The secrets of good strumming

Many guitarists can play complex chords and riffs, but they are frustrated with strumming. They just can't seem to put it all together and find the right strumming pattern.

First of all, there isn't necessarily only one correct strumming pattern in a song. Believe it or not, you can even figure out a strumming pattern that fits a song if no guitar can be heard on the original recording. Below, I'll give you some tips for finding the strumming pattern of any song.

Image by sidewalk flying.

What is strumming?

As you've worked to master your first chords on the guitar, a major hurdle is to learn to switch between them cleanly and evenly. Once you can switch chords easily, it will often feel unnatural to leave a silence as you move to the next chord. That would be like hopping down the sidewalk instead of walking. Strumming smooths out the movement from chord to chord - more like walking or running. The best strumming also brings the groove of the song to life, which is really like dancing.

The best way to find the strumming pattern

Put on the recording. Play along, over and over, until things start to feel smooth. You might only have to do it twice or you might struggle for a half hour and then come back for more the next day.

The more you do this, the better you will get. It's a very natural way to develop your musicianship. Think about it: Does Ryan Adams need some guitar teacher to chart out the strumming pattern on a song he wrote? Obviously not. So how does he figure it out? The same way you found your moves on the dance floor at the last wedding you went to: by feel.

Of course, if you're a perennial wallflower of the non-dancing variety, going by feel might not help you. There are other options.

Finding the beat

Can you tap your foot along with the record? If so, just do downstrums (i.e., toward the floor) on the beat. Whenever you lose the pulse of the music, pause for a moment, find it again, and hop back in.

Down and up

Generally, you'll strum down on the beat and up on the offbeat (the space in between the beats). Many strums are a combination of downs and ups.

Try adding an upstroke just before you change chords, like this: "down, down down, down-up" or "chick, chick, chick, chick-a." From there, play around with downs and ups.

Charts are okay

There's nothing wrong with working from a transcription of a strumming pattern, although it's best if you do attempt to figure it out by ear first.

The cool thing I've noticed is that once you learn one strumming pattern in a given style, variations on that pattern will come to you naturally. In other words, you won't have to learn every strumming pattern known to man - you'll just discover them on your own.

Technique tips

  • Don't try to strum every string with every stroke - you'll sound like an autoharp. In general, strum the lowest string of the chord on your first strum of that chord (make sure to only include strings that are supposed to be part of that chord), and then stick with the three highest strings after that.
  • Not every stroke has an equal weight. Some strokes are ghosted, meaning that you barely play them or you're not pressing the chord down fully with your left hand as you play them. This is a legitimate way to "cheat" and buy extra time to switch chords.
  • Keep your wrist, hand, and elbow relaxed. Strumming is easy - you should not feel pain or fatigue in your right hand or arm.
  • Strum over the sound hole for the fullest, warmest sound.
  • Strumming happens in an arc, down and away toward your right side and back up. The shape of most pickguards reflects this. Do not try to strum directly down toward the floor - it will create tension in the wrist.
  • Practice in front of a mirror. If you look awkward you'll notice right away and it will be surprisingly easy to correct.

Future posts will cover specific strumming patterns and go into some of these strategies in more detail. Until then, I welcome your questions!