Beginner Strumming Patterns

Strumming a guitar
" Strum" ( CC BY 2.0) by  garryknight

One of the primary ways that exceptional guitarists stand out from more mediocre ones, is via their ability to bring life and energy to otherwise routine songs using an interesting strumming pattern. A guitarist with a good grasp of strumming can bring a 2-chord G to C song to life, and make the listener think they're hearing something much more complex than they actually are. It's an often neglected aspect of guitar playing; we as guitarists tend to worry much more about getting our fingers in the right positions on the strings. But, a great rhythm guitarist is every bit as valuable to a band as the flashy lead player (and some would argue, more). In the first installment of this feature, we'll examine some of the basics of strumming the guitar, and learn some widely used strumming patterns.

First things first... make sure your guitar is in tune, and you have a guitar pick. Using your fretting hand, form a G major chord on the neck. Making sure you are holding your pick properly, practice playing the following example, which is a basic one bar strumming pattern.

Alternate between strumming down, and strumming up. When you get done playing the example once, loop it, without any sort of pause. Count out loud: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and (etc.) Notice that on the "and" (often referred to as the "offbeat") you are always using an upwards strum. This is something to keep in mind as we progress. If you are having problems keeping a steady rhythm, try listening to, and playing along with, an mp3 of the strumming pattern.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you play the above pattern:

  • If you are playing an acoustic guitar, make sure to strum directly over the sound hole
  • On electric guitar, strum over the body (different locations will give you different sounds), not over the neck
  • Make sure all strings are ringing clearly
  • Make sure the volume of your downstrums and upstrums are equal
  • Be careful not to strum too hard, as this often causes strings to rattle, and produces an undesirable sound
  • Be careful not to strum too softly, as this will produce a "wimpy" sound. Your pick should be striking the strings with a relatively firm, even stroke
  • Think of your elbow as being the top of a pendulum; your arm should swing up and down from it in a steady motion, never pausing at any time.
  • Having said that, the bulk of the picking motion should come from a rotation of the wrist, rather than from the forearm. Be sure not to keep your wrist stiff when playing.

Now that we've covered the very basics of strumming, we can move on to something a little bit more challenging. Don't worry; we're not going to be adding anything technically hard to play to the next strumming pattern. In fact, we're going to be taking something away! By removing only one strum from the previous pattern, we will create one of the most widely used and versatile strumming patterns in pop, country, and rock music!

Here is the key: when we remove the strum, the initial tendency for the guitarist will be to stop the strumming motion in the picking hand. This is exactly what we DON'T want to do, because it mixes up the nice pattern we had going of all the downstrums being ON the beat, and all the upstrums being OFF the beat (on the "and" or on the "offbeat".)

Listen to, and play along with, this second strumming pattern, to get a better idea on how this new pattern should sound. Once you are comfortable with this, try it at a somewhat faster speed. It is important to be able to play this accurately; don't be satisfied with getting MOST of the up and down strums in the right order. If it's not perfect, it will make learning any harder strums virtually impossible. Be sure that you can play the pattern many times in a row, without having to stop because of an incorrect strum.

This is a tricky concept, and may take newer guitarists some time to get used to. Try not to get frustrated; soon, it will become second nature, and you'll wonder how you ever had any sort of problem with this pattern at all.

This next pattern is very similar to the previous one; the only difference being that we're going to take away yet another strum from the 1 bar pattern.

Again, remember to keep the up and down strumming motion in your picking hand constant - even when you're not actually strumming the chord. Try saying out loud "down, down up, up down up" (or "1, 2 and, and 4 and") as you're playing the pattern. Listen to, and play along with, the strumming pattern, to understand how this new pattern should sound. Once you are comfortable with this, try it at a somewhat faster speed. If you're having trouble, put down the guitar, and practice saying or tapping out the rhythm, and make sure to repeat it multiple times. If you don't have the correct rhythm in your head, you'll never be able to play it on guitar.

The last pattern is somewhat similar to the other three; once again, we're going to take away one strum from the 3rd pattern to create another widely used strum.

By taking away the last strum of the bar, we've once again created a new pattern. Practice saying out loud "down, down up, up down" (or "1, 2 and, and 4") as you're playing the pattern. Listen to, and play along with, the strumming pattern, to understand how this new pattern should sound. Once you are comfortable with this, try it at a somewhat faster speed. This strum may actually, in the long run, be easier to use than the others, because the lack of a strum at the end of the bar gives you a bit more time to switch to the next chord in your song. This strum is used all the time, by novice and professional guitarists alike.

Once you've learned and internalized the strumming patterns in this lesson, try listening for them in music you hear. When you listen to your favorite music, try and listen to the guitarist, and see if you can identify which sort of strum they're using. Chances are good it's one of the four discussed in this week's feature. Or, perhaps the guitarist has made a small change to one of the patterns. You'll be surprised to find out how often many of the greatest songs have the most basic strumming patterns.

I hope this week's feature has been helpful and informative to you. In upcoming features, we'll examine more complex strumming patterns and concepts, including the use of "muted" strums, 16th note strums, and more.