Interested in learning how to strum the guitar?
Then you’ve come to the right place.
In this detailed guide, we’ll cover how to strum the guitar, and even give you a few patterns you can work on to improve your technique and comfort level.
So, let’s get to it!
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Is Strumming Hard?
In my experience as a guitar teacher of over 10 years (and a guitarist of nearly 20 years), it varies from person to person.
Some students only need to be shown once, and they pick it up just like that!
For others, it can take a while to feel comfortable with the motion and technique.
Strumming isn’t the most advanced technique on the guitar, and many would consider it an essential part of a beginner’s curriculum and practice plan.
But just know that depending on your overall talent, enthusiasm, and practice ethic, learning times will vary!
Commit first and figure out the “how” later. That way, progress is inevitable.
What Is Strumming?
If you want to produce a sound with your guitar, you must pick or strum the strings.
Picking is just as it sounds. You can use your fingers or a plectrum (guitar pick) to strike individual strings, and each time you pick, you will produce a note.
Strumming is where you glide your pick across multiple strings simultaneously. That allows you to play chords, which are made up of three or more notes.
You could think of it like a “note stack”. To create a chord, we need to stack three or more notes on top of each other and play them together.
If you strum once, the notes will ring out for a while and then gradually dissipate. Strumming steadily is what allows you to keep a groove and accompany yourself or others.
Many beginner guitarists are eager to be able to get to the point where they can play songs. Although there are many ways to play songs that doesn’t involve learning chords, it is quite satisfying to be able to strum the chords to your favorite song. And it is a stepping-stone onto other great techniques.
How Do I Strum The Guitar?
Although there are basically two ways of strumming the guitar (with a pick and without), we’ll only be covering how to strum with a pick here.
Strumming with a pick is generally easier to understand, and it’s where most beginners start, so it makes sense for us to begin our journey there.
There are a few important things we need to cover here, so stick with me and we will get to the strumming bit in just a moment.
How To Hold Your Guitar
The number one thing to pay attention to when holding your guitar is comfort.
Yes, good posture is important. But it’s amazing how many students try to get their posture right, but somehow end up sitting in a twisted position that doesn’t allow them to play their instrument comfortably.
So, with that said, here are some general tips to guide you:
- Sit up straight.
- A strap is not necessary but can be helpful.
- Allow the body of the guitar to sit on your lap. If you’re right-handed, then the guitar should be sitting on your right thigh, and if you’re left-handed, the body of the guitar should be sitting on your left thigh.
- The body of the guitar should be flush against your body and sitting upright. So, keep the guitar nice and close to your body. Don’t let the guitar tilt towards you or away from you.
- Your picking arm should be bent at the elbow. You can use the inside of your arm to keep the guitar upright and close to your body.
If you’re doing all the above, and still feel uncomfortable, try making some slight adjustments.
This is not like stretching where you want to hold a difficult pose. When you’re stretching, your muscles are tight.
You shouldn’t feel any strain while holding your guitar. You should feel comfortable in a normal seated position.
How To Hold Your Pick
How you hold your pick can make a difference when it comes to strumming. This is where many beginners make some easily correctable mistakes that make it harder on them when it comes time to strum.
For starters, you want to hold your pick between your index finger and thumb. Many beginners will start out by holding their pick like they would hold a pen (e.g. with index, middle, and thumb), and this can limit your range of motion and make it harder to strum.
I know it might feel like you might drop or lose your pick when you’re only using your index and thumb. And at first, you might. But over time, you will find that you don’t need a death-grip on the pick to be able to hold onto it.
In general, learning the guitar is weird because you need to perform many slight movements with your fingers. This can take a while to get used to.
Anyway, once you’re holding the pick between your index and thumb, the next step is to hold the pick close to the tip. Most picks are basically like a rounded triangle, so the “tip” would be the thinner side of the pick rather than the thicker side.
When you’re picking, you might not hold the pick that close to the tip, but when you’re strumming, it can make your life a lot easier. This is because your pick can easily get caught between the strings when you hold it longer, and that will stop you dead in your tracks.
Again, some of this is going to feel slightly uncomfortable at first. But you will get used to it. So, if you catch yourself reverting to bad technique, get in the habit of self-correcting to ensure best results.
How To Play Chords
Although you can strum your guitar without playing a chord, it sounds so much better when you use chords.
