A bit about me
I am a credit manager from the UK, been playing the guitar about three years now, always wanted to but left it late, starting at age thirty-five. Generally I play folk / pop stuff, anything from Simon and Garfunkel to the Jam and I’m a big capo fan as still haven’t mastered barre chords. But I CAN strum!!!
This article is designed to help either a beginner, or someone who is fine at lead playing and useless at strumming. It is written as a series of basics, followed by exercises to try. They DO work, I assure you. It is also NOT written in any form of traditional notation, so no need to be put off if you don’t know a quaver from a crotchet!
So let’s kick right off with the building block that separates the good from the not so good guitarist – rhythm…
“You have either got it, or you haven’t!”
“It can’t be taught!”
Both these sentiments seem to creep up on the beginning guitarist as they learn to form their first few chords and their teacher, or the book they are learning from, or this (or any) Internet site, (you know where I am coming from) tells them to form a chord and then “strum it like this, Down, Down, Down Up Down…”
Most beginners have a go at this, but either:
Dig into the strings on the first down and it all goes wrong from there…
Can’t do an upstroke without bashing the whole guitar up in the air…..
Stumble blindly along, thrashing at the guitar with a stiff arm and wrist…
Can do something approaching the right action, but with no rhythm at all…
Or do something not listed above that has the same ending:
Why is that?
The main reason this is the case is nothing to do with your lack of rhythm or timing, and nothing to do with the guitar, the weather, the cold cup of coffee that is slowly forming a surface scum during the hours you practice and practice. It has to do with your…brain.
When you first start learning the guitar, what do you focus on? Where to put your fingers, how the strings are tuned, how to hold the pick, how to sit, how to do this, that and the other. It’s all mechanical, not feel. It’s all involving your brain, and no other senses at all. It’s like building up Lego bricks…I put this here, and that there, and I make a house called music!
So you get into this state where your brain is telling you there is a mechanical solution to the strumming thing. Only the thing is – there isn’t. At least, not to do it well. I’ll give you a great example. Got a biscuit tin? Or a table top? Right, put your guitar in its stand. Leave it alone. Really! OK, on the biscuit tin, bash out a steady rhythm with your preferred hand. It need not be complicated, just bash – bash – bash – bash
Easy. Nothing to it. Nothing to THINK ABOUT that’s why. You just go ahead and do it! OK, now after every third “bash” use your other hand to throw in a quick tap.
Bash – bash – bash tap bash.
Can you repeat that, over and over again? Nothing to it is there. Now, have you got a metronome handy? If not, go get one. Set it at 80 bpm, or a bit quicker, its up to you. Now do your biscuit tin bashing to that. Ignore the neighbours at the door, they’ll soon quit hammering. If they are hammering with rhythm, then who needs a metronome?
Can you do your bashing in time with the metronome, time after time? Can you clap in time with the metronome?
Can you stamp your feet in time with the metronome?
Almost certainly the answer to all of the above is YES.
So let’s get one thing straight right here and now – YOU HAVE RHYTHM. All you have to do now, is transfer these skills to the guitar.
A few things worth pointing out
A soft pick with be easier to strum with than a hard pick (generally). For absolute beginners, the really light white Dunlop picks are a good choice, they are really bendy and encourage a brushing, rather than digging action.
- Try and keep the pick at right angles to the strings. This is because you want the strings to vibrate in an up-and-down motion, not side to side. A major cause of fret buzz when strumming is getting the strings vibrating in the wrong plane, so keep that pick nice and level.
- Don’t hold the pick too hard. Hold it just firm enough to stop it slipping.
- Strum near to, or over, the sound hole for most of the time.
- RELAX – I have seen people look like they are chopping wood when strumming, with a rigid arm going up and down, and no wrist movement at all. Chill out! You want to feel like there is no tension in your arm at all, just a nice loose feeling
- A metronome
- A metronome
- A metronome
Only joking, (no need to go and buy three!) but believe me, if you want to get really good at strumming, or even move from rubbish to average, you want to get yourself a metronome. It doesn’t matter if its and all singing, all dancing digital one that plays a myriad of different tempos, or a traditional wind up variety that just ticks its merry way at your chosen speed, just make sure you have one.
