Many beginner guitarists find rhythm to be one of the more challenging aspects of guitar playing. This is typically because they don’t understand the core fundamental concept of what it is they should be doing. It’s as easy as counting to four.
Using your fingers or pick, you will correctly fret a chord and strum down across all the strings on each beat. Each beat is essentially one, and you will strum and count to 4. After you have strummed down on each beat and counted to 4, you will repeat the process but will change to the next chord.
This article will detail the overall concept of how to strum a guitar. It will also cover how to strum with a pick, your fingers, and your thumb. This understanding of strumming will apply to all genres, styles, and guitars (electric, acoustic, and classical).
Table of Contents
How To Strum A Guitar – Tutorial
Looking at guitar players that can strum a guitar well (have good rhythm) may make it seem like they do it as effortlessly as breathing. There is a point where this actually becomes true, and rhythm becomes a natural part of guitar playing.
However, every guitarist starts at the same level, and many find it challenging to understand and convey what they need to do in relation to acquiring a good guitar strumming technique.
We’ll now go over each step you will need to take to understand and learn how to strum a guitar in the correct fashion. This article won’t cover how to hold a guitar or a pick but will cover the general concept of understanding rhythm and how to strum.
If you need to learn how to hold your guitar or pick, then you can check out some of our other articles on these topics (how to hold a guitar pick). Hence, we will assume you know these essential skills and start from there.
Without a doubt, the most crucial aspect of learning and strumming well is knowing how to count and play on the beat. The difference between a good and a great rhythm guitar player is knowing how to take a beat and break it up.
This is achieved by dividing and further subdividing the beat. It may sound complicated, and it does get so, but acquiring a basic understanding is relatively simple.
Every song has a beat. You can think of pretty much any song, and you will be able to tell there is a groove to it. To understand that groove (beat/rhythm), you must count.
Now there are many ways to group and count beats, but the most common (especially in modern pop, rock, and blues) is to count the beats in groups of 4.
You will simply count each beat starting on 1, and when you get to 4, you repeat. This is known as 4/4 time, and grouping beats together is called a bar or measure. You can learn more music theory with a guitar theory book, if you choose!
It is important to note that when you listen to a song, you can’t simply start counting from anywhere.
Beats (measures) in accordance with the tempo will start and stop at different points. However, learning to strum will only require you to count to 4 and then repeat. Learning where beats and bars in songs sit is another lesson entirely.
Strum Down On The Beat
Now that we know you will need to count to 4, repeat strumming is pretty simple. With your guitar in hand and your pick or fingers, you will strum down on the strings on each beat.
As you count 1..2..3..4, you will strum down on each number. This is the most basic rhythm. You can almost play any song in the world just knowing what the chords of the song are and when to change chords using this simple rhythm of strumming down on each beat.
Songs have various rhythms and time signatures (like 3/4 time, 5/4 time, etc.), but you will be able to hear the chords and play almost any song using this simple technique.
For example, take the very common chords G / D / Em / C. Play through the chords using this simple rhythm.
Each chord will be a bar (measure). This means you will strum down on the G chord for each beat, counting to 4, and when you go back to counting to 1, you will change to the next chord.
There are some very easy acoustic songs (like Good Riddance [Time of Your Life]) that use these exact chords (in a slightly different order).
In any case, when you reach the C chord and count to 4, you will go back to the G chord. You will then start again and proceed to play these chords in a loop.
Below is a table to illustrate what we mean. However, it should be noted that music is not at all written this way, but some beginners find it easy to understand when it is laid out like this.
|Count||1 2 3 4||1 2 3 4||1 2 3 4||1 2 3 4|
|Strum||Strum down on each beat||Strum down on each beat||Strum down on each beat||Strum down on each beat|
Now, this may seem simple enough, but you can play many, many songs with these four chords and with this simple down-strumming rhythm.
Take a look at this band that goes through dozens of modern songs over the past few decades. This just shows how far some simple chords, chord progressions, and simple strumming pattern can get you!
It is important to note that the rhythm will change for different songs, and they may be playing these chords in a different key, but the premise is the same.
Tap Your Foot To The Beat
A critical aspect of a beginner strummer is to learn and internalize rhythm. We now know how to count to 4, strum down on each beat, and change chords after every measure (bar).
What you will want to teach yourself to do straight away when you learn to strum is to tap your foot to the beat. This will internalize the rhythm and also eventually teach you to internalize tempo (how fast or slow a song is).
All you will need to do here is to tap your foot each time you strum down and count. It’s as simple as that.
Make Sure You Strum All The Strings
Next, you will need to understand and ensure that you are strumming all the strings. This means that when you strum down each beat with each chord, you hit all six guitar strings with your fingers, thumb, or pick.
