Hi, going to get a little technical on you this week…
I’m guessing that reactions to the title of this piece will include things like “really?!?” and “what next – how to use a spoon?!?”
Yes, it’s a very basic idea. Some of the greatest ideas ever were basic. Take the wheel for example – a simple concept that creates simple movement, makes things roll along and enables great journeys to happen. That could easily be an analogy for what good strumming does for guitar playing.
Sure – I’m serious. Because if you ask ANY guitar teacher about the hardest basic principle to teach a complete beginner, strumming is likely to be top of the list. It’s also probably the most common concern that older students, returning to guitar playing after years of neglect, ask for help and guidance with.
OK, try this; when you started playing guitar, you probably first learned how to make chords. Then you learned to strum them. And we’re willing to bet that the chords were the easiest bit.
Get over the initial pain and weirdness of forcing your fingers to accurately jam metal wires against other metal wires (if you think about it, playing guitar is a massively un-natural thing for the human body to do) and chord shapes don’t really present a problem. With a bit of practice, the digits on your fretting hand kind of end up doing the thinking for you, arranging themselves into the optimum position to play the next chord pretty quickly.
This is muscle memory in action. Your body has remembered how to shape those chords cleanly, and without buzzing or deadened strings, kinda so that your brain doesn’t have to. In the same way, it remembers how to use a pencil without tearing through the paper. Or (see the first sentence of this article) use a spoon without putting soup up your nose. Or on the ceiling. Any parents reading this will understand.
Play a chord and you’ve painted a harmonic picture – you’ve made a still image out of the noise. Think of E major as a comfortable, no-nonsense photograph of your home, imagine A minor as a sad emoji picture on Facebook, and consider Cdim7 as some kind of surreal Salvador Dali painting showing a clock melting over a pink elephant standing in a desert. Or something.
Can we get to the point?
The point is that individual chords are only still images. Strumming provides rhythm, and immediately you animate these pictures – the freeze-frame becomes part of a video – and the music comes to life.
And yet strumming remains the biggest part of simple guitar playing that many players struggle with. But don’t worry, it’s just a case of stripping things back to the basics.
The physical basis
The first principle of learning to do anything well is to be comfortable whilst you learn. So,
- Make sure you sit right. Yeah, obviously you might think. But you’re not going to relax enough to strum that guitar properly if you’re not in a position to hold it correctly. Deep sofas, tall bar stools, any chair with arms, sitting cross-legged perched on a table, these are all bad starting points. Try a normal comfortable chair, where your feet can sit flat on the floor. This means your thigh should be horizontal, so hopefully, your guitar won’t try to slide off it.
- Make sure you’re holding the guitar right. Also, pretty self-evident? In which case you’ve already made sure both arms are completely free to move, right? You’re surely not being lazy and resting your fretting hand arm on your leg, right…?
While the upper part of your strumming arm may well be resting on the body of the guitar, the elbow and lower part of the arm needs to be able to move freely in front of the guitar. That whole lower arm section gets involved with the strumming, starting at your elbow hinge, and it all needs to move freely.
Does your strumming hand feel comfortable? If not then you’ve probably got it bent inwards like some misshapen claw. Straighten it out – you want to play your guitar, not try to attack it.
What else can you do to make the strumming experience comfortable? Well, while you’re learning…
- Use a pick. Seriously. However, tempted you might be to try strumming steel strings with your fingers or thumb, we really wouldn’t recommend it in terms of comfort! Good habits are worth forging early on, and you’ll genuinely play more rhythmically from the beginning using a pick. Start with something nice and light – you can work up to crazy metal or bone picks once Clapton books you for a studio session…
- Hold the pick properly. Secure it between your first finger and thumb, with all other fingers tucked in beneath so that it points out at 90º from your thumb. Keep your hand straight and in line with your strumming arm – if it’s running parallel with the front of your guitar then the pick should be pointing directly at the strings. Exactly where you want it.
- Use light strings. Again, not something you always need to stick with. But why not make things easier as you learn?
The rhythmic basics
Strumming a guitar is almost like conducting a band. The conductor moves their arm to the beat. The guitarist does the same. Kind of…
Although there are many different styles of strumming, the simplest method is to play a down-strum (or down-stroke) on each beat (or pulse) of the music. Like this.
Now stop. Pause. Hold the phone. Because this single bar of music, this simple little exercise, this tiny nugget of information is probably the greatest thing any guitarist will ever learn. Unlike the conductor leading the band, the guitarist has just started conducting his or her self. Just that basic downward movement on each beat builds the foundation on which we move seamlessly from playing a beat to playing rhythm.
The next logical step is to introduce an up-strum (or up-stroke). Where do we do this? Between the down-strums of course!
You can clearly see that up-strums ONLY happen on the off-beats. This is the unavoidable result of strumming down ON the beat. But it’s a happy and very convenient result – we need to return our strumming arm to a position ready to play the next beat, so why not strum an off-beat in the process.
From the beat to the rhythm
By now the basic point should be obvious; strumming down on each beat ensures that your arm keeps moving in time to the music. The pulse is now flowing nicely, and turning that beat into a rhythm is the next step.
It looks as though there are bits missing from the strumming, right? Well, yes and no. Try playing this example, even if you haven’t got a guitar with you (just move your arm up and down – tell anyone watching that you’re ‘air strumming’ if they look worried).
You’re still strumming down on each beat, you’re still keeping that basic pulse, you’re still conducting yourself. But you’re not strumming a chord on every beat and off-beat of the bar – because you don’t have to. The plectrum hits the strings whenever you want it to, creating interesting new gaps in the sound, layering a new feel over the beat.
As if by magic the pulse has now become rhythm. Voila!
Wrapping It Up
And that’s the basics of strumming. For those readers who still find it difficult, I hope this helps. For those who have already nailed it, spread the word!
Now for a rest before I write that spoon article…so until next time…