If you’ve just started to learn guitar, then you’ve heard of this thing called strumming. So how do we strum the guitar? Strumming is basically hitting the strings in a quick sequential order or all at once in order to make a chord. Strumming is different than picking, which is hitting individual strings instead of multiple strings.
If you've been wondering how to strum a guitar correctly, then this simple guide is for you and is written in the most simple yet comprehensive way to get you started on strumming on the guitar quickly and effectively.
So, Why do we STRUM?
There are many ways to play the guitar, and strumming is one of the most popular. For one, it’s easy to learn and it’s possibly the first thing a beginner learns when they try the guitar. All you do is place your fingers onto the chord shape that you want and hit the strings with your nails or a pick in a downward fashion. Voila! You’ve just made a chord.
There are many reasons why people choose to strum while playing. The first reason is to keep rhythm. Many singers will strum in their chords instead of playing melodic lines to accompany their singing. It’s a quick and easy way to play chord progressions where the melody line is in their singing.
The other reason is because it’s easier to sit back and strum and let the song breathe, and save the riffs for the chorus. Rhythm guitar sections are written just to strum the chords to accompany the other instruments.
The Basics of Strumming
So how do we strum a guitar? It looks easy when our heroes do it, heck they do it so effortlessly. Gliding across the fretboard like it was a greasy buttered chicken. But the one rule you have to learn about how to successfully strum a guitar is this: it’s all in the fingers. It’s about how you hold the guitar, and how you attack the strings. So let’s get into that a bit. How do we hold the guitar? How do we hold down the notes on the fretboard?
Successfully strumming a chord is dependent on holding down the notes correctly, so that the strings are able to ring freely and majestically. To those who are beginners, everybody goes through a stage of discomfort when holding a guitar chord. Your fingers have to stretch and get used to the position, and the tips of your fingers probably feel really tired and numb after holding a couple of chords too long (You will develop what we call Calluses).
If it hurts right now, don’t worry, just stick to it. The pain goes away after a while, your hands will be more comfortable and stronger with the chord shapes, and your fingertips will grow callouses to help you hold down the strings without feeling any pain. Unsuccessful strumming can lead to muted notes or a chord that just sounds weak if your notes aren’t held properly.
Refer to this article to learn more about the basic guitar stuff like holding the guitar and fretting properly: Learn the Basics
The second part of the strum is of course, the act of strumming itself. You strum a chord by holding the notes down and hitting the strings. You must hit the strings in a smooth confident motion, not too hard but not too soft either. People normally strum with a pick or their fingers, and the techniques for that are both very different.
To Strum With the Elbow, or the Wrist?
Normally, the best way to strum is using the elbow, but not always. Using the wrist too is also acceptable, and even advisable.
Actually, a combination of the two, strumming with the elbow AND the wrist, simultaneously OR alternately, is the best and ideal way to properly strum the guitar and have maximum control.
Relax, alternate between the two, while strumming with your wrist you will be resting your elbow and vice versa.
Practice with a metronome and test your own rhythm and strength, then adjust them accordingly in order to achieve a beautiful, well-paced rhythmic strumming, and if strumming to a song, try to fit it in its own unique context.
Many songs have the same strumming pattern, but they all sound different because the way the strumming is applied is different in terms of control, force, and feel.
Three Different Ways to Strum Your Guitar
1. Strumming the Guitar With a Pick:
The pick is one of the most commonly used tools in guitar playing and strumming. To strum with a pick, you must first know how to hold a pick. You hold a pick by placing it between your thumb and your index finger. Hold it tightly so that it doesn’t go flying in the air (and don’t worry, that happens to even the best of guitar players), but loose enough so that it can glide smoothly between the strings.
The benefit of using a pick is that it can easily make a loud and clear sound. Make sure to keep a couple handy just in case it slips from your hands. There are many different types of picks to use as well, varying in size and style. Try a couple and see what works best for you. Some people even use coins for picks.
2. Strumming the Guitar With Your Thumb:
If you’d like to dial your songs back and create a softer, duller sound, you can strum with your fingers. For this technique, you use the base of your thumb where the fingerprint is, instead of the fingernail. This creates a softer dull sound that can be great for more intimate tunes.