NOTE – On the thread I mentioned, there is a link to a free online metronome! Just use your favourite search engine and you’ll find it in a flash.
One thing that might be useful if you are a collector of tabs off the Internet – I quite often do my own “cheat sheet” as David Hodge calls them, with just the lyrics and chords changes for songs. Recently I have been getting a metronome and writing roughly what speed the song is on the cheat sheet. I can then set the metronome for practicing the song, knowing that I am somewhere near the original version’s pace. Also, if you do work out a strum pattern that works for the song, write that on it as well – it’s a lot easier than trying to remember later!
Use your ears!
Quite often, I find that its only by listening to the guitar and the sounds that I am making when strumming it, that lead me to the correct strum for any given song. It is important when trying to simulate someone else’s song that you know the time signature that it was written in – but before all you beginners start panicking and thinking “time signatures = theory, pass the razor blade so I can cut my throat now!” all that I mean by that, is how many beats are in each bar of the music. Fortunately, most popular music is in 4/4 time. You can clearly here this in most rock and pop music, a steady 1 -2 – 3 – 4, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 in the background. You should be able to listen to a song and bang out the rough rhythm on your biscuit tin, or tabletop, to identify this. Failing that, buy the sheet music and find out.
Sometimes you’ll get a song in 3 / 4 time, this is three beats to a bar 1 – 2 – 3, 1 – 2 – 3, or occasionally in 6 / 8 time 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 with the one and four accentuated. What you are trying to do, particularly with acoustic guitar, is giving the music you are playing a feel for this time. Obviously there are several other lesser used timings, but for the benefit of this article, let’s stick to the basic two, 4 / 4 and 3 / 4.
Some of these have been pulled directly from the thread on the forum of this site that “Mikeandtheblues” posted in April called “strumming variations”. That thread inspired me to write this article, as the feedback from other forum users was very positive.
Set your metronome at 80 bmp. Do not fret a chord at all. Just tap your guitar in time with the clicks, on the guitar’s body. Do this for about a minute, or until you are completely bored! But don’t stop until you are RIGHT “On the beat” (this means you are tapping in exact time to the metronome click).
That’s a nice easy start. Why do it? To get that beat ingrained in your head, and more importantly, in your arms, and to make you realise still further that you CAN keep time!
For this, you either want to form a basic chord (I find Em a good choice as its easy on the fingers for long periods) or tune to an open tuning (open D is a good choice from low to high – D A D F# A D as you are only tuning down, not up, on the strings, so there’s less chance of a breakage). If you are going to fret a chord and practice (like Em for instance) stop if your fretting hand gets too tired to finger that chord, or change to another.
For this, and all following exercises, C means Click, as in one click of the metronome. Listen to the click, and play a downstrum on each one. Get used to the feeling of the pick brushing the strings – you are not aiming for volume, you are aiming for repetition, the same sound, over and over. Em is a good chord choice because it means you can do a nice full strum on all 6 strings, by the way!
Notation for the purposes of this article is like this
Numbers indicate the beat, 1, 2, 3, 4, for instance
C indicates a metronome click
D – downstrum
U – Upstrum
So what time signature is this in? 4 / 4 time – see how there are 4 beats or clicks in each bar. You are playing 2 bars of music, 1 2 3 4 and repeat.
Now, take time to look at your strumming arm while you are playing this. It should be flowing up and down nice and steadily, no jerkiness, no tension – tension is the enemy of good strumming. Look at how the pick is working, keep it close to the strings on the way up if you can, without catching any strings. If your arm is not placed correctly, you will have trouble doing this – your arm needs to be in the same plane as the body of the guitar, so make sure your elbow is out over the front of the body – if its not this will be tricky.
So think this through. You are playing just downstrokes, and missing the strings on the way back up, yeah? So surely, it’s not going to be a big deal, on the way back up, to also catch the treble (thinnest) strings? So try playing this
If you are absolute rubbish are strumming you might find this hard. But it will come so keep trying! Look at your arm, is it still moving with the same fluidity as it was with exercise two? It should be! If you falter, go back to exercise 2 and start again. Note – you don’t have to hit all the strings on the way back up, in fact its preferable in most situations NOT to – just catch the trebles.
