Strum a Guitar, Develop Finger Technique, and Play Minor Chords

A guitarist practicing songs on his bed, reading off a laptop

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This guitar lesson teaches several new chords and the ability to play many more songs. It also introduces the basics of strumming the guitar and features exercises to strengthen the fingers on the fretting hand. String names will also be discussed. Before getting started, make sure to review the parts of the guitar, tuning, chromatic scales, and the G, C, and D major chords.

01
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The E Phrygian Scale

guitar lesson e phrygian scale

One of the best ways to start working on the coordination in your fingers is to practice playing scales. Although they may seem boring, they will certainly help build the strength and agility your fingers need to play the guitar well.

To play the E Phrygian (fridge-ee-n) scale, first review which fingers play which notes on the fretboard. In the following scale, use your first finger to play all the notes on the first ​fret of the guitar. Your second finger plays all notes on the second fret. Your third finger plays the notes on the third fret, and your fourth plays those on the fourth (though there aren't any notes on the fourth fret in this scale, so don't use your fourth finger here). It is important to stick to these fingerings for this scale. It is an efficient way to use your fingers, and you'll continue this technique in later lessons.

  1. Start by using your pick to play the open sixth string.
  2. Next, take the first finger on your fretting hand, and place it on the first fret of the sixth string. Play that note.
  3. Now, take your third finger, place it on the third fret of the sixth string, and play the note.
  4. Move on to playing the open fifth string.
  5. Follow the diagram, playing each note indicated until you have reached the third fret on the first string.

Remember

  • Use alternate picking throughout. Try starting the scale with a downstroke, then next time try starting the scale with an upstroke.
  • Once you've finished the scale, try playing the scale backward, by starting at the first string, third fret, and playing all notes in exactly the reverse order.
  • The key here is accuracy, not speed! Try playing the scale very slowly, making sure that each note is ringing clearly.
02
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Names of Guitar Strings

picture of guitar open strings

Every note on the guitar has a name, represented by a letter. The names of each of these notes are important, and understanding this technical jargon is necessary before getting into playing chords and songs. Guitarists need to know where to find these notes on their instrument in order to read music.

The names of the six open strings on the guitar, from sixth to first (thickest to thinnest, top to bottom) are E, A, D, G, B, and E again. Memorization should only take a couple of minutes if you try using a mnemonic device to keep the order straight:

  • Every
  • Adult
  • Dog
  • Growls
  • Barks
  • Eats

Try saying the string names out loud, one by one, as you play that string. Then, test yourself by pointing to a random string on your guitar, then trying to name that string as quickly as possible. Later, you'll learn the names of the notes on various frets on the guitar, but for now, stick with the open strings.

03
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Learning to Strum

beginner strumming pattern for guitar

A guitarist with a good grasp of strumming can bring a two-chord song to life. This strumming lesson examines some of the basics to teach a widely used strumming pattern. Grab your guitar, and, using your fretting hand, form a G major chord.

The pattern above is one bar long and contains eight strums. Take a look at the arrows at the bottom. An arrow pointing down indicates a downward strum. Similarly, an upwards arrow indicates that you should strum upwards. Notice that the pattern starts with a downstroke, and ends with an upstroke. Playing the pattern twice in a row maintains your hand position and continual down-up motion.

  1. Play the pattern, taking special care to keep the timing between strums consistent.
  2. After you play the example, repeat it without any pause.
  3. Count out loud: "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, etc."
  4. On the "and" (the "offbeat"), strum upward.
  5. If you are having problems keeping your rhythm steady, play along with a recording of the strumming pattern.

Tips and Tricks for Strumming Technique

  • Strum over the soundhole on acoustic guitars
  • All strings should ring clearly
  • Volume of down strums and up strums are equal
  • Strumming too hard creates undesirable sounds
  • Strumming too softly produces a wimpy sound
  • Strike the strings with a firm, even stroke of your pick
  • Imagine your elbow is the top of a pendulum, and allow your forearm to swing up and down steadily, without a pause in motion
  • The picking motion comes from rotating the wrist rather than the forearm, so keep your wrist loose.
04
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Intermediate Strumming Patterns

more advanced guitar strumming pattern

Removing a single strum from the previous pattern creates one of the most widely used strumming patterns in pop, country, and rock music. Be careful not to stop the strumming motion in your picking hand when you remove the strum itself, or you'll alter the on-beat down strum / off-beat up strum pattern you've established.

The key to playing this strum successfully is going through the strumming motion while slightly lifting the hand away from the body of the guitar momentarily on the downstroke of the third beat. The pick will miss the strings. On the next upstroke (the "and" of the third beat), bring the hand back to the guitar, so the pick strikes the strings. The upward/downward motion of the picking hand does not change from the previous strumming pattern. Deliberately avoiding the strings with the pick on the third beat of the pattern is the only change, which creates a pause or gap in the sound.

