How to Strum With Dynamics

Varying dynamics is another ‘secondary variable’ of strumming. Much like string selection, it can be a great tool of expression when strumming, yet an awareness of it is not necessarily required to strum effectively. Again, just like string selection, use of dynamics often occurs naturally to the guitarist and its subtleties vary in a similar, unpredictably expressive fashion.

Dynamics, in a nut shell refers to the volume of the strumming. Loud and soft and everything in between. While dynamic variation occurs in every strumming pattern that you ever hear (intentionally or otherwise) it is almost never annotated. Doing so would be an almost ridiculous task. Accents can often be used to emphasize a certain strum, or beat of the bar, but it is almost impossible to go through every strum of a song and accurately describe its velocity or volume. So why write about it here? Because although it doesn’t always get a mention on the sheet music, it is a very prominent and important characteristic of strumming and it is important to experiment with dynamics, or at the very least be aware of its presence when learning to strum. Think of it like altering the pitch of the voice in speech. You don’t necessarily think about how you are modulating pitch, but to not change pitch would result in a very weird, robot like voice. As well as that, altering the pitch in an unusual or forced way sounds strange and uncomfortable.

Experiment With Dynamics

Again, the best way of approaching dynamics is to experiment. Keep in mind that if you are playing a rhythm accurately, you are most likely already varying the dynamics. You’re just not necessarily doing it on purpose. Unless you are a machine, there will be a difference in volume from one strum to the next. But being aware allows you to deliberately play around with dynamics, producing both favourable and unfavourable results. While there is no ‘one size fits all’ rule, there are a few approaches that can be of use:

  • Accenting the first beat of the bar – The first beat of the bar signals the start of a new cycle and therefor, it can often ‘feel good’ to accent the first beat of every bar.
  • Accenting the syncopation – Syncopation (in a nutshell) refers to the strums that occur on the off beats. Accenting these can create a certain tension that just sounds good.
  • Contours – Imagine contours of dynamics stretching across the bar of music and try to replicate these contours when strumming.

These are just a few examples. Between natural expression and deliberate manipulation of dynamics, it’s really not hard to observe the effects of dynamic variation. The biggest challenge to the strumming beginner is not in applying dynamics, but rather with maintaing an even rhythm whilst doing so. Often, you can fall in to the trap of slowing down because you are thinking of ‘soft’ or speeding up when thinking of ‘fast’. That’s why it’s important to use a metronome regularly and count out loud.

Further Reading

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