Simple strumming

It's assumed at this point that you've memorized the 5 major chords we've been using (E,D,C,A,G). This lesson is more concerned with rhythm, and what you can do with these chords in time.

So a gentle review of rhythm (for those who don't know or have forgotten what they do know).

Rhythm is the aspect of music that deals with time. Rhythm is an integral (necessary) component of music. Although we might be able (as a thought experiment) to consider the sound present at a given moment, it is nessary to consider the sounds changing through time to create or really discuss music.

Rhythm is known to have a profound effect on our emotions, and even the brainwave patterns (do a websearch for trance or binaural beats). I'm not going to get deep into this except to make the claim that as a songwriter and expecting to be listened to by some audience,...

Given a choice between a tasty rhythm, a thematic melody, and a good harmony, choose the tasty rhythm.

Your audience might resonate with the harmony, or go away singing a melody, but they will understand and appreciate the rhythm more than they will the other two. many great melodies and progressions have gone unnoticed due to a poor rhythm.

So working twords having a good rhythm...

We want to develop a consistent steady rhythm and then learn to vary things to make them more interesting.

For now, we're concerned with being able to keep a steady beat, and having that as our goal until that's accomplished. It helps to have a metronome (especially if you know you have problems with rhythm or you're unsure). Using a metronome will help you recognize any changes in tempo (speed) while you play. It is a common error even amoung more advanced players to change speed while playing music. The problem is not due to experience or lack of understanding but rather not observing what is happening during the performance and letting things slide. It takes a consciouss decision to play the notes correctly. It takes vigilance and commitment that this note (strum, etc.) being played now is the correct note. And that's not just wishful thinking, but is backed up by drilling songs, or exercises, etc. that are being performed, or that deal with the issues involved (for improvising, etc.). And when the moment to perform arrives, you don't stop paying attention but commit yourself to play the piece correctly for your audience (whether it's your dog, an open-mike night, a paying crowd, or an empty room).

Developing an even rhythm

Learning to strum in time, not vary your tempo, being on the beat (rather than ahead or behind it), these are among the most important things that can be learned by a beginner.

One of the best ways to develop a sense of even beats is to play along with a metronome. You can get a physical contraption or you can download one for free even. If you're new to music, you may just take some time to become familiar with what an even beat feels like.

Here are some some pre-strumming exercises:

1.) Set a metronome to a slow setting (its slowest if mechanical). Clap along with the beat. Pay close attention to the metronomeand the aim is to synchronize your clapping with the tick, or beep of the metronome. make sure you don't speed up or slow down.

2.) Same thing as #1 but tap your foot. It doesn't matter if it is the tip or heel, but make sure the moment you tap it is on the beat (not ahead or behind), and that you're not tapping faster or slower than the beat.

3.) Count along with the metronome. we'll start by counting in groups of four. Count 1 with the first beat, 2 with the second, 3 with the 3rd, 4 with the 4th, then repeat. Again make sure that you're exactly on the beatand not speeding up or slowing down. in fact, you can make a game out of it.

- Start the exercise and whenever you notice a mistake, start over. see how long you can go without making a mistake, and try to lengthen it. There is a school of thought that says until you have eliminated your mistakes, you're only practicing your mistakes. And that real practice doesn't begin until after you've eliminated your mistakes.

4.) Put #2 and #3 together. Tap your foot and count in 4. This requires you to split your attention 3 ways: listening to the metronome, your foot, and your counting.

5.) Count along with the metronome in 2, but this time only the 1 is going to be on the beat. the 2 will be halfway (evenly) between the beats. keep yourself honest about being on the beat, playing all beats even, keeping tempo (not speeding up or slowing down)

5a.) repeat #5 making 3 even divisions (counting to 3 intead of 2), and keeping the 1 with the metronome.

5b.) Repeat #5 making 4 even divisions, with the metronome on the 1 beat.

5c.) Count in 4, but having the 1 and 3 occur when the metronome clicks. in 4/4 the 1rst and 3rd beats are often refered to as the "downbeat".

5d.) Repeat 5c, except having the metronome click when you say 2 and 4. In 4/4 the 2nd and 4th beats are often refered to as the backbeat.

(More than) Ready to strum?

I'm going to assume that you're strumming with a pick even though you could be strumming with your thumb or fingers.


It is a matter of personal taste. but you should become familiar with the affects of different thicknesses on the tone produced. With very thin picks (<.5mm) there is a soft attack, and also you can hear the plastic bending when it comes off the strings. One advantage of thin picks is a less chance of breaking the strings due to violent/rapid strumming (which comes in handy for tremelo picking). Thicker picks have a sharper attack, and are less flexible requiring a different amount of pressure to hold and control the pick. How large of a pick is also a matter of personal taste, and doesn't have much of an affect on the tone, but will have an effect on the range of motion of the pick, and also which particular muscles are used to move the pick. Try picking with a dime and a dollar (coin), and examine the slight variations of muscle groups, and range of motion.