The eight chords every beginner should learn are: A, C, D, E, G, Am, Dm, and Em.
We have lessons covering how to play these chords on Music Industry How To, so I’ll direct you to those if you haven’t learned how to play chords yet.
But I figured I should at least give you a diagram so you can see how these chords are played:
Playing the guitar means coordinating two hands, and that might be the trickiest part about it. You need to be able to “create shapes” and fret specific notes at specific times with your fretting hand, while your picking/strumming hand adjusts between picking, strumming, tapping, and other techniques.
This is a good concept to understand early on so you can begin the process of learning how to coordinate both hands.
How To Strum
So, we’ve talked about how to hold your guitar, how to hold a pick, and how to play chords. Now we’re ready to look at the core subject of this guide, strumming.
Of course, you can’t ignore the importance of anything we’ve already talked about, because it all plays a part in your strumming technique.
Anyway, the first thing you need to know is that strumming doesn’t come from the wrist so much as it comes from your elbow.
Many beginners attempt to use their whole arm while strumming, which makes it harder to strum with precision.
It takes a while to “windmill” like The Who’s Pete Townshend.
Think of your elbow like the stationary part of a pendulum and allow the rest of your arm (elbow down) to “swing” up and down. That’s the motion we’re trying to achieve.
Again, this motion is probably “tighter” than you think it is. If you were to measure the distance between the first and sixth string of your guitar (your guitar should have six strings), you’d probably find that it’s about three or four inches.
Although you don't need to strum that tightly, it does give you a bit of an idea of how wide the range of motion needs to be.
So, you won’t ever need to swing your arm wildly unless it’s for show (stage performance is another topic altogether).
Now let’s try something:
Glide your pick across the strings in a downward motion. Remember – you want to strum from your elbow, not your wrist.
Keep your arm in the “down” position after you’ve strummed. Because now we want to practice our up strum as well. Starting from the down position, bring your arm back up to where it was when you started.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of this, you’re welcome to swing your arm back and forth to create a steady groove. Start slowly.
One thing that can help with precision is turning your wrist slightly inward as you’re strumming down.
And slightly outward as you’re strumming up.
As you may have noticed from the chord diagrams, depending on the chord, not all strings are meant to be strummed. That’s where precision makes a difference.
Those are the basics of strumming, but as with anything else, it can take a while to get comfortable with it. So, try strumming up and down for a while, even if it’s just while holding one chord (with no changes).
You want to ingrain this motion into your muscle memory, and that can be a multi-day, multi-week, or multi-month process depending on the person!
Take your time, practice plenty, remember to rest, and give your muscles some time to adapt.
You can also watch this video for some good strumming exercises beginning at about 1:11:
Strumming Pattern Examples You Can Try
We’ve covered the basics of the technique. Now it’s time to put it to use.
If you feel you need more time to master the strumming motion, then spend more time on that. You don’t need to rush into these exercises.
Otherwise, let’s get into it, shall we?
Strumming Pattern #1
Although we don’t have much space to discuss time signatures here, most music is in 4/4 time. That means there are four equal beats per measure (you can simply count “1, 2, 3, 4”).
Mathematically speaking, if you sliced a pizza into four equal parts, you’d end up with four slices, right?
So, one of the easiest strumming patterns is where you strum once per beat. Down, up, down, up.
I’ve added some chord changes to keep things interesting (G, C, D), but you aren’t necessarily required to follow them. The key thing to get is the strumming pattern: down, up, down, up.
Strumming Pattern #2
Now it’s time to begin incorporating eighth notes. This isn’t anything crazy. If you sliced a pizza into eight equal parts, you’d have eight slices.
An eighth is double the speed of a quarter note. So, in the time it takes for a quarter note to happen, two eighth notes could occur.
If that sounds complicated, it’s not. It usually just means strumming twice (down and up) over one beat.
The example that follows is built on quarter notes and eighth notes. Every quarter note is followed by two eighth notes.
So, on the “two” and “four” of the measure, you’d want to strum down and up instead of just one or the other.
Pay careful attention to the upstrokes and downstrokes.
Strumming Pattern #3
Here’s a popular variation on the strumming pattern we just looked at. If it doesn’t immediately make sense, go and have a listen to the intro of The Eagles’ “Take It Easy”. Rhythmically, it’s basically the same as the example that follows.