Listen to and play along with this strumming pattern to get a better idea of how it sounds. Once you are comfortable, try it again at a faster speed. It is important to play this accurately. Don't be satisfied with just getting most of the up strums and down strums in the right order. If it's not perfect, it will make learning any harder strums virtually impossible. Make sure that you can play it many times in a row, without having to stop for an incorrect strum.

This is a tricky concept, and you will likely have some problems at first. Don't get frustrated, because it will because second nature soon. The idea is to introduce basic strumming patterns early, within the first lessons, to get the hang of it, and start sounding great!

05
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Learn to Play the E Minor Chord

how to play an e minor chord

Now it's time to start exploring minor chords. The terms "major" and "minor" are terms used to describe the sound of the chord. In very basic terms, a major chord sounds happy, while a minor chord sounds sad. Most songs contain a combination of both major and minor chords.

Playing an E minor chord is easy, because it only involves two fingers in your fretting hand.

  1. Start by placing your second finger on the second fret of the fifth string.
  2. Now, place your third finger on the second fret of the fourth string.
  3. Strum all six strings, and, there you have an E minor chord!

Now, test yourself to make sure you're playing the chord properly. Starting on the sixth string, strike each string one at a time, making sure each note in the chord is ringing clearly. If not, study your fingers, and identify what the problem is. If necessary, adjust your fingering so the problem goes away.

06
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Learn to Play the A Minor Chord

how to play an A minor chord

Here is another chord that gets used all the time in music, the A minor chord. Playing this shape shouldn't be too hard:

  1. Start by placing your second finger on the second fret of the fourth string.
  2. Next, place your third finger on the second fret of the third string.
  3. Last, place your first finger on the first fret of the second string.
  4. Strum the bottom five strings (being careful to avoid the sixth), to play an A minor chord.

Be sure to check each string to make sure all the notes in the chord are ringing clearly.

07
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Learn to Play the D Minor Chord

how to play a d minor chord

Newer guitarists often have a hard time remembering how to play this chord, perhaps because it doesn't get used as often as some others. For this reason, make an extra effort to memorize a D minor chord.

  1. Start by placing your first finger on the first fret of the first string.
  2. Next, put your second finger on the second fret of the third string.
  3. Finally, add your third finger to the third fret of the second string.
  4. Now, strum only the bottom four strings.

Watch out for that D minor chord! Check to see that your chord is ringing clearly, and be sure you are only strumming the bottom four strings, to make sure the chord sounds its best.

08
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Learning Songs

A young lady with red hair learned to pluck out a new song on her electric guitar

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Building three new minor chords onto previous lessons gives you six chords for playing music. These six chords provide the opportunity to play literally hundreds of country, blues, rock, and pop songs. With their tabs and chords, here are some of the songs you can play with just G major, C major, D major, E minor, A minor:

The Eagles - Take It Easy

You know all of these chords, but this song will take you a while to play well. For now, use a basic strum (only slow down strums), and switch chords on the labelled word in the lyrics.

Bob Dylan - Mr. Tambourine Man

This tune may take a while to master, but if you keep at it, you'll make progress quickly. For strumming, either strum four slow strums per chord or, as a challenge, use the harder second strumming pattern.

Nirvana - About a Girl

Again, we won't be able to play the entire song, but the main part we can do rather easily, as it only contains an E minor and G major chord. Play the song as follows: E minor (strum: down down up), G major (strum: down up down up), and repeat.

Van Morrison - Brown Eyed Girl

You probably learned this song in previous lessons. Still, try it again now that you know how to play the E minor chord.

09
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Practice Schedule

Young woman learning and practicing acoustic guitar

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Practice for at least 15 minutes every day. Always tune your guitar, and regularly review open string names. Playing daily, even for a small amount of time, gets you comfortable with the instrument. You'll be amazed at your progress if you follow a disciplined schedule, stick to your tasks, and pay attention to technique.

  1. Play the E Phrygian scale several times. Play it forward and backward, slowly, in an even tempo. Concentrate on accuracy!
  2. Spend at least five minutes on strumming. Try the patterns with different chords. Try playing the strumming patterns with one chord, switching chords, and playing the pattern again.
  3. Practice your major and minor chords. Saying (or singing) the name of the chord as you play will help with memorization. Practice switching from one minor chord to another, or from a minor to a major chord.
  4. Try playing the songs listed, and review songs from other lessons. They might not sound very good at first. Try to think of them only as a way to practice playing chords.

You are already building a lot of practice material. If you find it impossible to complete all these tasks in one sitting, try playing them over several days. Don't ignore any of the items on the list! You might sound pretty rough when you first start playing new material, but practice makes perfect.

If you can't seem to get something right even after a lot of practice, leave it alone for a day and take a break. Once you have strumming, finger strength, and these chords under control, you'll soon move on to even more strumming patterns, scales, and chords.