So what are we playing, time wise now? The timing is still 4 / 4, but we are making 8 lots of noises in each bar (section of 4 beats). So we are playing eighth notes. Count em! So although the music is still 4 / 4 we have varied our sound and added some oomph.
A big tip for you
If you are really struggling with this…play it at night, and turn all the lights off. Just you, guitar and the clicking metronome. It’s amazing how this focuses you on the rhythm. You may find that after 5 minutes playing in a darkened room, why you ever struggled to start with. This sounds wacky, but it does work. Trust me.
So let’s examine that again –
Very “busy” isn’t it. Too much. Now here’s where you go from floundering around in bemusement, to realising that its so simple to make this sound fantastic. All you have to do ………wait for it…….is MISS the strings sometimes.
So keep your strumming arm moving, ladies and gentlemen, as we head for…….
All I want you to try, is go back to playing exercise two’s pattern-
But throw in an upstrum, after the third downstrum. Try NOT to think about this too much, just do it. The easiest way to achieve this, is to get this count rooted in your head – if necessary, say it out loud as you play it –
“One – Two – Three – Four”
“One – Two – Three and Four”.
So its Down, Down, Down(up)Down
You might find the first few goes hard. If you do, go straight back to exercise two, and get your rhythm back. But after a while, I guarantee you that you will get this. And when you do, pat yourself on the back, go and make a coffee. Come back and do it again.
Here’s another tip
Take a break and come back to it, if you have tried your best and can’t do it. Frustration will get you nowhere.
So you have one strum pattern sorted and can apply this to a variety of songs
That strumming pattern crops up time and time again. Don’t be a slave to it, but its worth trying if you haven’t a clue what to try on a song, it often fits well.
So you now have a nice solid strum pattern in your repertoire that will give you a base to build from. And you also know that any song with the strumming pattern D D Dud is now within your capabilities. As long as you can change chords of course…
Before you let this new found skill make your head swell too much, try this exercise. Set your metronome at 140 bmp. See if you can strum in time with it now, with the same strum pattern. And then, set it to just 50 bpm and see if you can do that.
If you can do it without too much effort you can then congratulate yourself. You are halfway to being a good strummer.
Let’s stick with 4 / 4 time for the moment and see if we can figure out another useable pattern. Take a minute to review our starting point – I will just use the first 4 beats.
Let’s see if we can come up with something that will suit a slow song.
Set your metronome at about 80 bpm.
So its DOWN DOWN/UP UP/DOWN.
Remember to keep your arm moving, it’s the most important thing, and if you go wrong, or if you are really struggling, try this as your starting point, counting in your head “One – Two – Miss – Four” and playing with JUST downstrums – and obviously miss the strings on the count of miss, but you MUST keep that arm moving, just strum thin air for the miss stroke!
Down / Down / Miss / Down
Your three downstrokes should be right on the clicks. Your “miss” stroke needs to be on the down, right on the click as well.
So keep that arm moving! And then just flick the trebles on the up after the second down, and after the “miss”.
From a notation point of view, this would be written
D / DU / UD and you should hear the pauses on “/”.
Got it? If not, go back to D D M D and try again, get the rhythm solid first.
Once you have it down pat, try it at different speeds on the metronome and make sure you can repeat it over and over.
Try it over this chord progression
G D Am7 And you should feel like you are knocking on heavens door! Hold each chord for a D / Du / ud
Don’t worry about chord changes if you can’t do that – tips to follow shortly.
OK so we have mastered D / D / DUD and D / DU / UD
You’ll find the second pattern useful on a lot of slower songs.
Let’s move on and see what we can do with 3 / 4 time. As a refresher, the basic count is therefore 1 – 2 – 3.
Like this…remember to start with just downstrokes, and count out loud, one – two – three. Start with metronome on about 80 bpm.
Add your downstrokes and change your chant to “one and two and three and”
A good start point for a decent strum here, is to just leave out the first up. So its “down miss down up down up”
This sounds even better (another tip) if you EITHER stress the first down by hitting the strings a little bit harder than the other strokes, or just play the bass strings on the first down. Try it.
Form an A chord. Hit the open A string on the first beat, then strum as I have suggested above, for the 2 + 3 + part. So its
Sound a bit like Mull of Kintyre? It should!
