If you read the previous lesson on the basics of rhythm, you should have a good understanding of what rhythm is and how it relates to the beat and the meter. In this lesson, we are going to explore the relationship between rhythm and strumming.
Firstly, strumming, on a basic level, involves playing a certain rhythm by striking the strings using a combination of downward and upward ‘strums’. I know that might seem very simplistic, but on a basic level, that’s what it’s all about.
Any connection (clap, strum etc.) that is played on a number (1, 2, 3, or 4) is said to be played on a down beat. Anything played on an ‘and’ is said to be played on an upbeat (or offbeat).
- 1 = downbeat
- + = upbeat
- 2 = downbeat
- + = upbeat
- 3 = downbeat
- + = upbeat
- 4 = downbeat
- + = upbeat
The key to strumming effectively is to understand the relationship between strumming directions and rhythm. Without solid rhythm, strumming is doomed to fail. But because you’ve read the previous lesson (or because you were already a wiz), you understand rhythms and can execute them with confidence. With that in mind, the most important thing you need to know in order to strum effectively are these two rules:
- Anything that falls on the downbeat uses a down strum.
- Anything that falls on the upbeat uses an up strum.
It is very simple in theory. The most effective way to demonstrate this is to do some more exercises. Before we get going again with the exercises, let’s introduce some symbols that will be used in this lesson series:
These symbols aren’t unique to this site. They are often used to indicate a down-pick or an up-pick in guitar notation. It is important to become familiar with them for the purposes of these lessons.
Down Strum Exercises
Let’s go back to the original exercises that we did (that didn’t use subdivisions). Because these rhythms involved playing only on the downbeats, we will only be using down-strums. Effectively, we will be doing the exact same exercises as before, but using a strumming stroke instead of a clap. If you know some chords already, choose an easy one and grip that chord with your left hand while you strum with your right. If not, simply strum the open strings.
These exercises should be pretty easy, as you have already done them. But it’s important to start using strums and also to see visually how the strums align to the numbers. In the audio examples, I am using an E chord. Each exercise will be played twice. There is no count-in, but the audio is really just a reference point. You should be trying to play each exercise yourself, while counting out loud.
Subdivision Exercises (down and up)
Now let’s do some basic exercises using subdivisions. This first exercise involves a strum being executed on every downbeat and every upbeat. This is an important rhythm to practice for a few reasons; It involves a constant alternation between a down-strum and an up-strum. You need to be able to do this basic rhythm repetitively. The other important thing is that it outlines the underlying motion that will be the spring board for every strumming rhythm in this series of lessons.
As you already know, we can count out loud, or we can count silently, but the counts effectively keep going underneath, even when we don’t express them. The principle behind strumming is essentially the same. We basically strum continually from down to up (a down-strum for each downbeat and an up-strum for each upbeat). If the rhythm requires us to connect at a certain point, we connect. If the rhythm requires that we don’t connect at a certain point, we don’t connect, but the underlying down/up pattern keeps going.
Let’s look at one more basic example, before doing the rest of the examples.
The following exercise involves connecting only on the upbeats, so of course it involves connecting only with up-strums. The down-strums still occur however (just like the counting), but we are not connecting with the down- strums. You will probably need to count out loud at first, to a slow tempo. The exercise is simple in theory, but it can feel a little unusual at first.
The next rhythm below is quite similar to our previous example where we ‘connected’ on every count. But here we are not connecting on the 3rd beat. The 3rd beat is a downbeat, which means there is a down-strum assigned to it. We are not connecting on this 3rd beat, but the down-strum still happens. It just effectively ‘misses’ the strings. This is what allows the constant motion to occur. This is the essence of strumming.
When you think about strumming effectively as a continuous motion of downs and ups, with some movements connecting with the strings and others missing, it almost seems too simple. While the concept is indeed simple, the challenge lies in being able to keep the motion constant and steady (without speeding up or slowing down) and being able to execute the connections and the misses effectively, in order to express the desired rhythm. The moment you pause, hesitate, speed up or slow down, the rhythm is lost.
Now of course we are going to do the other exercises that used subdivisions. This is where it gets a little trickier. Again, it’s very simple in theory, but getting it to a point of flow requires a bit of practice.
Of course, we should also apply the strumming directions to the two-bar examples that we used previously:
Now You’re Ready
If you have read everything in these lessons up to this point, you should now understand the fundamentals of rhythm. You are now ready to apply what you know to actual music. The principles are not difficult to grasp. You do not need to be able to read and write music notation. You just need to spend time translating what you now know onto the guitar.
You could stop reading right now and settle for being a drummer. But of course, if you want to apply all that you have learnt to real pieces of music on the guitar, stay tuned for more lessons!This lesson is an adapted lesson from the ‘Open Chords Made Easy’ book. You can view the index of lessons from this series here, or purchase the book itself from here.