Now there are many occasions where you will not do this as some songs only utilize certain chords and strings. However, it is important for a beginner to understand and get a feel for strumming all the strings.
As you accumulate more experience, you can then learn other songs that use various rhythms and only play specific strings – but we’ll get into muting strings in another article!
Make Sure You Fret The Chords Correctly
Even though strumming involves the hand that strums the strings, there is no point in being able to strum if the chords you are fretting can’t be heard.
Thus, always make sure you are fretting your chords correctly. A good way to test if you are making the chord properly (let’s say a G chord)is to hold the chord/fretting hand still and play each individual string – they should sound out and ring clear.
If you don’t hear a sound or you hear a buzzing or muted sound, you’ll have to work on building muscle strength and memory in your fretting hand. It takes practice – but you’ll get it if you practice and keep at it!
- Read More: How Long Does It Take To Learn Guitar?
Strum Up Between The Beats
Now that we have basic down strumming covered, we can look at spicing up you’re playing a bit by adding an upstroke to your strumming.
At this point, you should be able to strum down on each beat, counting to 4, then change chords at the end of a bar all the while tapping your foot on each beat as you play.
We said rhythm (the beat) could be divided and subdivided multiple times, which is where strumming gets exciting.
What you will now do is strum up between each beat. In order to be able to do this, you will count and add in a phrase so as to keep your rhythm steady.
To count upbeats, you will literally say out loud:
“1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”
The phrase “and” is the upbeat, and this is where you will strum up. Essentially when we counted to 4 and played down on the beat, we played four times per bar. Now we will play eight times per bar, strumming up in between each down strum.
Below is another simple table to understand what you need to do.
|Count||1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and||1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and||1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and||1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and|
|Strum||Strum down on each beat/number and strum up on the “and”||Strum down on each beat and strum up on the “and”||Strum down on each beat and strum up on the “and”||Strum down on each beat and strum up on the “and”|
As you can see by the above table, the beats and subdivisions of the beats are still all kept in a single bar (measure).
You can now incorporate down and upstrokes as you play chords. Remember to change chords as you get to the end of a measure, and then when you get to the end of the progression, you will start it over again.
How To Strum Using A Pick
Strumming with a guitar pick is simple enough. Depending on the type of guitar pick (size, shape, thickness), you will hold it in a specific way that feels comfortable. Typically you will hold the pick between your thumb and index finger.
You will only need to strum down and up across the strings using the side of the pick as you go through the motion.
There is no rigid (right or wrong) way that you have to conform to. Just hold the pick in a comfortable position while you strum up and down. Again, you can read more about how to hold a guitar pick, if that’s relevant for you!
How To Strum Using Your Fingers
There are two ways of strumming with your fingers. The first way is only to use your thumb. This means you will move your thumb up and down moving across all the strings as you strum.
The other way is to use your thumb on the upstroke (upbeat) and then use your other four fingers for the downbeat.
Thus you will strum down with your fingers on the beat, and as you count “and” you will strum up with your thumb.
- Read More: Can You Play Guitar With Long Nails?
How To Strum Various Types Of Guitars
There are many different types of guitars. There are classical, electric, and acoustic. Now depending on the guitar, the song, the style, etc., you may want to strum in different ways.
The method (concept) of strumming)we share with you above is universal and applies to all guitars, styles, and genres. Everything you have learned here can be mixed and matched to give you precisely the sound and style you are looking for.
For example, strumming an electric guitar heavily with a pick with distortion will provide you with a rock sound.
Strumming an acoustic guitar gently, only using your thumb, will portray a soft and gentle sound. Strumming a classical guitar with your fingers and thumb very quickly will give you a flamenco sound.
What Is The Next Step To Strumming A Guitar?
After you have mastered counting to 4 while strumming down on the beat, changing chords, and looping a progression, you should learn to strum up on the off beat. This is what we covered when strumming on the “and” of the count.
Your next step should be to learn how to subdivide and count beats more.
For example, you should learn how to count and divide beats into sixteenth and thirty-second notes. This is where you will start to understand how genres are built around the same chords but with various, more complicated rhythms.
What we taught you in this article is how to count in quarter and eighth notes. Quarter notes being the beat (1, 2, 3, 4) and eight notes being the beat and the upstroke (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and).
Learning to strum a guitar is not rocket science. Starting off, you only need to be able to count to 4. As you count, you will need to strum down. Keep in mind that to learn to internalize rhythm and tempo, you should tap your foot on each beat.
You can strum using your fingers, thumb, or pick. It all depends on the style and genre you are going for. Just remember to fret the chords correctly and play all the strings, if necessary for that chord.
The next step in learning to strum is dividing the beat and playing it as an upstroke. We covered this as well. With this article and a little bit of practice, you should be able to play some of your favorite songs in a couple of days.
As always, Happy Playing,