One of the reasons why strumming can be a difficult and confusing topic for beginners is because in popular music, the pros rarely strum the same rhythm from bar to bar. This is because there is a natural variation that usually occurs with strumming. It is not necessarily a conscious thing, in fact, it’s almost always subconscious. But it makes the beginner’s task a lot harder.
So why learn a whole range of pieces with repeated rhythms if the pros rarely play the same thing twice in a row? The reason is that the only way you can learn to vary rhythms is by learning to control them to begin with. Also, by learning a lot of specific rhythms, you are building up your ‘rhythm repertoire’ and you are learning the principles that will allow you to embellish freely.
This short section has been included to give some useful advice on practice techniques with relation to rhythm/chord playing and how to apply what you’ve learned to pieces of music beyond this book.
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.
Mastering The Shapes
The best thing you can do to improve your chord changing ability and speed is to become familiar with the shapes that you are working on and practise them constantly. The more practice you do on a specific chord, the more confident you will be in changing to and from that particular chord. This isn’t rocket science, but it’s worth pointing out, as too often students get frustrated with changing from chord to chord, when they simply haven’t spent enough time learning the chord to begin with.
Slow Motion Chord Changes
Once you think you are familiar with the chords that you are working on, there are some extra techniques that you can use, to improve them further. The first technique is called slow motion chord changes. Slow motion chord changes involves choosing two chords that you are working on and practising moving from one to the other in slow motion. The aim of the game here is to train each finger to travel the least possible distance when going from one chord to the other.
You need to keep in mind that in order to make this happen, you have to move super slow. It’s impossible to go too slow when doing this exercise. Even when you think you’ve perfected the movement, keep practising slowly to really reinforce the movement. Your strumming hand is not required at all for this exercise. The chords aren’t going to sound at all. It is purely an exercise in movement.
The reason why this exercise is so important is because most people only work on speed when changing between chords. They may become very familiar and comfortable with each chord (which is desirable) but the change between two chords involves extra movements or inefficient movements. Think of it like someone trying to drive as fast as they can from point A to point B, but taking a route that is twice as far in distance as the shortest route. We want the shortest route.
Forced Chord Changes
Forced chord changes is the opposite of slow motion changes. Here, the task is to establish a 1-bar rhythm with your strumming hand and change chords at the start of each bar. This might seem like a an obvious exercise, but the challenge here is to keep the strumming hand going, even if the non strumming hand is not yet ready with the next chord. You have probably experienced strumming over a certain chord, changing to the next chord and noticing that everything stops while you make sure that you get the next chord right. This might seem like a strange suggestion, but often the pause between chords is as much psychological as it is physical.
The key to doing this exercise correctly is to begin the next bar of strumming even if the chord hand isn’t quite ready. If the chord hand isn’t ready, it has to ‘catch up’. You will find that it is really difficult to allow your hand to keep strumming when the chord isn’t ready. You will be so used to waiting until your chord hand is ready, that it will feel wrong to keep strumming. You have to overcome this feeling and keep the strumming going. What you will find is that your chord hand will adapt quicker. Once it ‘learns’ that you are not going to wait for it, it begins to adapt.
Strumming While Transitioning
A good tip to use when when changing from one chord to another is to begin transitioning to the next chord earlier than you normally would. This usually means that the chord that you are transitioning from gets cut a little short and there are one or two strums that are assigned to ‘nothing’ (while the chords are transitioning).
You might think that this would sound sloppy or unmusical (because of the fact that there are a few strums being heard while chords are in transition) but in fact, it actually sounds quite natural. Think of it like breathing in between singing phrases.
This is a very important technique that is often overlooked. When learning a new chord, or trying to improve an old one, you should practise arpeggiating the chord. This involves fingering the chord with your chord playing hand, and playing the strings of the chord individually to make sure that each chord is ringing clear.
Often, when we are testing the clarity of a chord, we naturally give it a strum, because we think that this will accurately demonstrate how clear and strong the chord is. Also, we assume that since we are most likely going to be strumming the chord when using it in a musical context, a strum is the best tool for ‘checking’ the chord.
The problem with strumming as a test mechanism is that because all of the strings are effectively being played at the same time, the strong strings often mask the weak ones. If the bottom string is being unintentionally muted because of a technical insufficiency, it is hard to detect over the sound of the other clear notes that are being sounded.
If you play one string at a time, you can easily hear which notes are clear and which ones aren’t. With this method, you should still let the previous string ring while you pluck the next one, but each string should be played slowly and individually.
