How to Strum a Guitar – 7 Key Tips to Strum Like a Pro

13 minutes read

The guitar is eventually a pretty simple instrument. In order to play any of your favorite songs – you need to have just two “ingredients” in place:

The left hand – which should press down the right chord at the right time.

The right hand – which should move in a repeating pattern over and over – our “strumming pattern”.

Usually, a graphical representation of a strumming pattern can look something like this:

Strumming pattern example.

So even though the song is 3-4 minutes long, we are repeating the exact same strumming pattern all throughout it, (where each “cycle” of this strumming pattern lasts only around 3 seconds) while changing the chords we are pressing down with the left hand.

Guitar is all about those two simple ingredients: chords + a strumming pattern.

In this article, I want to give you several tips which would help you strum with a much nicer sound already today. Let’s begin:

1 – Keep a Your Right Hand Pretty Loose, Imagine That It Is a Pendulum Moving Smoothly from Side to Side

The tell-all sign of a “beginner’s sound” on the guitar is usually a right hand that is moving in a way that sounds (and looks) stiff.

Stiff movement causes a stiff sound and that is exactly the opposite of the smooth, pleasant sound that we want to have. In the middle of the video below (how to find the strumming pattern of any song) I am demonstrating the differences.

The #1 tip that helped me the most with starting to get rid of that stiff sound is to imagine that my hand moves smoothly, like a pendulum.

Think of your right hand movement as a pendulum that gently swings.

In order to do it, make sure that your elbow joint is loose, and that your elbow and arm are moving nice and freely.

Also, the same goes for the wrist, which should also feel free and loose.

2 – Slow Down

Our tendency in the beginning when learning a song, is to want to directly jump to the original tempo of the song. (“tempo” = the “speed” of the music piece)

For example, let’s go with a banal example such as Wonderwall. Many beginners love playing this song – but it’s actually a pretty challenging song to play perfectly and with the right “feel” – because it is a relatively medium-fast song. (87 beats per minute)

The solution?

Whenever you feel that your playing sounds a bit “sloppy” and that things don’t sound like how you want them to sound – you need to slow things down.

How slow is “slow? I believe that around 50-60% of the original tempo of the song is an excellent place to start from. You don’t have to use a metronome to check that, but it is definitely recommended.

So for example in Wonderwall, a great tempo to practice it would be at around 50 bpm. The rule of thumb is – if it feels easy – you’re at the right spot. Keep working on it at that tempo, and only take it up by 5-10 bpm when you feel that it is absolutely easy and that you’re getting the strumming to sound smooth and consistent.

“Anyone can play a Rachmaninoff piece if the tempo is slow enough” is my favorite quote on the topic. (Rachmaninoff is a composer known for his extremely complex pieces)
3 – Count Out Loud Along with the Music

Something else that can be of huge help here is to count along. For example, watch the video at the bottom of the post where I explain how to find the correct strumming pattern, and while you’re playing this next strumming pattern…

Instead of singing “down down up up down up”, you can sing “one and two and three and four and”.

Counting out loud (as described below) can help you ingrain the simple repetitiveness of the strumming pattern in your mind.

It might be challenging, but if you do this even for just 1-2 minutes straight, once you get into that rhythm and that flow, it would make a huge difference in how well you can hold the strumming pattern and repeat it automatically – because you will know exactly on which beat does each of the downstrokes and the upstrokes fall.

4 – Get Comfortable with Figuring Out the Correct Strumming Pattern of Any Song That You Want to Play

Perhaps the biggest “key” that I like to teach someone who’s new on the guitar is what you will find in this video, because it will enable you to never again have to ask…

“What strumming pattern does this song use”?

And instead, just listen to it and know it, intuitively, by paying special attention to the rhythm of the song.

The strumming pattern is always the result of the rhythm – so once you can use this simple tool that I am showing in this video, everything would make a lot more sense when it comes to strumming.

This tool involves using your legs as “drums”, and “drumming” along to the song, while imagining that one leg is a “downstroke” on the guitar, and the other leg is an “upstroke”. Here it is:

5 – Strum Along to Your Favorite Songs

Strumming with the right “feel” and with a professional sound is also all about developing a solid sense of rhythm.

