Strumming on the guitar can be a bit of a mystery for beginners. There are a hundreds of easily accessible chord diagrams out there and lots of songs to put these chords to use. But there seems to be a lack of guidance when it comes to strumming and the correct approach.
Different Types Of Notation
The way chords are presented varies depending on where you look. Some songs are presented with lyrics and chords are written above the lyrics aligned with the specific lyrics where the chord changes. This can be useful if you already have a very clear idea of how the song goes, what the feel of the song is and all you need is the name of the chord to make it all fit together. Another common format is where there is sheet music, perhaps with the melody notated in the traditional format of note heads, rhythms and key signatures etc. and the chords are aligned to specific bars. This also can be quite useful, as it gives you a clear idea of which bar to change chords, but usually it still requires that you know what the ‘feel’ or ‘rhythm‘ is before you can make it sound like the original recording.
There are other methods of notating chords as well. Some are quite detailed and extensive and others are very minimal and vague. It can make things very confusing when starting out on your chords journey. I think one of the reasons why strumming is such a vague topic without many definitive guides available, is because generally speaking, when a guitarist strums, they generally do not stick to the one rhythm for the whole song. There are so many nuances and subtle variations that occur naturally when strumming, that it makes it hard to pick a specific strumming pattern and assign it to a whole song. There are exceptions of course. If you think of the back in black riff by ACDC, you can here a very specific rhythm that is repeated over and over again.
How To Approach Strumming
So what is the solution? How can you practice strumming so that you can eventually just forget about what your doing and strum, with all the nuances and expressions flowing freely from your strumming hand? I think the solution is to first understand the fundamentals of strumming and then learn specific strumming patterns. The second part might seem counter intuitive. If strumming is such a free flowing thing, why should you learn specific rhythms? That is because by learning many specific rhythms, you can eventually draw from them all to express yourself in the moment. Think of it like learning a new language. You learn words by learning to speak specific phrases, but the objective is to be able to eventually match different words together, so that you can create your own phrases and express yourself.
Here are some brief description of the fundamentals of strumming. Underneath each description is a link where you can read a more in depth lesson on each topic, with examples.
Most people have at the very least a basic understanding of rhythm. Rhythm is essentially timing in music. Rhythms can be simple, or more sophisticated, but all rhythms are based on a steady beat, and an interaction with that beat.
What Is Rhythm?
Right Hand Movement:
Right hand movement is a fundamental part of strumming (I’m assuming for the sake of simplicity that every guitarist is right handed). While on a basic level this is seems obvious (how can you strum without moving your right hand) they way in which you use your right hand also provides a kind of ‘rhythmic platform’ for all rhythms to be expressed.
Strumming And Right Hand Movement
I would call this a secondary fundamental. It’s really something you refine once you really understand the concepts involved with rhythm and right hand movement, but it’s an important part of strumming none the less. String selection refers to which strings you are actually strumming at any given time. For example, you might strum all the strings on the way down, but then only the first few strings on the way up. This is a very basic illustration of string selection. Most guitarists don’t actually think about this when strumming. It becomes a subconscious reflex of expression. However, it is important to be aware of it so that you can experiment with it.
String Selection When Strumming
Again, this one is more of a secondary fundamental, as it is not as essential as the first two. Still though, it is an important part of making strumming sound expressive and fluid. A basic example of using dynamics in strumming is to play 4 down strums over and over again and accent the first strum in each group of 4. This is a basic example of how dynamics can breath life and expression into a strumming rhythm.
Using Dynamics When Strumming
This technique is used to give the strumming pattern a percussive feel. It involves producing ‘muted’, percussive sounds while strumming to add life to the strumming pattern.
Strumming With Percussive Sounds
There are of course a few other variables and techniques that can be used when strumming (such as position of right hand etc.) but the above 5 fundamentals cover 99 percent of what strumming is all about.