first verse and chorus:
Yes, I did start out with the last half of the intro in order to set the beat. Where we previously used full chords on the G and B7, we now strum arpeggios, or single strings. The MP3 is not an exact transcript of the notation, so don’t freak out. There is more than enough material here for you to work it out. I’ll help you along.
We start out the verse with arpeggios of the G and B7 chords. While fingering these chords, I want to play certain strings in straight eighth notes in order to keep the rhythm steady. For the G, I first play the sixth string, then the third, then the second and finally the fourth. Then we do our little bass note transition that we saw earlier.
For the measure of B7, I use more of a classical-style arpeggio, which uses the A note (second fret on the G string) as a point. I want to end this measure with the B note in the bass so that I can smoothly go from B to C.
When I get to the C chord, I go back to the “bass and chord” strumming we did in the second MP3. Finally, for the A chord, I also add my pinky to the third fret of the B string, creating an Asus4, as we did at the very end of the verses in Tangled Up in Blue. I throw in the Asus2 as well, created by playing an open B string over the A chord.
Spend some time with this. As I’ve stressed numerous times in the past, go as slowly as you have to until you have it right and feel comfortable with it. Then pick up some speed. The song is of a moderate tempo, so you should be up to speed in a fairly short time.
On the chorus section, I start out with more bass and chord strumming. The only thing to watch out for is when I switch between the G and A chords. Here we do a chromatic bass line (G to G# to A) throwing in the open G string again as a pedal point. Then it’s back to that nice A/Asus4/Asus2 arpeggio we used a few measures earlier in the verse.
I cannot stress strongly enough that this notation is simply a guideline. You can (and should!) feel free to play it in any manner you choose. That’s why I deliberately made the MP3 and the notation different. I do not want you to think, “This is the way it has to be played.” You’re supposed to be having fun, remember?
Finally, let’s look at the bridge. I make the strumming pattern here a bit staccato. This creates a different feel than we’ve had during the verses, which in turn helps us to create some dynamics within the song:
On the C chord, I create a little more tension and interest by removing my middle finger from the second fret of the D string and then putting it back on again. Basically, I switch from C to Cadd9 every half beat. It’s a subtle change, but as you’ll hear in the MP3, it adds an interesting dynamic to the pattern.
I should note that instead of an F (as most TABs show), I use this fingering of the Fmaj7: 133210, with my thumb holding the first fret of the sixth string. My main reason for doing this is because it’s an easy grab from the preceding C chord. All I have to do is place my pinky on the third fret of the D and move my middle finger from the second fret of the D to the second fret of the G. I also like to grab the F note on the first fret of the sixth (low E) string with my thumb. But if you can’t do this, just be careful and strike the four inner strings. This will give you a very full sounding F chord and few will even notice that you cheated!
This final MP3 starts out with the last line of the second chorus and then goes through the bridge, the last verse and last chorus. I’ve also tacked on an abbreviated outro. On the recording, this is where the whistling comes in and the fade out comes. Doing a fade out as a solo performer seems both ludicrous and pretentious, so I prefer to give it a real ending. We’ll just make a big deal of going from G to E one last time for our grand finale. Have a listen:
And there you have it. I hope you had fun with this lesson and have fun with this song. More important, I hope that you begin to get a feel that, ultimately, strumming patterns are up to you. You can use full chords, partial chords, single notes and arpeggios – singly or in any combination you desire. Play around with songs you already know. Come up with different ways of playing them. As we move on with more and more songs, you’re going to want to be able to shift from one style to another. So take the time now to gain some confidence in your abilities.
As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next lesson…