The Basics of Guitar Strumming – Elementary Techniques and Theory

Countless books, articles, and videos have been dedicated to melodic technical subjects such as picking, bending, vibrato, speed, improvisation, tapping, etc. There exist so many opinions and conflicting approaches to these topics that one can easily become confused attempting to establish a solid lead guitar technique. Yet in the litany of technical literature, one subject remains inadequately represented: strumming technique.

Even in books about rhythm guitar, you will rarely find instruction on how to strum. It may seem so basic as to be unworthy of attention, but the right hand (for the right-handed) is 50% of your rhythm playing, which drastically affects your tone. Not only can a good instructor instantly recognize strumming inefficiencies in a new student, many can even diagnose it in famous musicians. The rest of your playing will be rendered moot if you neglect the most foundational matter.

How To Hold The Pick

Before discussing the movements of the strum, it is imperative that we have a proper grip on the plectrum. Begin by placing the thumb of your strumming hand to the tip of your forefinger to form a circle. Allow the remaining digits to relax away from your hand, resulting in a gesture that communicates “I’m a-okay.”

From here, slide the thumb on top the forefinger until the inside edge of the thumb is just below the crease of the DIP joint (the furthest knuckle from the palm).

finger jointsImg Source: researchgate.net

Now line up the point of the pick so that it aims in the same direction as the tip of the forefinger and slide the opposite side between the thumb and forefinger until it lines up with the interior edge of the thumb. This should leave about a half-inch of the point of the pick protruding past the tip of forefinger. Finger length varies individually, so if it does not feel natural, adjust the pick until that half-inch extension protrudes beyond the thumb. This will create the appropriate balance between the ability to control the pick and absorb the excess force of the strum motion.

There are two crucial postures the hand must maintain to ensure a decent attack.

First Posture

The first being the circle between the thumb and forefinger. Be certain the pick is being held between the thumb and the side of the forefinger (not the pad) so that the flat surface of the pick is parallel to the forearm. Pinching the pick against the pad of the forefinger rotates it perpendicular to the hand, causing too narrow a section of the plectrum to attack the strings to produce a decent tone.

Moreover, take care that the edge of the pick opposite to the point remains below the DIP joint, not against the PIP joint (second knuckle from the palm). The latter position will tighten the muscles controlling the thumb and forefinger, transferring excess force into the strings. The circle created for the pick should remain free of tension in order to manipulate the plectrum and absorb a measure of force delivered by the strumming motion.

Second Posture

The other critical element of hand posture is keeping the remaining fingers relaxed and extended away from the palm. If the other digits of the hand are contracted into a fist, the muscles of your forearm will tense, again leading too much force to be transferred into the strings. The wrist should remain slack so that it may absorb some of the force of the arm. To demonstrate this, lay your hand and forearm prone on a table with the palm flat and fingers extended. Now flex your digits into a fist. Notice how the forearm will flex and lift your wrist off the table.

How To Strum

According to William Leavitt in A Modern Method For Guitar, the physical gesture of the strum is a compound motion, meaning two parts are moving at once.

  1. The first occurs at the elbow joint where the tricep and bicep extend and flex the forearm like a windshield wiper. tricep bicep muscles
    Img Source: yes4all.com

    Practice this movement with an empty hand to explore the range of motion. When strumming, the pick should begin approximately three inches above the strings and finish at the same distance below them. Too short a vertical stroke will create excessive acceleration in the hand, dispersing too much force across the strings and a “punchy” tone. Too wide a stroke will cause the same problem, albeit at a slower tempo.
  2. The second component of the strum motion is the forearm rotating as the supinator, pronator teres, and pronator quadratas muscles manipulate the radius and ulna. Imagine you were gesturing to friend that a dish was only “so-so” to get an idea of the desired movement. Rehearse this motion by pretending you are flicking something off your ring finger and on to the ceiling whether rotating the hand away from the body or towards it. The angle at the wrist joint should remain flat as the rotation is done entirely in the forearm. Take care to keep the wrist and hand loose through the motion like the bristles at the end of a paintbrush; their whip provides the beauty of the brushstroke.

Now we will combine these two movements into flowing, semi-circular motion. The product should resemble a conductor guiding an orchestra. Throughout the gesture, the wrist remains mostly stable with a minute amount of sympathetic motion. We can begin applying our stroke to the guitar on any six-string voicing, G or Em for instance. When passing the plectrum across the strings, imagine you are petting an animal or brushing hair. We wouldn’t want to punch the dog, cat or person in the head! The attack should be light, but not so much so that the pick is dragged through the strings.

Practice both passing the plectrum through the strings traveling towards the floor (a “downstroke”) and towards the ceiling (an “upstroke”). The former will be illustrated by a “D” or an arrow pointing down on a common chord chart, while the latter will be signified by a “U” or an upwards arrow. The downstroke should attack every string in the chord, while the upstroke may only pass through the highest three. However, the movement of the elbow and wrist should remain similar for both strokes; the variation is simply done to emphasize the bass register of each chord on downbeats.

