How to Strum a Guitar
Strumming songs on a guitar is one of life’s joys. The strum is the rhythmic heartbeat of a song.
How To Learn to Strum Guitar Songs
The basic strumming technique that most of us learn in the beginning, is the tried and tested “up and down” stroke.
Using this strumming pattern, we can strum and sing with our families on a wet afternoon. We can jam with friends. We can take our guitars to the beach for the annual dose of smoky campfire carousing.
Strumming up and down on a chord (or chord progression) sounds good. But it can be a bit repetitive if we keep doing it for a whole song.
So how do we learn more strumming patterns?
If we want to develop a demon guitar strumming technique, how can we up our game? How can we learn a strumming pattern that is as rhythmic as Bob Marley? Or as charismatic as Nancy Wilson?
Let’s take a look at the steps needed to achieve a solid foundation for a whole range of rhythmic guitar strumming patterns.
The Foundations of a Rhythmic Strumming Pattern
We may never be able to reach the virtuosic funk of Cory Wong. But he is using exactly the same basic strumming technique as millions of guitarists across the world.
Let’s explore the foundations of an easy, effortless guitar strum. One that will open up a whole world of strumming patterns. And that will soon enable us to strum our guitars along to almost any song we want.
The beauty of this is that it’s not complicated. It’s simple.
But this method will infinitely improve our strumming hand. It will help give our chord progressions their own rhythmic character. Our own sound. And when we want to take our guitar skills up another level, we’ve got a solid base on which to build.
So let’s dive in and discover how to nail that stunning strum.
Left Hand (Fretting Hand) Mutes
Let’s keep one hand lazy for the moment. Let’s mute the guitar strings with our fretting hand (usually the left hand) so we don’t make a sound.
(Well, we’ll get a bit of soft thudding. But that won’t annoy the neighbors.)
To mute, we just cover the strings by touching them lightly with the flat of our fretting hand. We don’t need to grip the guitar in any way.
It also makes the guitar strings feel a bit stiffer. So when we fret a chord later on, the resonance will be all the more pleasing, and the strumming will feel easier.
Right-Hand (Strumming Hand) Moves
Ask most people how to strum a guitar, and they will probably say ‘with the thumb’. But one of the best basic strumming techniques is to strum with the first finger (index).
Using an index finger makes our strum sound a bit brighter than using our thumb. It’s also a good technique that will come in handy later down the line.
So for the time being, we poke out our right hand (or strumming arm) index finger. We can relax the others into a gentle curve. Next, we touch our thumb lightly on our index finger, a little as if we were holding a guitar pick.
(If we’re playing an acoustic guitar, with metal strings and a guitar pickguard, we can go ahead and use a pick if we prefer. Same with an electric guitar.
But using a pick on a classical guitar is not recommended. It’s easy to scratch the finish. And because the strings are nylon, they are easier on the fingers anyway, so a pick isn’t necessary.)
Now we’re going to strum our finger down across the strings towards the floor, and then back up towards our nose. It might feel like we’re using the back of our index fingernail for the downstroke. We might like to use the back of our thumbnail for the upstroke. Whatever feels natural.
Move from the Elbow Like a Pendulum
The important thing to remember at this stage, is that we move the strumming arm from the elbow. Our wrist and hand form a straight line from that elbow. This gives us the correct strumming angle on the guitar strings. We don’t want to waggle the wrist, or use excessive movement.
We don’t worry if we don’t strum all the strings equally on either the upstroke or the downstroke. Beginners often assume that we need to hit each and every string. But the strumming technique should sound relaxed.
If we miss a bass note occasionally on an upstroke, it’s no big deal. In fact, it makes the strumming sound more casual. And might help with the chord transitions.
Eight’s Great (But Don’t be Late)
Now all we have to do is start counting out loud in groups of eight. We want to count steadily, like a ticking clock, or a beating pulse. The most important thing is to count evenly and regularly. It’s called counting “in time”.
Now we’re ready to start the steps needed for impressively effortless strumming patterns.
Step 1: Strumming and Counting
We start to strum in time with the counting. We strum down on ‘one’, up on ‘two’, down on ‘three’, and so on.
If we practice counting out loud, and strumming down and up regularly on each number, our strums will stay evenly spaced.
(Remember, we always strum down on ‘one’.)
The strums will then become a “pulse” or “beat”. The beat is the foundation of a song.
Note: This is not the “rhythm”.
The rhythm is where the beat is subdivided by a voice or instrument over the top of that regular beat. Much like singing a nursery rhyme while we clap in time.
The words of the song are the rhythm. The clapping is the beat.
Occasionally, like in the first two lines of Hot Cross Buns, the rhythm and the pulse sound the same.
Hot Cross Buns (rest)
Hot Cross Buns (rest)
One a pen-ny, two a pen-ny,
Hot Cross Buns (rest)
But notice how the rhythm changes in line three.
Playing in time is important. Pulse (beat) and rhythm are the glue that holds music together.
Step 2: Pick a Number
Once we’re strumming up and down to our beat, counting to eight, we can choose a number to leave out. For instance, let’s leave out the number two.
We keep strumming up and down. We don’t stop on the two. We still strum upwards. We just miss the strings, so the strum doesn’t sound. It’s like we’re miming the strum.
We can do this with any random number. We can leave out any number and mime the strum, whether it be up or down.
We need to ensure we:
- Keep the right hand moving
- Keep strumming the strings down and up
- Resist the temptation to stop strumming
Step 3: Take out Two Numbers
When we’re happy with this, we can leave out two numbers. Now we’re cooking on gas. This is where it all gets interesting.
The most common strumming pattern is to take out numbers ‘two’ and ‘five’. But we can take out any numbers we like. Each strum combination will have its own character.
Notice that by taking out some strums, we’ve now overlayed a different pattern onto the beat. We’ve added a rhythm. The beat continues pulsing away in our minds underneath, nevertheless. Our right arm continues to strum the beat, whether it’s connecting to the strings or not.
We can practice any amount of strumming patterns like this. We simply choose which numbers to leave out. The more we practice, the easier it gets.
Step 4: Speed Up and Count Internally
When we’ve played around with these strumming patterns for some time like this, we can speed up. But only if we can keep in time when we leave selected numbers out.
Once we get comfortable with this, then we can stop counting the beat out loud, and count it internally instead.
This is where strumming starts to become second nature. We can talk over the top. We can sing over the top. We never miss a beat.
Step 5: Add in Magic
The final step is to add the magic. The chords.
We can stop muting with our left hand, and find the chords we’ve been itching to play. Choose just two or three familiar chords to start off with.
We can choose any chords we like (which guitar chords should I learn to play?) and make up a chord progression.
Now we’ve put the chords down, it’s important to remember to keep the right hand strumming away in time. If we find we can’t change from one chord to another in time with the beat, then slow the pulse down and see if that helps.
It doesn’t matter too much if we can’t get to one chord right on time. If we’re newer players, we can be tempted to interrupt the strum as we concentrate on finding the chord. (And let’s face it, some chords are a lot easier to find than others!)
But don’t fall into that trap. We just keep the strumming hand moving up and down across all the strings, ensuring the downstroke comes on the first beat of our eight counts. Even if that tricky chord doesn’t yet sound clean.
Effortless Guitar Playing
And that’s it. We can use this method to keep our chord progressions fresh and interesting.
Our strumming will sound rhythmic and effortless. And every strumming pattern we try out will bring variety and a different character to each chord progression.
So when we start strumming songs by the campfire, people will naturally tap a foot.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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