How much pressure should I apply to the pick?

Opinions and techniques vary. But I'm going to suggest that you gently hold it so that when you strum, it's almost (but not) falling out of your hand.

How do I hold the pick?

Again there are different opinions and techniques, but i'm going to state that there are two common positions. One is with the pick between thumb and index finger (at the last digit of index finger where the nail is) with thumb and finger going parallel in opposite directions. The other is similar but with thumb and index finger going in the same direction. I would suggest starting with the former, although i've seen some wonderful pickers who use the latter (including George Benson).


When we strum the movement comes from the wrist.

The fingers can be curled in, or spread out, so long as they don't interfere with the strumming (we may later develop techniques that involve the fingers as well, but for now we're learning to control the sounds rather than have accidents happen).

Strumming in a downward motion twords the floor is called a "down-strum."

Strumming in a upward motion twords the ceiling is called an "up-strum."

I will represent downstrums with the mark: /

I will represent upstrums with the mark: V

Here is an example. If we are counting in 4's and we play one chord for each beat, that is sometimes refered to as "4-to-the-bar". Here is a G chord (G=320003) where the rhythm is 4-to-the-bar with all downstrums.


Notice there is a dash between beats. You may see similar notation without dashes. I'm just trying to help clear up the rhythm a bit. You shouldn't be thrown by either notation.

If we're counting in 4's and we want to have two strums per beat, we can count "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and".

Here is an example of alternating upstrums and downstrums in such a situation.

G V  - / V  - / V  - / V
1 and  2 and  3 and  4 and

If we're counting in 4's and we want 3 divisions/strums per beat, we can count "1 and ah 2 and ah 3 and ah 4 and ah". One possible strum might be:

G V   /  - / V   / - / V   / - / V   /
1 and ah   2 and ah  3 and ah  4 and ah

If we're counting in 4's and we want 4 divisions/strums per beat, we can count "1 ee and ah 2 ee and ah 3 ee and ah 4 ee and ah". One possible strum might be:

G V  /   V - / V  /   V - / V  /   V - / V  /   V
1 ee and ah  2 ee and ah  3 ee and ah  4 ee and ah

Let's get technical for a moment, and talk about time signatures, and names of durations.

We often see time signatures at the beginning of music (at least in standard notation). It might look like 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, etc.

A time signature tells us two things.
1.) What sort of note gets the beat, and
2.) How many beats per measure.

ex. 4/4 (four-four) says that there are 4 beats to the measure (the top number), and that the quarter note gets the beat (the bottom number).

ex. 6/8 (six-eight) says that ther are 6 beats to the measure, and the quarter note gets the beat.

Quarter notes and eighth notes are durations. In general, we divide time into equal (discrete) values, and we generally divide beats in half (and that in half , etc.) although it's possible to divide into 3 equal divisions (triplets, etc.) or 5 equal divisions, etc. This is all better understood in a different format than text-only, but most people encounter this in school, so I'm assuming it's review.

A whole note gets 4 beats. So if you were strumming a whole note you would strum on 1 and hold it (let it ring) for strums 2,3, and 4.

A rest is a point during music where the instrument doesn't have any sound produced. A whole rest would have the voice or instrument not producing sound for 4 beats.

In 4/4
A half-note or half-rest gets two beats.
A quarter-note or quarter-rest gets one beat.
An eighth-note or eighth-rest gets half a beat.
A sixteenth-note or sixteenth-rest gets a quarter of a beat.

Let's consider some patterns with rests and strums of longer duration than a quarter note. I'll use parenthesis to represent a rest.

In 4/4 time

3/4 and 6/8 could be approached with very similar strums. And many more ideas can help expand your repetoire. But keeping it simple for the moment...

1.) Aim for a good clean sound.
2.) Strive to develop a sense of even beats.
3.) Try to discern the difference in sound between an upstrum and a downstrum.
4.) Start from the basics (/-/-/-/, /V-/V-/V-/V) and get those down first, then gradually add more strums to your repetoire.
5.) Keep your ears open when listening to music for time signatures (is the song in 4, 6, ?), and strumming patterns. Write down and keep track of what you like.
6.) Slow it down to the point where you make no mistakes, and when comfortable there, gradually increase speed. (speed is a byproduct of accuracy).

There are many rhythmic ideas that will add interest to your strumming, but you'd be best advised to master the basic upstrum and downstrum. Otherwise you may find yourself constantly chasing after some elusive rhythmic technique to fix the symptom, when the problem is in an inconsistent rhythm.

More on rhythm and strumming in the future.

The next lesson is on Root notes.

Christopher Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

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Last updated December 20, 2001.
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