How to Strum a Guitar

Before you start learning numerous guitar chords, you need to get a handle on strumming.

A proper understanding of how to strum the guitar and the best strumming techniques is the foundation of your guitar development. After nailing the rhythm patterns, the lessons that follow will feel much more feasible. 

Choosing the Right Guitar

Before we get into strumming specifics, newcomers need to work with the right guitar. Although guitars may look the same, they often have different properties. Ultimately the goal is to make this process as easy for beginners as possible.

One way to do that is to ensure that you are using light strings, which will lessen the burden of strumming for beginners. Due to their rigidity, they will certainly hurt your fingers less. Meanwhile, rigid strings will affect the way you strum by influencing the strength of the strum.

If you’re not sure which type of strings you’re using, you can always visit your local guitar shop. Also, restringing a guitar may prove difficult for beginners. If you visit your local shop, a clerk will be happy to restring your guitar for as little as $20.

Depending on your height and shape, you may be using the wrong guitar. There are many different guitar sizes, so educate yourself before buying. Achieving a certain level of comfort is a significant part of mastering proper strumming. Far too many newcomers are unaware of the inconvenience of not properly reaching over to your guitar strings. Thus if you are of a smaller frame, you’re going to want to avoid large guitars. Your positioning must feel natural because straining your arms to reach the strings won’t do.

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Proper Positioning

Just a few more steps before we start strumming. Ensuring your guitar posture & positioning is perfect is one way to make strumming a lot easier. You are going to want to pay attention to your elbow and your wrist. The following will apply to right-handed strummers, although left-handed strummers can reverse the directions.

guy holding guitar and strumming properly whilst sitting down

Your elbow must be positioned near the far end of the guitar’s body. This will allow your right hand to float over the soundhole. To produce the best results, remember to stay loose. Rigid motion and posture will not produce an optimal sound. 

Although you won’t be using your other hand for strumming, it is nice to know where to place it. Keep the thumb of your left hand behind the guitar’s neck, and the rest of your fingers should be ready to press down on the strings. 

Remember never to bend your right wrist inward. The motion you’re aiming for will require your wrist to continue in a straight motion. Bending your wrist will lead to an inconsistent strum due to the extra movement, which creates unnecessary tension on the strings. Your arm and your wrist must follow one smooth motion. 

Wrist Movement

Once you build some confidence and feel like tackling advanced techniques, you can explore the nuances derived from wrist movement. There are moments when bending the wrist will result in producing an accented sound that you’re intentionally looking for. Seeing as this is an advanced technique, there is no need to worry about it for now. Instead, let’s keep it simple and avoid bending the wrist. 

Don’t forget that not bending and remaining rigid are two different things. While a rigid wrist results in poor sound, a loose yet straight, a one-way motion will give you fuller notes. 

It may sound counterintuitive, although once you practice a bit, you should get the hang of striking the perfect balance between loose and non-bending. 

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Slow and Steady

It is normal to want to keep a slow strumming pace at first. However, you’re going to want to avoid slowing things down too much. This will throw you off your rhythm and lead to a failure to grasp the strumming pattern.

Keep it as free-flowing as possible. Even if you keep the tempo up and mess up often, this will produce better results in the long run. Repetition at a quick pace will lead to a faster mastering of a song. 

To Pick or Not to Pick

We have now arrived at the age-old debate of whether or not to use a pick. The best advice I can give you is to try both and see what feels better. Stick with whichever option feels more natural. 

Ultimately it does come down to personal preference. The idea that beginners have an easier time learning with a pick is a misconception. I’ve seen several newcomers opt for a non-pick technique, and your thumb or index finger will certainly get the job done. 

a man's hand holding a guitar pick properly for demonstration purposes

If you opt for a pick, you’re going to want to know how to hold the pick properly. Place the pick so that the tip is facing the same direction as your index finger. Your thumb will want to rest on the center of the pick as naturally as possible on one side. On the other side, your index finger will grip the same area. Again this process is all about figuring out what makes you feel comfortable. 

Getting Your Angles Right

Now there is some room for interpretation when it comes to the angle in which you’ll be strumming. The most common technique is to have the pointed end of the pick angled toward the floor. However, due to the pick’s shape, it can strike strings from just about any angle. 

hand up close strumming the guitar with a guitar pick.

You can keep the pick parallel and strum strings with the side of the pick. If it pleases you, you can also strum with the bottom edge of the pick. Whatever makes you feel the most comfortable as long as you’re holding the pick with your thumb and index finger. 

Basics of Strumming

Finally, we arrive at how to strum the guitar. There are two types of strokes when it comes to strumming. Before we get into that, don’t forget to relax. Avoid tension in your shoulders and hands. This rigidity will lead to a suboptimal sound. There’s no doubt you’ll end up hitting the strings harder than necessary. If you feel tense, it is okay to put the guitar down, wait a few minutes, and start over. 