Pay careful attention to the down and upstrokes and you should do okay. It might take some getting used to, but if you’ve made it this far, you can do it!
You’ll notice there’s a “tie” in the middle of the pattern, but don’t be intimidated! When you add an eighth to an eighth, what do you get? A quarter! So, that tie just means to hold that strum for a full beat.
Strumming Pattern #4
There’s basically nothing to this one. It’s just pounding out a wash of eighth notes to create a steady, “locked in” groove.
The good part about learning any of these patterns, though, is you can easily create variations off them.
Anyway, with this pattern, keep a steady down and up strumming pattern, and don’t forget it’s two strums per beat instead of one!
Strumming Pattern #5
What I’m about to show you is what some might consider a syncopated strumming pattern. In a way, that’s true.
True syncopation can’t happen without multiple instruments playing simultaneously (or at least two counter rhythms being played on one instrument), but it basically describes the type of music where there are off-beat parts (sometimes the whole piece is off-beat).
It might sound a little complicated, but we’re basically describing music with a strong groove, be it reggae, disco, funk.
Any music that occurs to you as “danceable” probably has some syncopation to it, even EDM (electronic dance music).
The example that follows is probably closer to a reggae guitar part than anything. You won’t be strumming any notes on beats one or three (where you’ll see rests). The strums happen “in between” on beats two and four. So, rhythmically, it can take some getting used to.
Also don’t forget to pay attention to upstrokes and downstrokes!
Do I Really Need To Be Able To Strum Up & Down? Can’t I Just Strum In A Downwards Direction?
Occasionally, you will see some guitarists strumming using just downstrokes. This is typically just for show (as in the case of Marty Friedman), though in some cases, as with Johnny Ramone, it was probably because they didn’t know how to strum any other way!
Some parts will require you to use more downstrokes than upstrokes. That can also be a factor.
But all things being equal, I would recommend learning both downstrokes and upstrokes.
Yes, playing upstrokes will feel uncomfortable at first, especially compared to down strokes. We live in a world where things naturally fall instead of rising, so it’s only natural that one way would be harder than the other.
But I guarantee your upstrokes will get better with practice. If you aren’t good at upstrokes yet, and they feel uncomfortable to you, it’s only because you haven’t spent enough time practicing!
How Do I Develop A Consistent Strumming Rhythm?
Music is basically made up of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Some music emphasizes one or two elements over the other, but at the end of the day, you will find all music contains all three elements.
So, rhythm is something we need to be conscious about working on as guitarists.
Drummers and bassists tend to fall into it rather naturally, because one instrument complements the other. Guitarists usually find they need to work on their rhythm a little more, because there are so many ways to approach and play the instrument.
There are a few ways to develop a consistent strumming rhythm, but the most reliable way is to use a metronome, drum machine, or jam track.
A metronome simply “clicks” notes at a set interval, depending on what the rhythm is set to. For instance, if the tempo was set to 60bpm, it would be considered relatively slow. If the tempo was set to 130bpm or higher, it would be considered relatively fast.
To build up your speed, you generally need to start at a lower tempo, master it, and gradually work your way up to higher tempos (maybe five to 10bpm at a time).
Regardless, when using a metronome, you’d basically want to strum in time with the clicks or ticks. Depending on the strumming pattern, you might strum more than once per click, but you’d still want to make sure the right strums are landing on the right clicks to ensure you’re keeping a rhythm.
A drum machine serves a similar function to a metronome, except that you can embellish the beat. For instance, you could have the kick on one and two, the snare on three and four, and the hi-hat on each beat.
When choosing between a metronome or drum machine, I usually like using a drum machine because it feels more like I’m playing “real” music. But they are both useful tools regardless.
Finally, jam tracks. You can find a lot of jam tracks online, even on YouTube. Usually, these jam tracks leave space for you to jam freely over them. Most people use them to practice their lead playing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn the changes and strum along (it's great practice)!
How To Strum A Guitar Conclusion
When it comes to the guitar, there are many techniques to learn. But unless you’re exclusively a lead guitarist, you will probably always be strumming in some capacity.
It’s a great technique to learn and can easily be a stepping-stone onto other techniques.
Surprising as it might sound, some professional rhythm guitarists never go beyond strumming.
But regardless of where you go from here, I hope you have a lot of fun practicing. Now that you know how to strum, you can start picking up a lot of songs, which is probably the best part of learning any technique on the guitar.