Getting Past “Up and Down” – Part 1: “Sock Puppets”

Strumming for Beginners

Guitarists can be incredibly funny, often despite themselves. We’ve noted in many columns and lessons about their seemingly insane stances in regard to reading music or knowing music theory, the latter being especially amusing in that it’s often the guitarist who says he doesn’t need theory who insists on labeling every part of a song as some sort of chord. It’s as if the guitarist insists on being a separate part of the music world, a part that is magically set aside from the basics of music that all other instrumentalists learn without complaint and without sacrificing their individuality and style.

Sometimes, though, this “guitar-centric” outlook can have less than humorous effects, particularly when it comes to rhythm. People are constantly asking “What’s the strumming pattern of such-and-such a song?” “How do I figure it out?” Maybe because we as a people are being more and more visual, to the point where reading is often eschewed in favor for video or other images, but guitarists nowadays think of rhythm in terms of “up” and “down,” the motions of strumming, instead of thinking of rhythm in much simpler terms – numbers and counting.

In this lesson, the first of several on this topic, we will go over the very basics of strumming and how it applies to notes and rhythm. This lessons ties in almost exactly with two others here at Guitar Noise, so you might want to go over Keeping Time and Strumming for Beginners. Everything that we cover in this lesson is already in these two articles, basically I’m just adding sound files and trying to make sure we start on the same page.

Next time out, we will see that if we can read notation, even only the rhythmic aspect of notation, we will never again have to “wonder what the pattern is.” Simply being able to read how the music is broken up into beats and patterns within the beats, we’ll always be able to come up with a pattern that works. Quite often it will even be the same pattern that’s being played on the recording. Not that doing so should ever be your first concern!

Beyond that, we’ll try to use what we’ve learned in the first two lessons and apply it ear training. That may seem like a stretch to you at this point, but I can guarantee you something – if you are willing to count out loud, there is no rhythm, no strumming pattern that you won’t be able to suss out, pardon the pun, given a little time.

There’s something about counting out loud people don’t seem to like. We teach a lot of music lessons here at my home, both guitar and piano. And we do our best to encourage students to count out loud when they’re having problems with rhythm. You’d think we were asking them to eat slugs or something. Yet as soon as they start counting out loud, their rhythm problems with a tricky passage almost invariably straighten themselves out.

Children hate counting out loud because they think they’re old enough to not have to do that. Adults hate counting out loud for the very same reason. No one wants to look like he or she is a beginner. But what they don’t see (and hear) are professional musicians who, when faced with a tricky rhythm passage, doing exactly that – counting it out loud in order to make certain the timing is understood and played correctly.

If you listened to the first Guitar Noise Podcast on strumming (and if you missed it, or any of the other Guitar Noise Podcasts, which are all about various aspects of strumming, by the way), you can find it on the Guitar Noise Blog, you might have heard me talking about sock puppets. No lie. If you know what sock puppets are, you know that they have a limited vocabulary. They can either nod their heads “yes” or shake them to say “no.” When we’re strumming a guitar, it’s the “sock puppet saying no” motion that gives us smooth and steady strumming.

More important than that, this strumming motion also gives guitar players a built-in metronome. It’s as if you have a string attached between your strumming hand and your foot, provided you’re tapping your foot along with the music (something you should definitely get into the habit of doing). Your toe goes down on the downstroke and up on the upstroke.

Strumming will, of course, get more complicated than this eventually, but for now, you’ll be surprised at how counting, along with the sock puppet / constant motion approach will make strumming easier. Let’s start out very simply and strum four quarter notes (one beat each). Since the vast majority of songs most of you will play are going to be in 4/4 time, it seems like a good place to start:

Example 1

Now, you can pick any chord you’d like for this exercise. I choose G simply because I play it a lot and it’s a chord I often default to when I’m just goofing around on the guitar.

This is strumming straight quarter notes, and since you’ve read any one of our many fine articles on rhythmic notation, you know that they are one beat each. Hence, we’ve four of them per measure.

Even though we’re strumming down on each chord, we’re also strumming up. You’re just not hitting the strings when you strum up. But you still to go through the “up” motion of skipping upstrokes, otherwise you’d never get the second downstroke, right? Skipping strings on the upstroke comes fairly naturally, even though we never think about it.

If we were to hit the strings on both the up and down, we’d be playing eighth notes, like this:

Example 2

And let’s take a quick note here to mention that when you strum up, don’t hit all the strings. Just catching two or three of the high strings is fine. Again, you might want to refer to our first Guitar Noise Podcast for more on this.

Coming back (and again pardon the pun) to matters at hand, you should note that what I mentioned earlier about using your strumming motion as a steady metronome works. You’re going “down” on the beat while coming “up” on the off-beat, or the half-beat if you will.

The point of these two exercises is to show you that (a) all rhythms pretty much are a matter of keeping time with your “sock puppet” and (b) you are probably already comfortable with skipping the “ups” of the “down and up” of any beat. Once you understand that all beats are already a matter of breaking them into an “up and down” motion and once you discover that all strumming patterns are a matter of skipping the occasional up or down, you’re good to go. Strumming is really that simple!

But it is a matter of getting into the feel of the beat but not letting yourself get so carried away that you forget your sock puppet, which should be set on automatic pilot according to the tempo of the song.

To prove this point, let’s take a look at Exercises 8 and 9, from Tom’ Keeping Time, conveniently re-written in notation and tablature. I’ll keep the count:

Example 3

You should be discovering that, with a little concentrated effort, these patterns are not all that difficult to play. Occasionally skipping an “up” is usually pretty easy for most beginners. But skipping downstrokes, ah, that’s another kettle of fish.

Let’s tackle this technique by prepping ourselves with the following pattern:

Example 4

This is just another pattern where we’re hitting each beat with a “down” and occasionally missing an “up.” Take a little time to get it into your system. When you feel ready, we’re going to skip the “down” on the third beat. Set? Here we go:

Example 5

What usually happens here is that, for whatever reason, people freak out and forget to keep their “sock puppet” constantly moving. We have to go through the up motion of skipping upstrokes, as mentioned earlier, but many people don’t make a down motion when they are skipping the downstroke. If you get in the habit of having your sock puppet being in perpetual motion, you will never fall off the beat. Guaranteed.

This last example, by the way, is the same as “Exercise 18 in Tom’s article. You’ll also find it used in many of our “Easy Songs for Beginners” lessons, such as Nowhere Man and it gets more than a workout in many of the Guitar Noise Podcasts. Pretty handy little rhythm!

You task for next time is to try out some of the many rhythms in Tom’s article, as well as the Guitar Noise Podcasts. If you can get a handle on this “skipping the downstroke” technique, you are almost there in terms of handling the complex rhythms we’ll be starting in on next time.

As always, I hope that you’ve had fun with this, not to mention that I also hope that you’ve learned a few things.

Until our next lesson…