If you believe that your guitar strumming lacks of precision, richness and skill, this one is for you! Here are some tips and concepts that you can apply to achieve a superfast improvement in your right-hand strumming!
In my many years of teaching guitar to diverse people, I was able to identify common issues that were bringing tons of frustration in them, but in reality, they were easy to fix.
1) The Role of Your Strumming Hand
Just like anything in life, things work better when we remember what they are meant for, and for that, you must understand the strumming hand primary role in guitar playing.
Pure and simple, your strumming hand, is the one responsible to deliver the following things;
Obvious right? Yes indeed, but we’ll mention it because it’s your right hand who will make those beautiful strings vibrate; But notice that I said creating “sound” …not noise! Question, how are you attacking your strings? Is your right-hand attack controlled and precise?
Any rhythmic pattern that the music style or song has, will be carried out by your strumming hand.
Since rhythm is such a crucial component in any music, we must make sure our right hand has the ability to perform such rhythmic patterns sounding natural and relaxed.
In music, we call dynamics to the intensity or force that we use as we play. In guitar playing, dynamics are super important! If we play without dynamics, everything will lack character, expression and emotion. Horrible right?
You really need to be able to play the same strumming pattern in different levels of intensity (dynamics) to correctly interpret the right feel of the song in a particular moment.
Although this is something that we can say it’s mostly our brain’s task, often times we see that if he fails at this, then our strumming will be completely off. Through strumming practice, we can achieve significant improvement in keeping tempo and maintaining a beat.
Think it like this, you can play the same chord in the very same position in hundreds of different ways… Muting the strings, down-strumming, up-strumming, very gently, very hard, strumming at the hole location of the guitar (if playing in an acoustic guitar,) playing closer to the bridge…I can go on and on…you get it! All that will create a different “feel” to your strumming.
2) Basic Notions of Rythm
You already know that with your strumming you are interpreting a rhythmic pattern, because of it, it is highly recommended that eventually you achieve some level of understanding of how music rhythm works.
Below I will describe very briefly some basic concepts that I consider central to practicing guitar strumming.
Beat: Every song has a pulse that can be perceived, this pulse is described as the beat of the song, the release of a constant energy that is stable and equal in time distance. When you are tapping your foot listening to a song, that’s the beat!
BPM: How fast or how slow a song is, is measured in BPM (beats per minute), so, if we say a song has a BPM of 120, in each second, we will have 2 beats. In older times songs or musical pieces were given a certain word to describe its speed (Adagio, Allegro, etc.) now with technology, we can be way more precise when establishing the speed of a song!
Pattern: A series of impulses or hits (notes) that can be grouped together and have identity as such, they are recognizable. (think of Queen’s “we Will Rock You” that’s a rhythmic pattern right there!
I strongly suggest that you peruse a good understanding of the following terms (they will help you visualize a lot of what happens in the realm of sound!)
- Measure or Bar (4/4 – 6/8)
- Note Lengths (Whole Note – Half Note – Quarter Note – Eight Note – Sixteen Note)
- Ligatures (a note that is prolonged by another one with the same or different length value)
Intuitive vs calculated
When playing with other musicians and guitarists, I always see that everybody falls into one of these two categories;
Intuitive: You are of this group if you find it easier to reproduce a rhythmic pattern or a musical phrase by just “feeling” or “hearing” it instead of trying to understand it.
Calculated: In the contrary, the people in this group really need to understand the theory behind what they must play or perform.
You may be not 100% in one side or the other, but there is always a tendency, and knowing this will help you know YOURSELF (and your most suitable learning style), so you can provide yourself with what YOU need to be able to play a strumming pattern the easiest way. I think you know where I want to go by saying this right?
You can check out this video if this is all new to you;
3) Understanding the Effects of Your Choices
Alright, so let’s identify some of the consequences in terms of sound determined by the options you have every time you strum. Pure strumming facts guys!
If you choose a very hard pick
It will be harder to hold in your hand for long periods of strumming with no pause in between, and, the sound of your string will be harsher because of the less flexibility of the pick. If you want to strum and strum! Don’t get a very hard pick! Go with a light one.
If your pick hits the strings by the hole of the guitar, that is considered a standard, central or normal position,
- You can get a warmer sound if you strum more towards the neck
- You can get a brighter sound as you strum more towards the bridge of the guitar
- if you use chords that have open strings, they will sound fuller and bigger,
- If your chords are mostly fretted, you will cause fatigue in your fingers quicker because you need to maintain pressure towards the string in your left hand.
This is something that you totally want to check, the action of the guitar is the distance between the strings and the actual neck.
- If the action is too high, the strings will be too far from the neck and will make it very hard to play. Playing chords in a guitar with a bad action is very uncomfortable.
- If the action is to low, the strings will not vibrate freely, therefore create an uncomfortable noise.
Intensive strumming is one of the most common factors why guitars may get out of tune fast.
