On the surface it may seem that strumming your guitar is simply moving your pick up and down the strings to make sound. However, the techniques required to strum a guitar correctly are a turning point. This is where someone tinkering with the guitar can transition his/herself into a practicing musician. It only takes some attention to details like posture and wrist position and then practice with basic guitar strumming patterns to master the concept of rhythm.
Our assumption is that you have already learned how to tune your guitar and play a few basic chords. You may have even picked out the notes of your favorite song and strummed a bit without knowing there were finer details. But now let's get into those details, as they make you a more efficient player, a more competent musician, and start to make playing truly fun.
First, let's get you seated in a posture that will make it easier to hold your guitar and focus on guitar strumming patterns for extended periods. This lets you focus on playing rather than keeping the guitar from running away on you. For beginners, we are focusing only playing while seated. Standing positions come later. We are also focused on learning the basics with a pick, as this is simpler than finger strumming at the start.
You want an armless chair that allows you to sit straight up (no leaning back) with your guitar-holding thigh parallel to the floor. This keeps your guitar from sliding down your leg as you play. Right-handed players use their right thigh. Lefties do this is the mirror position with their left thigh. Some chairs will be perfectly proportioned for this. Occasionally, chair's cross-bar works if you can hook your heel on it. Most times you will need a small step or some phone books to get that leg parallel.
The bottom curve of your guitar's body should rest comfortably on your thigh. Lean the upper part of your guitar's body against your chest at a 20-degree angle. Position the guitar's neck at a slight incline toward the head. Your guitar should be able to rest on your leg and chest without any help from your arms or hands; they have other work to do.
To hold a guitar pick, make a hitchhiking gesture with your strumming hand. Lay the pick on top of the first knuckle of your index finger with the pointy end sticking out like it is a continuation of that knuckle. Put your thumb down on the pick to hold it in place. Practicing guitar strumming patterns will help you discover the ideal pick-holding pressure. It is an ephemeral balance somewhere between relaxed and clamping down.
Remember, your leg and your chest balance your guitar rather than your arm or your hands. Think of the elbow of your strumming arm as the pivot point of a lever that runs from that elbow to your pick. This lever needs room to pivot, so you need to position your elbow on the top edge of your guitar's face with your inner bicep coming in contact with (but not resting on) the top of the guitar body. It will be a slightly different position for different bodies (yours) and different guitar bodies. From the pivot position, your pick should be able to move freely across the strings directly in front of the guitar's sound hole.
As part of that elbow-to-pick lever, your wrist should be straight in line with your arm and not bent in what's called a “gooseneck”. Bending your wrist during guitar strumming patterns can lead to carpal tunnel and related injuries. Your arm strums the guitar from your elbow, not your wrist.
The same rule applies to your fingering arm. Do not bend your wrist. The final positioning angle for your guitar is to move the neck to a 45-degree angle out from your body so that your fingering wrist stays straight while your fingers can reach the fretboard. The ideal position allows you to relax tension from your shoulders and maintain straight wrists. From here you should be able to strum with your pick and reach the fretboard with your fingers.
Though it might seem obvious, there are two strumming directions: up and down. However, up is not a reverse down. Our guitar strumming patterns require that we think of up and down strumming differently.
Pivoting from the elbow, use your elbow-to-pick lever as a single unit to push the pick down through the strings in a single movement. Try it a few times. You might even finger a few simple chords. This down strum establishes your guitar strumming patterns momentum.
In contrast to the momentum of the down strum, the up strum is about adding lightness and character to your rhythm. Instead of pulling back through all the strings, just graze the top three strings on your way up. This variation between your up and down strumming will help give liveliness to your sound.
Experiment with this to get a sense of the difference. Try a few down and up strums where you push through all the strings in both directions. Then try just the top three strings on the up stroke. Try it again with some basic chords. Do you hear the difference?
Rhythm is being able to play notes in sync with a song's beat. One of the simplest beats to begin learning is the 4/4 beat. This is a cycle of four beats that repeats itself over and over for the whole song. You've likely heard a popular rock or country song where someone shouts, “One, two, three, four!” to start the song's beat. You might even be familiar with the tick-tock of a metronome used by piano students to keep time. Time is the beat. The metronome's tick-tock keeps the beat consistent.
The beat is the framework for our guitar strumming patterns. Most guitar students can establish their own beat by lightly tapping their foot to the same one-two-three-four pattern. Try it first with just your foot. Count out loud with each tap. After the fourth tap, start again at one:
“One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…”
Try to keep the counting (the beat) as consistent as possible. You are your own metronome.
Finger your favorite chord and hold the fingering. Now continue your beat counting. Each time you count “one”, strum down on the count. Let the chord ring through “...two, three, four…”, then down-strum on the next “one”.
Count to yourself: “STRUM, two, three, four, STRUM, two, three, four, STRUM, two, three, four…”, and keep repeating until it feels natural. This can take some time. You're doing a lot of new things at once.
This is just like the first of our guitar strumming patterns, but you add another down-strum on the “three” count.
Count: “STRUM, two, STRUM, four, STRUM, two, STRUM, four, STRUM, two, STRUM, four…”, and repeat until this feels natural. Try different chords for variety but try to save the up-strum for the next exercise.
Same four-count beat, but this time we play on all four beats, using the up-strum on beats two and four.
Count: “DOWN, UP, DOWN, UP…”, but keep in mind that there are two things to note.
First, these exercises seem simple on the page, but you should be realizing that rhythm takes practice (for most of us, at least). It is very much like trying to walk and chew gum at the same time. Each part (counting to four and strumming) seems simple. However, doing both together is deceptively difficult. Know that all musicians start this way and that practice will get you through it.
Second, practicing guitar strumming patterns is mentally exhausting. Practice for 30 minutes and try again tomorrow. Otherwise, you will wear yourself out both physically and mentally. Stopping after 30 minutes will keep you from getting frustrated.
If you listen to most classic rock songs (think Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones), they are playing a 4/4 beat and the drummer plays on the “two” and the “four”. Once you understand this, you will notice it in all kinds of popular songs. Not all, though, as there are other beat counts that you will learn later. For example, Led Zeppelin was notorious for unusual beat counts.
Count: “One, STRUM, three, STRUM, one, STRUM, three, STRUM…”; this will be a particular challenge, as you previously were strumming on the one and three beats. Keep tapping your foot as you play, as this will help you keep your rhythm consistent.
Practicing the four guitar strumming patterns presented here provides a solid introduction to rhythm's function in music. Combined with your efforts to maintain proper posture and form, you are already improving as a musician. Know that these four patterns are very basic. There are counts between the beats and counts between those counts. However, these basic patterns will serve as the foundation for more complex rhythm lessons, truly understanding the guitar, and learning to play along with other musicians.