And even if you think that you have no sense of rhythm at all – I’ve got the best (and the most fun) way for you to practice it and to massively improve it very fast.

All you need to do is make sure that when you’re learning a song, you also dedicate time to not only play it “from your memory”, but also play it out of YouTube/Spotify through a good speaker (not a phone / laptop speakers since you want to be able to really feel the band that you’re “playing with”)…

And then, as the music is playing, strum along, as if you were the acoustic guitar player on the record.

(make sure you have the chord sheets in front of your eyes if you need it, so that you can focus mostly on the right hand and not lose a lot of concentration on the left hand)

This is an excellent way to practice because instead of making you rely on your own sense of time and memory of “how the song goes”, you are “playing” directly with the original band itself, and usually you would also have the drums that will help you keep the time.

When you practice this way, in the beginning it would be more challenging to “keep up”, but once you get the hang of it in a specific song, it will teach you exactly how the song should feel like and how you should strum it, because the moment that you won’t be strumming along correctly – your ears would be immediately telling you that you sound “off” from the record and that you need to “fix course” with your strumming.

I highly recommend doing it first with songs that are on the slower side and that feel to you like you can actually keep up with them once you practice, we want to have an experience of success, not an expereince of frustration from aiming at songs which are way above our current level.

Another thing that can help you here is of course to slow the song down – even for example simply by using the slow down feature on YouTube that will let you slow the song down to 0.75X or 0.5X.

The YouTube slow down function makes things sound pretty bad though, so if it bothers you too much, you can also download an app such as “Amazing Slow Downer” which reduces the tempo almost without any noticeable sound quality difference. (I am not affiliated with them, just a happy customer)

Pick vs. No Pick…?

I think that you would likely want to eventually become proficient both at strumming with a pick or without. Strumming without a pick usually results in a softer and less focused sound, which is the kind of sound that can work especially well on softer songs for example, or just when you want to have a more gentle sound.

However, as always, I believe it’s really all about what your intuition tells you, so if right now you’re only feeling like you want to play with a pick / without a pick – do as you wish, enjoy your current favorite way of playing, and let things come at their right time.

Also – many people don’t like playing with a pick simply because they haven’t found a pick that feels “right” – so the solution is to simply go to a guitar store and try out different picks. There are a bunch of common different shapes and widths, and with some trial and error you can find one which will bring you exactly that nice feel and sound that you would enjoy.

Remember – not all picks are created equal, and if you still haven’t found your “one” – keep looking – it’s out there.
6 – How to Strum the Guitar With a Pick

When you strum with a pick, here are a few important guidelines to keep in mind in order to move towards that smooth, pleasant, professional sound:

  • Angle the pick – to help get rid of the stiff sound. Don’t attack the strings when the pick is directly pointed at them. (at 90 degrees) but keep it more at a 30-45 degrees angle, as pictured below.
  • Hold it gently. You should not hold the pick too strongly as that would cause a stiff sound, but of course you also don’t want to hold it too lightly since it will often fly out of your hand. The balance is in the middle, so make sure you are avoiding the “stiff” side of things by loosening your grip on it, because that’s a common mistake.
  • “Brush” the strings: You don’t need to “dig” deep into the strings which is another common mistake, but the way I like to think of it is as if I am pretty lightly “brushing” the strings with the pick.
  • Try different picks. I find that with some picks I can get a better result and a better sound than others, so stay open to try out new ones even if you already have a favorite. Also – I find that it is a taste that changes over time, in my first years on the guitar I used to like thinner picks, (0.6-0.7mm) and now I mostly play with ones that are ~0.9mm.
Don’t hold the pick directly into the strings at 90 degrees, but instead hold it at 30-40 degrees, (like the picture above) which would allow you to more lightly “brush” the strings, and get a more pleasant sound which isn’t as stiff.
7 – How to Strum the Guitar without a Pick

When strumming without a pick, there are many different methods to do it, but I find that the one that is most commonly useful for most popular songs is to simply lightly hold your thumb on your index finger, and strum/brush the strings with the index finger (for a bit more crispness), or with the side of the thumb. (for a very soft sound)

Strumming with the index finger is a bit more crisp as opposed to strumming with the side of the thumb (as seen in the next picture below)
The “side brush” strum with the side of your thumb is a very soft, beautiful sound. You can control the “crispness” of the sound by how long your nails are. No nails would give an even softer sound.

I believe that an ideal nail length here that will give you a better sound and feel is if you keep your nails at around this length:

A nail length of around 1mm (as shown in the pic) can give you a slightly crispier sound. (If that is what you’re after)

This is it, I hope that you’ve found the article helpful.

Which tips (either from here or from anywhere else) were the ones that helped you the most with improving your strumming?

Alon Cooper

Build a Rock-Solid Sense of Rhythm and Groove – and Develop a Professional Right-Hand Strumming Technique

If you are interested in taking your sense of rhythm skills to the next level, check out this course that I have for you.

This course will be the single biggest improvement to the bottom line of your musicianship: how you sound like, and how pleasant it is to listen to you – since rhythm is the foundation of everything that you play.

Here are some of the things that we will do inside, in order to develop that rock-solid sense of time within you:

✅ Introduction to how rhythm works and 6 tips for using the metronome effectively in order to improve

✅ Feeling “the pulse” of the music

✅ Easily understand all of the most essential rhythm terms (downbeat, offbeat, 1/4 notes, time signature, etc.)

✅ Several extremely helpful exercises including “the #1 exercise” that was literally a life-changer for my playing

✅ Develop an “inner metronome”. (hear it and lock-in with it even when it’s not there)
✅How to really GROOVE with a song: make your listeners want to bob their bodies, or even dance

Feeling the different “accents” that different songs have – and how to accommodate them as a rhythm guitarist
✅ 8 Quick Tips for Instantly Improving Your Time-Keeping

✅ How to Find the Correct Strumming Pattern for ANY song, intuitively, just by listening to the original song

Drums for non-drummers: how the drum-set works, common grooves, and “thinking like a drummer” to improve your time

✅ Which part of the drumset is the most important for you to pay attention to (the answer: the snare – but it goes deeper than that)

Playing along with your favorite records and 6 tips on how to do it “right” (it’s one of the most fun ways to practice rhythm)
✅ Learn different ways to tap your feet while playing, to embody the different time feelings and improve your steadiness
✅ Introduction to 14 different affordable percussion instruments that you can play: improve your rhythm while also acquiring a “new role” that you can play in jams

✅ Improving your sense of rhythm while taking regular walks / while you run

Dancing along the music! You’ll never find a good drummer who can’t dance to the rhythm – so let’s get this skill too…

✅ Recognizing and playing less-common time signatures: 5/4, 3/4, 6/8, etc.

Syncopations – what are they, and how to add/accommodate/play them on the acoustic guitar
✅ A FUN alternative to the metronome: apps that can be your own personal drummer

✅ 4 Ways to improve your sense of rhythm… While you’re in the car (with safety above all, of course)

✅ Getting comfortable with grooving along to the music with your upper body as well. (Often a key component of emotionally “getting” to your listeners when performing a song)

Side note: this course WILL make you a better dancer…

What Other Students Have Said

“Helped me endlessly to get rhythm into my body! Really a master course in getting control of the rhythm in music!”

Jan Verlinden, Belgium

“I always felt I wasn’t consistent in how I keep time so I was very happy to see this course. It helped me close a lot of gaps in my knowledge about rhythm, and the main exercise offered inside absolutely changed my perception of timekeeping. Glad to say that it really works. Love the e-book too. Great stuff overall.”

Tim Rosenthal, England

“This is an excellent course. There are lots of ideas on how to improve as a musician here and I am glad that I made notes and I can watch the videos and read the ebooks again whenever I wish. I think that before this course, although I could hear the metronome, my brain did not really take any notice of it – now I feel that I am a lot more in sync with it.”
Amanda Yates, USA

Alon Cooper

Alon Cooper

Hey! I'm Cooper, and I hope I can be a helpful friend on your musical journeys. I'm a music artist based in Austin & Amsterdam, playing venues with a band / solo, and trying to learn with the most inspiring musicians wherever I go. In the last 8 years I've lived in Australia, northern Europe, the US and more.

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The Guitar Campfire Songbook

I hope this list has given you some great ideas, and if you want to have another bunch of song ideas in a fancy PDF songbook form, then feel free to download the songbook in this link.

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