Make sure your guitar is able to maintain in tune while strumming and playing for a certain period of time. Beginners have the tendency to hit the strings harder than recommended, if you are starting to play, just check that you are not doing this as it may be a reason why your guitar gets quickly out of tune. Go gently on the strings!
Of course, you can choose whatever strings you like for your desired tone or your own playing style man! Just change the strings when needed! Nothing sounds more awful than strumming on old and dead strings. This may sound stupid to mention, but I’ve seen things you would not believe when it comes to people not changing strings that are sounding worse than a rubber band.
There is a small tips that you should choose your best fit strings for your guitar and your hand!
4) The mechanical Practice
I will not lie to you, practicing your strumming can be a very frustrating and demanding music practice, for you and for the ones around you, so because of that you need to be very focused the time you are spending on it. In other words, have quality in your practice time. You need all your attention to incorporate coordination, dissociation (hands do different things independently), maintain tempo, and a lot more!
- Here is an important tip! Better to practice little time with full focus than many hours with no brain concentration.
The first stages are usually making brain connections that you are not used to, so starting from a basic stage, progressively improve difficulty in the strumming patterns you approach.
The truth is that even if you strum very soft with your right hand, you can still get a full and loud sound out of your guitar. If your chords are not sounding loud, it’s not because of your right hand, usually is something you need to correct on your left-hand (chords shapes and finger positions). Remember this!
This is something that you need to work on right from the start. A very common mistake is to strum in all the 6 strings on every chord. Some chords do not require all 6 strings to play, (like D major in the most common position for instance). If a chord omits a string in its construction, don’t play it.
- Adjust your strumming to play the number of strings for each chord as needed. This is done a lot using your wrist and angling your pick.
Did you know that playing something really slow can be more difficult than playing it really fast? Try it!
Practice the different rhythmic patterns that you are learning at different speeds, you will see that not only is a great practice, you brain will perceive the same patterns differently. So, It’s important that you play slow, medium and fast.
Challenge: See if you can play a rhythmic pattern in a very soft dynamic, then gradually increase the dynamic till you play very loud. But… NOT changing the speed or tempo!
Highly recommended! A metronome is basically a device that clicks to the BPM that you select. Practicing with a metronome will help you keep the tempo better when playing and equip you with the experience of being in sync to something else. (machine or human!)
If you only practice by yourself and you don’t do it to a click, eventually you will regret it, believe me, later you may have many difficulties to play alongside other musicians who are used to play to a stable beat.
Reference of BPM to practice with metronome.
- 50-60 (Slow)
- 60-90 (medium slow)
- 90-120 (medium)
- 120-150 (fast)
When I practice my strum, focusing only on my right hand, I usually mute the strings of the guitar by gently touching the strings with my left hand, this way the guitar is quiet and less annoying for myself and for whoever might be in the room.
5)Practical Suggestions for Fast Improvement
- Practice at least a little every day – create the habit
- Identify what note lengths or values you are playing when playing any pattern (how the pattern is composed)
- Identify where a pattern starts, finishes and how long it is.
- Identify how those “notes” or hits are distributed in the bar or measure
- Identify rests in a pattern.
- Be aware of accents (stronger strums to make them stand out)
- How many times is the pattern repeated?
- Exercise transitions between two different patterns. Alternate them!
- Practice with different dynamics and different tempos.
- Count out loud the beats of the measure as you play. (1 to 4 if the measure has 4 beats)
6) Useful Tips & Exercises – How to get better at strumming on a guitar!!!
- Play the strumming pattern with no interruptions! – if you need to stop, or you can’t keep up because of your left hand (difficult chords or whatever it may be), then practice both hands separately.
- Get used to the right amount of force for you to hold the pick, don’t grab it very hard, just enough. Otherwise it will sound harsh.
- Practice in a position that is healthy for your back, arms and wrist. If you get tired or something hurts, give yourself a break.
- Play repeatedly a strumming pattern till you get to the point that you can feel its kind of automatic. Then, you can start thinking about relaxing your wrist and shoulders as playing.
- Try to learn Strumming patterns by heart, internalize them and own them!
- Try to highlight some strums with accents so your strumming is not always the same.
Try this out!
- Imagine a beat and tap it with your foot, then do the following things below.
- Play one down-strum on each beat.
- Play on each beat with a down strum and also an up-strum in between beats (eight notes) while counting (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and) each time you say “and” you should play an up-strum.
- Now try to put an accent to any of those 8 notes you are playing in the pattern. Start with the first eight note, and then move it to the other ones. Without losing track of the tempo!
Summary – Now hope that you already know how to get better at strumming on a guitar!
Now you know some fundamental concepts of guitar strumming that at least will save you some time on your peruse to improve it!
Remember that some basic concepts of music notation can help a lot to comprehend any particular pattern, especially if you are the kind of guy that needs to see things to reproduce them or learn them.
Practice a little every day to see the improvement faster and make sure your practice time is of good quality. Is really our brain who needs to work on the coordination and adapt to the mechanics of good strumming!
Check out this really cool video on Strumming!