Strumming is among the most rudimentary techniques you will learn for your dominant hand on the guitar.
Although it’s not a difficult technique by any means, if you’re new to strumming, the concept might have you stumped.
Don’t worry – we’re going to be exploring several techniques here, and you should be able to pick up at least one if not all of them.
Let’s look at how to strum a guitar properly.
What Is The Purpose Of Strumming?
When you break music down into its core components, you are left with three elements: rhythm, melody and harmony.
When strumming the guitar, all three components are present, but to varying degrees.
Strumming may provide the foundation of the melody, and may even incorporate elements of it, but it typically isn’t the melody.
So, when you’re strumming, you aren’t playing the melody, at least not in the strictest sense.
Harmony is certainly present within strumming, because you’re strumming anywhere from three to six strings and three or more notes together (duplicate notes often occur in common chord shapes).
In its simplest form, harmony is simply how two or more notes sound together, so it’s hard to argue that strumming is harmonic.
But as other instruments, like bass or keyboard join in, they tend add a layer that wasn’t there before.
And, typically, they would be more responsible for providing that all important contrast known as harmony.
So, we are then left with rhythm. And, although the drums and bass are generally responsible for the rhythm within a band, I would suggest that strumming is rhythmic in nature.
If you’re performing as a solo artist and don’t have anyone accompanying you or backing you up, then you are the rhythmic pulse. There’s no one holding down the beat with you.
Of course, even in a band context, if your part involves strumming, you’re playing rhythm. The difference is you would be playing more of a supporting role.
Generally, there are only two ways to play the guitar. You can pick and you can strum. Although there are some other techniques that could fall outside of that, like hammer-ons, pull-offs and tapping.
But for the most part, your dominant hand is either picking, strumming, or performing a combination of the two.
So, learning to strum as a guitarist is essential. You must add it to your color palette and use it wisely.
Now, let’s look at how to strum with and without a pick.
How To Strum Your Guitar With A Pick
First and foremost, it’s important that you hold your pick correctly.
There are different schools of thoughts on this, but for the most part I think it’s just variations on the same methodology. So, based on my experience, here’s what works.
A pick should be held with your index finger and thumb.
The temptation is sometimes to hold the pick with index, middle and thumb. You would think this would give you more control but to the contrary, it can reduce your range of motion.
So, if you’ve developed any bad habits already, it’s time to break them. Reset your preset.
Now, you can hold the pick with your middle finger and thumb (i.e. without your index finger) if you prefer. Some guitarists like Eddie Van Halen do this exceptionally well.
As far as how to hold the pick, the pick should be held close to the tip (not at the tip). Although you can hold the pick longer, you could end up dropping it.
This is often how beginner acoustic guitarists end up dropping their picks into the soundhole. It’s a nuisance trying to get a guitar pick out of an acoustic guitar, so it’s better to avoid this issue.
The tip of the pick should be pointed in the same direction of your index finger and not your thumb.
Now that you’re holding your pick correctly, you’re ready to give downstrokes (or down strums) a try.
Downstrokes are generally easy to perform. But unlike picking, which is mostly coming from the wrist, strumming often comes from your arm (from the elbow down).
It’s not a huge range of motion by any means and it doesn’t require a lot of force either.
If your arm is at a natural angle to accommodate your dominant arm, all you need to do to strum is lift it slightly above the strings and move your arm in a downwards motion.
You don’t need to be fast, at least not for now. We’re just starting to get the hang of this. You can worry about speed and tempo later.
When strumming, you want to let your pick glide over the strings instead of digging in. Again, this is where holding your pick longer can be a problem, as you may get caught on one of the strings.
Snagging on one of the strings leaves you dead in your tracks, and your strum incomplete.
As you’re preforming downstrokes, you may find it beneficial to tilt your wrist slightly upwards. This can help with your pick gliding smoothly across the strings.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, strumming continuously in a downward direction should prove relatively simple to do (notice that you must lift your arm every time so that your hand lifts above the strings to prepare for the next strum).
Now, practice keeping a steady rhythm with your strumming and see if you can come up with a few simple strumming patterns to practice.
If you are unsure, here are a few patterns to try:
- Whole note strumming. Strum once and count to four. Strum again on beat one. Rinse, repeat.
- Half note strumming. Strum once and let it ring out for two beats. On beat three, strum again. Keep it up.
- Quarter note strumming. Strum once per beat on every beat.
- Eighth note strumming. Count “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &” and strum on both the beat and the &’s in between.
- Mix it up. For instance, try a strumming pattern where you strum a half note and then two quarter notes. Or, try strumming two quarter notes and four eighth notes.
In addition to downstrokes, we can’t forget that there are also upstrokes (up strums).
Generally, people find upstrokes to be more challenging than downstrokes, presumably because gravity pulls everything down.
I don’t know if it’s gravity or not, but I do find it more awkward than down strums.
What’s key is that you’ll be able to do a lot more with your strumming if you master both downstrokes and upstrokes, so I would recommend working on this technique. You’ll be able to do so much more with your strumming.
In all sincerity, upstrokes are a lot like downstrokes in reverse but of course it’s going to feel more awkward by comparison, especially if you aren’t used to it.
Remember to turn your wrist slightly downwards so that the pick is on a downward angle. This should make performing an upstroke a lot easier.
Now, spend some time practicing upstrokes. I don’t know if upstrokes ever truly feel “natural”, but you should be able to get it to a point where you can do it without issue. That’s where I’m at.
With downstrokes and upstrokes under your belt, there’s only one thing left to do – alternate your strokes.
