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:
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.
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.
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)
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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)
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:
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?
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: