How to Strum On Guitar: Your Rhythm Building Blocks


  • January 7, 2021
  • 12 

Updated: February 6, 2021

Strumming is an essential skill all guitarists must learn. It is the foundation for many musical pieces and songwriting. Today we are not only going to be covering all the benefits of strumming, but also teaching you how to strum on guitar.

Why Is Strumming Important

how to strum on guitar

Learning how to strum well on guitar is important for many reasons. First, it helps to develop your rhythm. Strumming patterns start out simple but quickly get more complex with concepts like ghost strums and syncopation. Don’t worry, though. We’re going to walk you through all the progressions to make you a pro strummer in no time.

As you get more comfortable strumming and with different strum techniques, it will become second nature to you. This muscle memory will help you develop much more consistency in not only your rhythm, but your chord progressions as well.

In my previous lesson on guitar chord transition exercises I talked about how building proficiency with strumming can help boost your ability to smoothly transition from chord to chord. Since you will not need to focus as much on your strumming hand you will be able to put more focus on your chord changes.

Additionally, as your strumming and chord progressions tighten up and you get more comfortable, the synchronization between your left and right hand will strengthen. This will help you in all facets of your guitar playing, not just rhythm or acoustic guitar.

Finally, learning how to strum on guitar will help you get your timing down. Since a lot of strumming work involves working with a metronome, you will be actively and passively developing your ability to keep time while practicing your strumming techniques.

Posture Points: Hold the Guitar Properly

Before you even begin to strum, there are a few points on your posture that are worth taking note of.

First, make sure you’re sitting up and your back is straight and that you aren’t hunched over your guitar.

how to strum on guitar

Second, rest your strumming arm’s forearm on the top corner of your guitar.

Third, keep your wrist straight and relaxed.

Finally, have a proper seat. Make sure that seat has no arms and that your feet touch the ground comfortably. I cover all the above points in detail in my lesson on How to Hold a Guitar Correctly.

Let’s Talk Guitar Picks

The pick you use can and will impact your playing, including your strumming. A heavier, thick pick will produce much louder strums with more “attack”. A thinner pick will produce softer strums and gain some tone from the pick, as well.

You can learn all about how to find the right guitar pick for you and your play style in my lesson How to Choose a Guitar Pick.

What About String Gauges?

You will want to use lighter gauge strings when working on your strumming. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with heavier strings when strumming. However, starting with lighter gauge strings, such as 9’s or 10’s will make learning how to strum on guitar a much easier experience for you.

Depending on your guitar you will either want to get steel or nylon strings. Classical acoustic guitars almost always have nylon strings where most modern, dreadnought style acoustics have steel strings.

There are tons of options out there from dozens of brands. Finding the right set of strings is an ongoing process and you will likely go through many kinds throughout your time playing guitar.

What’s most important in the beginning of learning to strum is the gauge, though. Grab a light pair of string and swap them out if your strings are too old or heavy for you.

If you’re not sure how to change the strings on your acoustic, check out my lesson on How to Change Guitar Strings.

How to Strum on Guitar: Where to Strum

While there is no “right” place to strum, where you strum does make a difference. Strumming closer to the bridge will produce brighter tones, while strumming closer to the neck will produce darker tones.

how to strum on guitar

Try to vary where you strum during your practice sessions to get a better feel for the different tones the strum location makes. Over time, you will start changing up where you strum based on the music you are playing (contextual strumming).

Wrist Mechanics

Strumming is all in the wrist, so it’s important to make sure you have proper wrist positioning and mechanics.

First, always keep your wrist loose and relaxed. It is easy to want to tense up when you start strumming faster with more advanced chord progressions. However, in those moments, it is important to pause for a moment, relax and go back to the piece you were working on. A tense wrist will ultimately slow you down and can lead to injury.

Second, keep your wrist straight. Do not bend your wrist at an extreme angle while strumming. Your hand should be almost parallel with the strings when you strum. If your hand is angled away or dramatically towards the strings, you’ll want to adjust the angle of your wrist.

Finally, initiate all strums and movements with your wrist. Do not strum with your forearms, or whole arm for that matter. Try to keep your arms as still as possible and only strum with your wrist. At first, it will be uncomfortable as your wrist develops its strength in this position. Over time, though, it will become much more natural and comfortable for you.

Upstrokes and Downstrokes

In the beginning you will be working a lot on just your upstrokes and down strokes. That’s all strumming is, really. Just a series of upstrokes and down strokes in varying patterns. However it’s important to master those upstrokes and down strokes first, before moving on to more advanced rhythms.

Neglecting to master your up and down strokes will ultimately lead to much sloppier sounding strums with erratic notes and pressure.

To begin, set a metronome to a slow, comfortable tempo, say 45-60 BPM. Choose a chord progression and play only quarter note down strokes. That’s once per beat, 4 times per measure.

For example:

Once you get comfortable with this increase to playing 8th notes with down strokes and upstrokes. (1 and 2 and 3 and 4)

Now that you are incorporating upstrokes into your practice, pay attention to the volume of both strokes. Is one much louder than the other? Try to focus on applying the same amount of pressure and accuracy with each strum.

Don’t worry, this takes time but you will get it.

Once 8th notes become easy for you, move on to 16th notes (1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4). Again, pay close attention to the pressure and consistency of each stroke’s volume.

