Once you have the basic chord shapes down and can change effortlessly between them, it's time to get your strumming hand up to speed. After all, being able to fret chords is only part of the equation. Now it's time to bring those chords to life with strumming patterns and rhythm techniques.
Here are 12 tips to help get you started:
1. Strum with a pick. Not everyone plays chords with a pick, but before you start strumming with your thumb or picking with your fingers, try using a pick. Keeping a relaxed grip on the pick, strum a C chord repeatedly using downstrokes. Notice the difference in sound between strumming with your fingers and using a pick.
2. Play from your wrist. Your arm's going to tire quickly if you strum from the elbow. Use a circular motion with a loose wrist to get a good strum. Pretend you have honey on your finger and that a feather is stuck to it. If you try to shake off the feather, that's pretty much the exact motion you want when strumming. Anders Mouridsen shows you how it's done on his tutorial Strumming Technique.
3. Easy does it. When learning to strum, choose an easy song to start – something in 4/4 time (four beats per measure) that uses just a few chords is ideal. This way, you'll better focus on the strumming hand and less on the fretting hand.
4. Strum the proper strings. Don't play strings that aren't part of the chord. The D Major chord, for example, only requires you to strum four strings, while the G Major requires all six. To keep from playing unwanted strings, use precision in your strumming, mute strings with the fretting hand, or use some combination of both methods, depending on the chord.
5. Strum all strings with equal force. Starting with the low E string, strum all six strings in a downstroke, giving each string equal weight. As easy as this sounds, it can be difficult at first to make the strings sound evenly together. Beginners tend to hit both E strings a little harder while raking over the other strings individually and slowly. Once you get the downstroke to play fluently, start with the high E string and reverse the exercise, strumming all six strings evenly in an upstroke.
6. Learn the down-up rhythm. The most basic rhythmic strumming pattern you can learn is the alternating downstroke and upstroke. Strum downstrokes to a count of one, two, three, four. Keeping the same quarter-note tempo, now try alternating between downstrokes and upstrokes with every beat: down, up, down, up (D, U, D, U).
7. Experiment with strumming patterns. Sticking to 4/4 timing, try an eighth-note strum. Instead of one stroke for every beat, you'll strum two, dividing the quarter notes into eighth notes for a count of one and two and three and four and (D-U, D-U, D-U, D-U). Next divide the eighth-note strum into a sixteenth-note strum, with four notes to every beat for a count of one e and a, two e and a, three e and a, four e and a (D-U-D-U, D-U-D-U, D-U-D-U, D-U-D-U).
8. Playing "silent" strokes. Learn how to maintain a continuous rhythm by keeping your wrist moving in the same down-up pattern while keeping your pick off the strings on particular beats. The ability to omit certain strokes while sustaining a constant rhythm is key to playing more complicated strumming patterns.
9. Change up the rhythm. There are few songs that involve a straight down-up strum pattern and for good reason—it would be boring to hear and play. Try combining two quarter notes and two eighth notes (D, D, D-U, D-U), or alternating quarter notes and eighth notes (D, D-U, D, D-U), or three sixteenth notes and an eighth note (D-U-D-U, D-U-D-U, D-U-D-U, D-U). Try leaving out a downstroke (or an upstroke) and see how the pattern changes (D-U, D-U, D-U, [silent D]-U). Mix it up.
10. Pull out bass notes. Create melody by playing the bass notes of a chord. Using the G chord, play the sixth string G note as beat one, strum the remaining five notes of the chord as beat two, play the fifth string B note as beat three, and strum the remaining four notes of the G chord as beat four. Play this pattern with different chords, alternating between bass notes.
11. Change chords. Using alternating downstrokes and upstrokes, strum a measure of the G chord, switch to strumming a measure of the C chord and then back to G again. Now switch every two beats, changing between G and C while keeping in time. Next, throw in a third chord. Keep at it until you can change smoothly between chords while maintaining your strumming rhythm.
12. Play with feeling. You don't speak in a monotone, so don't strum in one either. Dynamics give emphasis to pick strokes by varying the levels of volume applied to them. Adding dynamics to your strumming can mean the difference between sounding like a robot and sounding like a rock star!
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