This is a pretty traditional and much used strum for 3 /4 time signature songs, you can hear it all the time in waltzy sounding ballads.
Alternatively, you might try leaving the last U off the end, so its Down / Down up Down
Smooth Chord Changes when strumming
This is the thing that usually gets beginners pulling their hair out in frustration. Unless of course you started so old (like me) that you didn’t have much to pull out to start with!
Why is it SO hard to change chords and strum?
I will tell you why, and this applies to learning just about ANYTHING to do with guitar…….and this was the single biggest guitar revelation I ever had, so listen up…….
You can only teach one hand at a time
Your brain won’t cope well, with trying to tell on hand “form a Am chord” and the other “strum D D uud”. Its too much. One of the actions, either forming the chord, or the strumming pattern, must come by instinct, through practice, before you can teach the other hand what to do. As an aside, this is particularly true of finger picking. Teach your hands independently and you will make MUCH faster progress.
So the bottom line is this. Either practice a strumming pattern until its second nature, and then move on to changing chords while strumming this pattern OR learn the chord changes well, and then apply the strumming pattern. But don’t try and do both.
So let’s assume you know three chords. And let’s assume those chords are nice and easy.
And lets assume that you are playing them in that order. And let’s also assume that we are going to use D / D / Dud strumming like this –
“One – Two – Three and Four”.
So its Down, Down, Down(up)Down
Set your metronome on a manageable speed, let’s say 70 – 80 bpm. Form your D chord, and first of all, just get used to the strum.
D / D /Dud D / D / Dud
Repeat this until you are not thinking about your strumming hand at all, just let it flow. Shut your eyes, feel what you are doing, don’t force it. Feel how loose your strumming arm feels, nice and fluid, like you could hold that pattern all day! Once you are in that state of mind, just LOOK at your fretting hand, don’t do anything else, just LOOK. Now imagine where your fretting hand has to go to get to Am. Now, all you are going to do, is change from D to Am, after your count of four – like this
Keep strumming in time throughout!!!!!
Now, because you are starting on D you will have to take all your fingers off the strings to change. And here comes this weeks million dollar guitar tip:
Open strings are your friends, not enemies
Remember this, and never forget it. What this means is that in the course of changing chords, if you happen to hit some open strings before you have finished completing the change, do not worry about it. This is particularly true of upstrums, where you are only catching the trebles anyway. No one will notice.
Its not so bad in the example above, because you are changing chords where the last “and” half beat it – this gives you plenty of time (that’s the other thing, you always have more time to change than you think). But try it with this strum
And try changing from D to Am with this pattern. Its almost inevitable, unless you are really good at chord changes, that you will hit some open strings (not fretted) on the last Up. In fact, you should. See how much smoother it sounds, if you practice changing the chord on this last half beat. Take your fingers off the D chord on the last downstroke, hit the open strings on the upstroke, then get to Am for the return to the count of “one” and your opening downstroke.
In tab this would look something like this
I will sum up this entire article with a little list of tips that will help you, if you apply it to your practice correctly, to become a great strummer
Posture – make sure your arm is hanging freely in a good position to stroke the strings in a smooth motion
Relax – tension is your enemy
Go back to basics – if you are struggling
Teach one hand – then the other
Pick – the right pick for the job
Feel – the beat and get it “in” your arms
Stroke – don’t dig at the strings
Buy – a metronome, it’s a great investment
Write – on your tab / cheatsheets, the timing / strum pattern
Listen – to music and hear the rhythm, then copy it
Turn of the lights – and hear what sounds you are making
Take a break – if you are struggling, you may find that’s all that’s needed to crack it
Open strings – are your friends
And before I go, one last thing that helped me enormously. If you are like the vast majority of people and listen to music in the car, don’t JUST listen. Move your strumming shoulder in time with the beat. It’s amazing how often this has helped me to crack a strum. Don’t worry that you might look a bit odd doing this, you will soon realise the value in it, I promise you.
This is dedicated to all the people at Guitar Noise who have dragged my guitar playing to a level that I never ever thought I would get to. To all you newbies, remember no one was born with the ability to strum, it’s all down to practice, like anything else. And most of all, enjoy the journey!