When switching to a five or four-string voicing, one must alter their strum technique to utilize more forearm rotation and less elbow extension. The result will be a tighter arc that more easily avoids the strings omitted from the voicing. Begin by fingering an Am, A, or C chord and using more wrist and less elbow in your strum to avoid the low E string. Then switch to a D chord and employ even more forearm and less elbow movement to avoid the lower two strings. Once comfortable with this technique, begin switching between six, five and four string voicings to master the change in motion.

Strum Variations

Along with the down and upstroke, we will apply a few variations to expand our palette of rhythmic articulations.

Variation #1 – Quiet Downstroke

The simplest of these will be the quiet downstroke, symbolized on a chart with lower-case “d”. This consists of eliminating the elbow motion from our strum and instead employing a quick flick of the wrist. Only the lowest three strings of a voicing should be contacted. Such a stroke is often used with a palm mute or alternated with full downstrokes to create a “straight-eighths” feel.

Variation #2 – Bass Pluck

The next most useful attack won’t be a stroke at all, but rather a “bass pluck”. Accomplish this by simply placing the pick atop the lowest note in a voicing and briskly driving the pick through the string with the thumb as though one is attempting to spark a lighter. The elbow and forearm should remain static as the pluck is done primarily with the thumb and wrist. After executing the pluck, if the subsequent attack is an upstroke, allow the hand to fall towards the floor by its own weight while avoiding the strings. If the following attack is a downstroke, allow the wrist to rebound upwards using the elbow joint. The bass pluck will be written as “B” in strum patterns and predominantly falls on the strong pulses (beats one and three).

Variation #3 – Muted Strums

The last strum attacks at one’s disposal are the muted strums. There are two such attacks, each utilizing different hands. The left-hand mute, symbolized by an “M”, is performed by laying the fingers of the fretboard hand over the strings while the right hand strums. Some players will use all four fingers to mute the strings, while others may use just one, depending on the chord shape. Either of these approaches is acceptable, though the former does require more digits to return to the chord shape on the subsequent strum. Care should be taken when employing a left-hand mute that excess pressure not be placed on the fretboard, as this will cause the strings to create pitches. Conversely, enough pressure must be utilized so that the strings are properly muted and open strings do not vibrate.

The other (and more difficult) variation of mute is done with the right hand. This is accomplished by bringing down the outside edge of the palm against the strings immediately prior to the plectrum attack, thus creating a “palm mute”. The motion should be singular and requires a slight turn in the wrist. The timing on this motion is challenging and requires finesse, so I advise learning it last.

How To Read And Learn A Strum Pattern

When applying these attacks in 4/4 time, it has become common (thanks in large part Heartwood Guitar Instruction) to use a grid such as this one:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

In this representation, the numerals symbolize our downbeats while the “+”s occupy the up beats. If we were to put on a metronome, the downbeats would fall on the clicks while upbeats would land between them. As one might expect, we typically (in eighth-note based patterns) use downstrokes on down beats and upstrokes on upbeats. Atop the grid, we will write out our strum pattern. For instance:

B   DUB     DU
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

To learn this strum pattern, it is most effective to speak the strum pattern aloud. After setting a metronome to a moderately slow tempo (72-84 bpms), say “bass, down-up, bass, down-up” so the attacks fall on the corresponding beats. Next, begin mimicking the pattern away from the instrument while continuing to verbalize the attacks. After the verbal and physical components match, apply the pattern to the guitar while continuing to speak it aloud, taking care that the arm motion continues to match the verbal instructions. Once this is comfortable, remove the verbal component and begin to use the strum pattern by itself. A strum pattern is considered learned once the player can execute it flawlessly while carrying on a conversation or reading aloud. For a more detailed breakdown of this approach, visit my blog post, How To Learn Any Strum Pattern.

Summary

This should be most of what one needs to begin learning strum patterns. Yet to be useful, all techniques demand repertoire application. Therefore, strum patterns must be applied to tunes as the final stage of the learning process. When first learning a strum pattern, I recommend learning three to five tunes on which you can exercise it. Once you can sing the lyrics of the tune without losing the strum pattern, it will be in your muscle memory and deployable at will. A beginning player should aim to learn approximately ten rhythm patterns as part of their education, making certain to include a few with each type of attack. That amount should cover most contemporary songs. Remember that rhythm playing is a life-long pursuit equal to lead guitar.

Adequate time and respect must be given to it achieve musical proficiency; one will simply not be able to perform without solid comping and the great majority of guitar parts in contemporary music are rhythm. Develop your rhythmic chops and you will be indispensable to any musical group.


About the Author: Chris Primeau is a guitar teacher based out of Austin, Texas. You can learn more about him at his Austin Guitar Lessons page.

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