Your strumming will become a lot more efficient when you can smoothly transition from a downstroke to an upstroke and vice versa.
Some strumming patterns are difficult if not near impossible without the ability to strum in either direction because of speed, the complexity of the pattern or otherwise.
The easiest thing to do, of course, is to strum out a quarter note pattern, with upstrokes on beats one and three and upstrokes on beats two and four.
Down, up, down, up. That’s all there is to it. Practice this a lot. Practice it at different tempos with a metronome.
Those are the basics of strumming a guitar with a pick.
There are some other things to be mindful of, such as which strings you’re strumming (i.e. you won’t always be strumming all six strings depending on the chords you’re using) or techniques you can use in connection with strumming, such as palm muting.
But aside from that, it’s all about alternate strokes, though they aren’t always going to be down, up, down, up. Sometimes, you’ll strum down, down, up, down, up down. And, there are countless variations.
How To Strum Your Guitar Without A Pick
Strumming guitar without a pick is less common.
But there are plenty of players out there that like the flexibility of being able to switch from strumming to picking at a moment’s notice. And, that’s a lot easier when you aren’t holding a pick.
It’s not an either/or situation in the sense that you should learn one way and not the other.
Most beginners should start with a pick before attempting to strum without.
And, if you know how to do it one way, you can always learn the other.
But strumming without a pick can allow you more control over your strumming and help you gain access to more tonal possibilities too.
The first thing to work out with strumming without a pick is your thumb.
Naturally, you can easily strum your strings with just your thumb, and you can even strum in an upwards direction. So, you can alternate between downstrokes and upstrokes as you would with a pick.
Interestingly, performing upstrokes with your thumb has some of the same challenges it does with a pick.
If you don’t angle your thumb downwards a bit, it can easily get caught on a string. So, you may want to spend some time experimenting to see what works best.
Another thing to be mindful of is tone. You can strum with the fleshy part of your thumb, your nail, or even both. Depending on which you use, you will get different tones.
Alternating generally doesn’t sound good. So, you’ll want to choose your moments for each, or just pick one or the other.
Picking with the fleshy part of your thumb is generally better for softer parts. Your nail is great for creating more clarity and emphasis in the tone.
Strumming with your index finger is another popular option. As with other strumming styles, you’ll need to adjust the angle of your finger depending on which direction you’re strumming in.
Again, try both upstrokes and downstrokes with your index finger to get a feel for this.
Another method is to hold your thumb and index finger together as if you were holding a pick. This is probably going to feel comfortable to those who are used to strumming with a pick but not without.
I personally use this method on a song I wrote called “Feeling”, as there are some strumming parts and other parts that require me to fingerpick.
You can also bass/strum with your thumb and index. This would involve picking the sixth string with your thumb and strumming the remaining notes with your index finger.
This tends to sound nice when you pick on “1”, strum on “2 &”, pick on “3” and strum on “4 &”. Of course, there are plenty of variations you can try.
Once you’ve mastered the bass/strum technique, you can incorporate fingerstyle elements into your playing too. As I’ve already shared, That’s probably one of the main advantages of strumming without a pick.
When it comes right down to it though, there is no right or wrong way to strum without a pick. You can try a variety of methods and see what works best for you.
Use techniques that serve the song first and foremost. The song is always the most important factor.
I Still Don’t Feel Confident With My Strumming – What Do I Do Now?
Don’t get frustrated or anxious and don’t get ahead of yourself either.
We’ve only covered the absolute basics here.
Mastering any technique on the guitar usually requires a lot of practice and patience.
You can think of it like working out. When you work your muscles hard, you’re usually sore for a couple of days.
But once your muscles have recovered, you’re ready to go back to working out and you can gradually challenge yourself with heavier weights and more reps.
Similarly, much of guitar playing can be boiled down to muscle memory. Muscle memory does not kick in right away.
So, let’s say you have an intensive practicing schedule, and you practice two hours per day, five days per week.
That’s perfect, because your brain/muscles will have a chance to assimilate everything you’ve been working on during your days off.
This isn’t to suggest that you can practice for five days, take two days off, come back to find you’ve mastered the technique. It doesn’t always work that way.
But your comfort level should increase over time. So, don’t be afraid to practice.
Is There Anything Else I Should Be Mindful Of When Strumming?
Let’s not forget that strumming isn’t just a technique. It’s a way of producing music on the guitar.
That being the case, there are plenty of things to pay attention to, especially when you’re first getting started. Here’s what I would pay attention to:
- Rhythm. Are you capable of playing a steady rhythm? Can you strum out a simple quarter note pattern? Can you alternate strokes? I would recommend practicing to a metronome or drum machine at various tempos. But don’t forget – you should always start slower and work your way up to faster tempos (not the other way around).
- Clarity/quality of sound. When you’re strumming your chords, is every note ringing out clearly? Sometimes it can be hard to tell while strumming, so pick out every note individually and ensure that there’s no muting or buzzing going on in any of your chords. If there is, you’re going to need to make some adjustments with your fretting/chording hand.
- Posture/comfort. Are you noticing any major discomfort while strumming? Are your fingers, hand and arm relaxed? Are you tensing up anywhere else, like in your shoulders, neck, jaw or head? Although strumming might feel like a minor workout, you should never feel any major discomfort or pain, and if you are, you might need to adjust your technique.
Again, strumming is an essential technique for guitarists.
There are only so many ways to cause notes to ring out, and strumming is at the foundation of virtually every player’s repertoire.
So, learn to strum with a pick, without a pick, or even both to broaden your options.
Though it can be frustrating at first, it’s not the hardest technique to master, and you’ll do just fine if you persevere.