Learning to play the guitar can be a challenging task. There are a number of rudiments and techniques of guitar playing you’ll need to pick up and practice.
Understanding how to strum a guitar correctly, however, should be the number one priority of any beginner learning to play the instrument. Yes, studying scales, open position notes and chords is important, but learning how to strum a guitar properly is where true music is made.
This guide will take an in-depth look at how to strum a guitar, including the basic technique, the benefit of using a pick, and the best strumming patterns to perfect.
Getting To Know The Basics
Firstly, before you worry too much about the strumming, you need to make sure the fundamentals are in place. For instance, it’s essential that you use a guitar that’s well suited to your body shape and size.
Furthermore, you need to practice the technique of holding the instrument correctly. To do this, keep the guitar balanced on your thigh, tight into your body, and keep the elbow of your strumming hand (almost always your strongest hand) away from the strings near the base of the instrument. This allows you to strum freely with your wrist.
With your other hand, or your “fret hand”, support the neck of the guitar with your thumb positioned just beyond the center of the neck.
In addition to holding the guitar correctly, your posture is equally important. To put it simply, if there are errors in your posture, you’ll never be able to learn how to strum a guitar properly. Avoid slumping down into a sofa or sitting in a chair with arms as this can inhibit your movement.
You can sit wherever you want, just as long as you make sure that your thigh is at a 90° angle to your torso and both your arms are completely free from any kind of obstruction.
Using A Pick
If you want to learn how to strum a guitar, using a pick or plectrum makes things a lot easier. While learning to play with your fingers is also important (just ask Johnny Cash!), it’s widely recommended, in the early days, to use a pick as your default strumming device. This will help you to strum the strings in a more fluid and musical way than using your fingers.
In terms of gripping the pick properly, you’ll want to hold the pick between your first finger and thumb, while tucking your other fingers in. Hold the pick inwards with your wrist running parallel to the guitar neck. Needless to say, the pick should be aimed at the strings.
Once you’ve got your pick securely gripped, get familiar with the height of the strings off the fretboard and the strength required in your fretting finger to play the strings. You’ll need to practice making chords properly and getting a clean, full sound from all the strings at the same time.
Your strumming will sound rattle-like if you strum “dead strings” that you’re not fully fretting. So, take the time to reform the chord correctly. There’s nothing more frustrating than learning to strum if you’re continually not making the chords correctly.
Correct Strumming Technique
It’s essential to strum from the wrist, so learn to keep your elbow tight into the instrument. It’s often easy to spot a beginner as they’ll be strumming from their elbow with their strumming arm flailing about.
For maximum efficiency, strum your guitar strings between the sound hole and bridge. It’s also worthwhile to practice strumming the strings in different places to get a sense of the different sounds you can create. Strumming closer to the bridge will provide you with a sharper sound, whereas strumming directly over the sound hole will create more of a bass-heavy sound.
You’ll also need to practice the skill of strumming all the strings equally. This helps to create a richer sound with your guitar playing. To do this, practice on a simple first-position chord, such as a G chord. Play quarter notes, one strum each, trying to strike every string with equal weight.
Downstrokes And Upstrokes
Understanding the difference between downstrokes and upstrokes is vitally important and will help to improve your playing.
Downstrokes are the main stroke. They typically drive a song or tune forward and are almost always on the the beat of a song. In contrast, upstrokes are considered by many as filler. They don’t matter quite as much as dowstrokes and are usually off the beat of a song.
When strumming downstrokes, you should strum all of the strings that the specific chord requires. For example, you’ll need to play all six in a G chord, but only the top four in a D chord. On the other hand, upstrokes only require you to strum the top three or four strings (the thinnest strings) to create sufficient sound.
It’s important to keep in mind that upstrokes are not a mirror image of a downstroke – they serve very different roles. If you strum upstrokes the same way as you play your downstrokes your playing will sound robotic and severe.
The first and most basic strumming pattern to learn is the alternating up-down rhythm. Essentially, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up. Once you’re comfortable with this rhythm, you can try changing between chords while maintaining the same strumming pattern.
There are very few songs that use this simple down-up pattern, so try leaving out one downstroke and see how the pattern changes (down, up, down, up, down, up, up). Where you would have played the final downstroke, play nothing.
To progress to more complex strumming patterns, you’ll need to learn how to leave out certain up or down strokes, while still maintaining the same rhythmic up-down pattern in your strumming hand. In other words, you need to train your wrist to continue moving, but leaving the pick off the strings for certain strokes.