Let’s start with downstrokes. To get the hang of this technique:

  1. Leave the strings open at first.
  2. Strum the guitar with your right hand in a downward motion starting from the top of the soundhole.
  3. Repeat this step several times to get a nice feel of what a downstroke is. If you know any chords, you can try playing a chord repeatedly. 
  4. Take it a step further by changing the chord with every four – or two – downstrokes.

This is a great time to figure out which pick angle you prefer or if you prefer to strum with your fingers. Repeat the downstroke and ensure that you are hitting all six strings. Careful not to skip over any strings during this practice. Later, when you learn more chords, some may require that you only hit three or four strings. 

After you’ve gotten the hang of performing a downstroke, give upstrokes a shot. For this to work, you’ll want to start from the bottom of the sound hold and move in an upward motion while hitting the strings. All of the aforementioned tips regarding rigidity and fluidity of motion apply for upstrokes as well. 

Combining the Two

Once you feel comfortable with upstrokes and downstrokes independently, it is time to try combining the two. This may take some time to get used to. It is completely normal to feel discouraged, especially when mixing in the changing of chords. 

However, you cannot let that feeling linger. A large portion of learning how to strum the guitar revolves around muscle memory. The more you practice, the more your hands will automatically know what to do next time around. 

When practicing combining upstrokes and downstrokes, use a strumming pattern to get the hang of the motion. For this practice, choose one chord and focus on developing an understanding of rhythm. 

  1. Try a downstroke on every beat. This will sound as such: 1, 2, 3, 4. On every number, execute a downstroke. 
  2. Try a downstroke on every beat and an upstroke on every offbeat: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. Each number takes a downstroke, and each “&” takes an upstroke. If you’re familiar with musical notes, you can think of this as playing the eighth notes.
  3. Once you have mastered these two patterns, mix it up a bit. You often will don’t play an upstroke on every offbeat, so try different patterns. One is: 1(down) & 2(down) &(up) 3(down) &(up) 4(down) &(up). Remember to keep it slow. It may be difficult to grasp this practice in words. For some additional clarity, check out this song that uses this strumming pattern. 

Beginners should stick to very specific strumming patterns before diving into a free form of playing. This will allow players to develop their fundamental guitar knowledge. 

You may have noticed that downstrokes are often used on the numbered portion of the beat (1,2,3,4). While this is true, do not fall for the idea that upstrokes are always used on the “and” of a beat. Although this is the case most of the time, it isn’t a concrete rule.

Understanding Rhythm 

Now that you know the difference between upstrokes and downstrokes, it is time to understand how these shape a song’s rhythm. We spoke about combining the two. In actuality, when the two are combined effectively, this creates a song’s rhythm

By now, you’ve probably realized that although they sound like reflections of each other, downstrokes and upstrokes are not interchangeable. They serve two completely different purposes within the context of strumming. 

Downstrokes are certainly the more dominant of the two strokes. They dictate the pace as they come through on the downbeat, also known as the numbered portion of a pattern. 

Upstrokes are meant to follow and add the “and” portion of a strumming pattern. This is also known as the space between downbeats. 

As you practice your strumming, remember that it isn’t always necessary to follow through and hit all six strings on a strum concerning both upstrokes and downstrokes. 

Due to the brisk motion with which upstrokes are implemented, it is often necessary to follow through and strum three strings instead of six. Some advanced guitar players can even get away with hitting two strings on their upstroke. 

The chords that you’re playing will dictate this, too. For example, the simple B major chord will have you hitting/not hitting certain strings while strumming.

Start by Copying 

Music, and rhythm, while very structured, are often free-flowing and natural. However, don’t expect to produce a complex strumming pattern the first time you pick up a guitar. 

While your end goal is having a natural rhythm and strumming that flows with the music, don’t be afraid to sound a little robotic at the beginning. Copy the masters, studying your favorite songs, and repeat what you hear. As you copy professional guitar players, the strumming technique and patterns will become easier and more natural over time.

Helpful Tips

Now that you got the rundown of a basic strumming technique, here are a few simple tips to facilitate your mastering of strumming the guitar. 

This may sound like a no-brainer, but don’t forget to pick simple songs. It is easy to be tempted by songs you may feel a connection to or songs you really love. However, these songs are likely to cause nothing but immense frustration. 

The time will come when these songs will become more accessible to you. It would help if you gave your fundamentals time to catch up to your goals. Thankfully, there are a ton of fantastic songs for guitar beginners. Here is a list of a few ideal songs for beginners.

  • Love Me Do by The Beatles
  • Three Little Birds by Bob Marley
  • Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison 
  • With or Without You by U2
  • I Wanna Be There by Blessed Union of Souls

Following an upward trend in your progression is essential to building a strong foundation as a beginner guitarist. Only once you’ve mastered beginner songs should you move up to intermediate songs and then to difficult songs. 

Before you think of tackling Hotel California, make sure you’ve successfully understood all of the nuances of With or Without You by U2. Perfecting your strumming is hard enough; the last thing a beginner needs is to struggle with chord progressions.

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