All of the strumming material in this book is very specific in terms of what to play and how to play it. Each rhythm is illustrated clearly without any room for interpretation. This is necessary for mastering the principles of rhythm and strumming. As I have already discussed however, the true expression of these principles is realized when you can embellish rhythms and strum ‘freely’.
One of the best ways to achieve this is to experiment. You know by now that strumming is intrinsically linked to rhythm and counting. If you know the principles, you can create your own rhythms. Experiment with altering existing rhythms in this book. Join different rhythms together. Add extra strums to existing rhythms. Take some away. The more you experiment, while sticking to the principles of this book, the closer you will get to the ultimate goal – being able to strum freely without thinking.
In this lesson series, we have concentrated on rhythm, strumming directions and string selection. There are other, less important variables that are used, that are worth experimenting with.
Dynamics are used extensively with strumming to enhance mood and feel. Varying the dynamics of each strum can add expressiveness to a strumming pattern. This is a good example of something that is hard to annotate to a detailed level, which is why it is something that is best left to experimentation. Practice a strumming rhythm that you know well and experiment by varying the dynamics from strum to strum. You will find that you can create quite interesting contrasts by altering dynamics.
Percussive mutes are played by ‘deadening’ the strings (usually by releasing the tension on the chord hand, or using your palm on the strumming hand) and strumming so that a percussive sound is heard. This can be a hard technique to conquer at fist, but when it is used tastefully, it can add a sense of percussiveness to a strumming pattern. This is a technique that should only be worked on once the fundamentals of strumming have been mastered. It has not been a focus of this book, but it is a very effective (and advanced) technique.
Working With a Teacher
Getting lessons off an experienced teacher has enormous value. Even when working through material that you already have a clear understanding of, a teacher can provide unique insights, point out things that you would otherwise overlook, give valuable advice and act as a mentor and coach. The material in this book is perfectly suited for working through with a teacher because it is very systematically organized.
Common Formats of Chord Charts
I’ve mentioned the challenges that occur with chord charts, tutorials and tabs that are easily available – usually on the internet. It’s worthwhile mentioning a few different formats that are commonly used:
Lyrics with Chords – A popular method of annotating chords is to place them on top of lyrics. Usually the chords are aligned to the specific word or syllable where the chord change occurs. This can be very confusing, as it gives no clue as to the rhythm that should be used, or specifically how long each chord goes for.
Bars with Chords – You can find chord charts where the music is organized into bars, with chords aligned to each bar. This is actually a good way to organize chord charts. If you have experience reading charts in this way and are experienced enough to know how to apply the right strumming based on the feel of the song, then this is often all that is needed. However, a specific strumming rhythm is usually not included.
Tablature – While tablature (tabs) can be a very effective tool for communicating finger placement, it often exists without any form of rhythmic notation whatsoever. Tabs can be a useful tool for someone who is learning a piece of music and already knows how it should sound, but from a rhythm/ strumming perspective, tablature is often insufficient.
Decoding Popular Songs
As I’ve stated already, decoding popular songs should eventually become a natural process. It becomes easy to feel the rhythm of the song, apply an appropriate strumming pattern or patterns and hear when the chords change. In the early days however, you will most likely need to break songs down. Because every song is different, it is impossible to describe a ‘one size fits all’ approach to learning popular songs, but by learning the principles and pieces of the book, you should be very well equipped to tackle other chord- based songs.
It is possible to learn songs by ear. There are enormous benefits to doing this, but the process for doing so is beyond the scope of this book. Most of the time, when trying to learn a popular song, you will already have some sort of transcription of the song in a format discussed on the previous page. When learning songs in this way, the best general advice is to know that every song has a tempo and a meter and that the rhythm can be simplified when starting out. A good approach is to reduce the rhythm to a simple, quarter note rhythm, in which you place one strum on each beat of the bar. This will sound very simple to start with, but if the chord changes are correct, this method will allow you to learn the song in its most basic form and get used to where the chords change etc. Once you have mastered the song with this stripped-back rhythm, you can develop and embellish the rhythm, being guided by the principles of this book and your own interpretation of the song itself.
Keep Making Music
The beauty of chords is that you can do so much with minimal material. You can write a hit song with two chords, or play a thousand songs with the same three chords. Yet there are always ways to expand on what you know by learning more material and new techniques. The important thing is to keep making music. Hopefully, these lessons have given you the tools to do so.