It’s all in the wrists There are different ways to hold your strumming hand. If you hold it firmer, you’ll get a stronger attack which is good for more rhythm-heavy and louder sounds. If you hold it looser and let it slack, you can get a groovier feel. It all depends on your playing style, play around with what works.
It’s good not to hold it too firm so that your arms are not too stiff, and not to hold it too loose that you start to lose control over your rhythm.
3. Strumming With Your Fingers:
What’s the best tool to use other than the ones you’re born with? Learning to strum with your fingers effectively can be freeing, as it allows you to strum in so many different ways.
To strum with your fingers, you should keep your fingernails at a medium length so that they can act as picks. Don’t keep them too long as they’ll be prone to peeling and snapping off. One technique is to place the fingertips of your thumb, index finger, and middle finger together and strum in that way. This produces a more controlled and harder attack.
Another technique is to keep your fingers loose and strum with all 5 fingers in a lazy fashion. This creates a slacker sort of feel to your strumming, as the strings are not hit at the same time. Another reason some people strum with fingers is that they can alternate very quickly between strumming and finger-picking. You can hear this in many songs from Bon Iver, Neil Young, or the Fleet Foxes, where the strumming aids the chord progression and the finger picking plays the melody.
These are more advanced techniques that you can use once you’ve mastered both strumming and finger picking.
Strumming With the Thumb
Strumming With the Fingers
About Guitar Strumming Patterns …
A strum is made either of a downstroke or an upstroke. A downstroke plays the chord from the bottom string to the top string, and an upstroke plays the chord from the top string to the bottom string.
The patterns of a strum can even make a distinctive rhythm to a song! It’s a hard technique to master at the beginning, but once you have the hang of it, you’ll be a much better guitar player. We’ve made an excellent article covering the Top 5 types of strumming patterns here:
Practicing Strumming the Guitar
(Learn How to Practice Strumming and Sound Better)
Now that you’ve learned how to strum, it’s time to learn how to practice it. Practice makes perfect as they say, and strumming is a vital part of playing the guitar. Achieving a perfect professional strumming technique requires two things, control, and rhythm.
If you want to focus on your strumming hand and technique even more, you don’t even have to make a real chord while strumming. You can just mute the strings and focus solely on the strumming.
1. Practicing How to Strum The Guitar- CONTROL
Having control over your strumming is important for a professional sound. The first thing is to have control over the clarity of your sound. It’s all in your fingers folks. If you don’t hold the chord properly, it’ll lead to a weak chord or worse, muted notes. The next thing is to have control over your volume. You can’t be strumming too hard until the strings buzz, or too soft when the chorus picks up. You need to know how to strum at the right volumes.
To practice your fingers, do a lot of finger exercises and try and hold the chord notes as often and as long as possible. At the beginning, it may cram up your hand and your fingertips may start to hurt. But hold down the chord strongly is the best way to get a crystal clear sound.
To practice your volume control, practice strumming a single chord slowly going up and down in volume. After awhile, you’ll understand your own strumming strength and learn how much strength to use to achieve different volumes.
2. Practice Strumming – RHYTHM
The key to having a great rhythm is consistency. Try and practice with a metronome or with your favorite song. Practice with different time signatures, faster tempos, and slower tempos. A good practice run would be to follow the metronome with one strum per beat, then two strums per beat, then four, then eight, and slowly go back down to one strum per beat.
You can even increase the difficulty by introducing triplets into your practice. This would be a great way to learn different rhythmic techniques as well.
In this article, we’ve gone through the various techniques that make up a good
strumming technique, as well as different ways to strum. As a guitar player, it’s always good to learn different techniques as these become tools in your arsenal. The more tools you have, the more things you can build.
So far we've only touched the surface of strumming and rhythm guitar. There's a whole world of rhythm guitar techniques, theory, and tricks behind this surface, and to truly master this type of art on the guitar, you are required to have an open mind and lots, lots of dedication and thirst to learn.
Anybody can learn how to downstroke and upstroke, but a true rhythm guitar master will captivate you and kick the groove in you, and be able to excite you in no time.
It's a combination of technique, control, and lots of feelings.
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Good luck and have fun strummin'!