Syncopation

Syncopation is a musical term that means to combine a variation of rhythms to create a piece of music. This variation of rhythms results in a part of the music sounding off-beat. (Source: WikiPedia)

When you perform a syncopated piece, it is important to keep your hands moving at the same tempo as if you were playing the same riff with all the same note speeds (say, all 16th notes).

As your hands move in a consistent pattern of upstrokes or down strokes, you will “skip a strum” either on the way up or down while maintaining the same tempo. This skipping of a strum instantly creates a unique rhythm and is what makes the music sound “off beat” for a moment. This practice of skipping strums is also referred to as “Ghost Strums”.

Mastering ghost strums, and syncopation as a whole, will do wonders for your rhythm guitar playing and your ability to keep time.

How to Strum on Guitar: Basic Strum Patterns:

Quarter Note, Downstrum on the beat:

Count: 1...2...3...4

Eight Note, Down, Up on the beat:

Count: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4

16th Note, Down-Up-Down

Count: 1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4

Practice Chord Changes

If you are struggling with your strumming and your hands just don’t seem to be synchronizing, you may need to go back and work on your chord transitions.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to really work on strumming patterns if your chord changes are falling behind.

Don’t worry, there are tons of great tips and tricks to get your chord transitions buttery smooth in no time.

Want to learn more? Check out my lesson on Guitar Chord Transition Exercises and start letting your chords flow freely!

Wrapping It Up

At this point you know why strumming is important, as well as how to strum on a guitar. What are some of your favorite strumming patterns? What was the first strumming pattern you learned? What songs did you learn to master your strumming? Leave any questions or comments down in the comments section below!

Additional Resources:

National Guitar Academy Lesson on Strumming

Fender Lesson on Strumming

posted January 7, 2021

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  1. This is another great lesson from you. I have begun reading your posts regularly and I find that my guitaring is coming along well. In fact, the biggest deal is that I haven’t given up halfway. You may recollect that I had written to you earlier too. This strumming lesson is great.  

    Please also write about the different types of strumming techniques and rhythms with maybe a few youtube videos. It would really be a big help. 

    Regards, Aps

    1. Hi Aps,

      Absolutely I do remember you. I am very happy to learn you’ve found the guitar lessons here helpful. You are absolutely right, with practice strumming and strumming patterns will become baked into your muscle memory and the motions will be effortless and the timing will be consistent. 

      I’ve been working on getting things up and running on Youtube so stay tuned for more there!

      Thanks for the comment! Glad to see you again.

  2. Very interesting article. I didn’t think that I would be reading about guitarra haha but it has a different taste to it than learning from a teacher. Yano? And I’m a beginner, so this is really interesting stuff. Like seriously, I find myself very intrigued with this type of info ever since I started playing, thank you so much

    1. Hi Misael,

      Thanks so much for the comment. I’m glad you found the lesson helpful. Take care and let me know if you have any questions!

  3. I am picking up playing guitar as a new hobby for me this year. Music has definitely help me cope through this crazy time. Thanks for sharing about how to strum on the guitar. I love all the tips and I am so going to download the guide. By the way do you have a youtube channel that I can learn from?

    1. Hi Nuttanee,

      Thanks so much for the comment. I am glad you found the lesson helpful as well as the downloadable files. At the moment there is no YouTube channel for TheBestGuitarLessons, however there is some stuff in the works there, so stay tuned! Thanks again for the comment.

  4. I have started learning the guitar a hundred times and stopped in a few days. I like your approach to guitaring. Lets hope I learn something from you. Thanks.

    Regards,
    Aps

    1. Hi Aparna,

      Thanks so much for the comment! I’m glad you have found the lessons helpful. Please drop by any time you have a question or need some help with your learning!

  5. One of my guitar teachers was a flamenco guitarist and had a fantastic strumming technique (in my ears as a layman of course). When I started my lessons with him I was a beginner and never got around to flamenco.

    He tried to teach me the blues technique.

    Later I was obsessed by Irish music and had another guitar teacher for that genre. Partly it was necessary to have a good stroking technique (is that the correct English term?) for the fast jigs and reels. But the ballads required strumming. I loved to hear it. Playing it myself was a different cup of tea, so to speak.

    It’s so important, don’t you think, that children learn to play an instrument. I sold most of my instruments when I emigrated, but I so hope that my grandchildren will pick up guitar or so. Whenever they are here I sing songs with them and try to do something rhythmic.

    What age has your youngest student?

    1. Hi Hannie,

      That’s interesting. I would think “stroking” would be the same as strumming though Im not sure if that is the accurate translation as I’m not sure the native language? Flamenco is definitely a tough, more advanced style of guitar playing so it is understandable you were a bit overwhelmed by it. Irish music can be the same way. A good foundation of strumming skills are an essential building block for both styles of music, though.

      Either way, I definitely agree it is important and hugely beneficial for children to start learning an instrument at an early age.

      Thanks again for the comment!

  6. We’ve not ever played guitar yet and sounds really hard to learn with knowing the right things how to hold it but most important the way your posture is. The way you strum the guitar does not matter, but the tune you’re trying to make either from the neck which produces darker notes, and towards the back will produce lighter tones.
    Interesting to us and we will just keep listening to the music we enjoy that better, strumming does sound interesting a great topic for artists in the making.

    Cheers,
    Mathew&Deloris

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