Learn to strum a guitar and you can make a bunch of chords come to life instantly. In this article, we’ll take a look at what you need to know about rhythm guitar and strumming patterns.
I’ll explain why you need to think like a drummer, take a look a strumming technique and show you 7 guitar strumming patterns with song examples. (Update: I've added the chord progressions for the songs so you can practice everything right away). I’ve chosen these seven patterns because they start off easy and slowly introduce a few challenges.
Guitar Strumming Technique and Timing Tips
With the right strumming technique and approach, things will be easier and sound infinitely better. So before we get into some strum patterns to practice, here are the most important strumming tips you need to know.
1. Listen to the rhythm
Strumming patterns involves strumming down and strumming up. Sometimes, players get overly focused by when their hand needs to go down or up. Don't forget: strumming a guitar is all about timing and creating a solid rhythm. You need to think like a drummer: your main job is to keep up the groove.
That’s why it’s super important to always hear the groove you want to create in your head first. You need to know what you want the rhythm to sound like before you can create it. This one of the reasons I spent many hours looking for song examples to include: I want to make sure you know what you want to play. It’s a good idea to check if you really know the strumming groove by singing, humming, beatboxing or tapping it before you grab your guitar.
2. Keep a loose wrist
So how do you strum a guitar correctly? Firstly, make sure you're not locking your wrist: you need to keep it nice and loose. Most of the movement will come from rotating your lower arm (you could also say: twisting your wrist) and letting your hand and wrist hang loose and follow that motion (Funk guitarist Ross Bolton calls this a ‘drunken wrist’. I like that.) You might be tempted to make the up and down movement with your lower arm, but though your lower arm will be moving up and down a little bit as well, but that’s only a small part of the movement.
3. Never stop moving your strumming hand
You need to keep your strumming hand moving at all times, even when you’re not hitting any strings for a couple of beats. By doing this, you’ll no longer have to consciously think about when you need to move your strumming hand: it’s moving all the time. The constant motion also makes it much easier to keep time.
4. Don’t hit all the strings with every strum
You might think you need to hit all the notes in the chord with every strum, but usually we hit just three or four strings. So how do you know which strings to aim for? That depends. Remember that your main job is to keep up the groove. To do that you want to emphasize certain parts of the beat. A very rough rule of thumb is that you’ll want to hit lower strings on the first and third beat, and high strings on the second and fourth beat.
Seven Strumming patterns
In this section we’ll start with some very basic strumming exercises and then introduce some more challenging strum patterns. I’ll give song examples with every pattern so you can hear how it’s used in ‘real' music, and maybe learn a couple of those songs. But to learn effectively, you need to focus on one thing at a time and master it. So with every pattern, I’d suggest you first simply grab a chord you’re very comfortable, like an E major open chord and practice the strumming pattern with that. Let’s dive in!
When strumming a guitar, you’ll use both downstrokes (i.e. where your picking hand moves down) and upstrokes (where your picking hand moves back up). There’s a simple logic behind when you should use a downstroke and when up, which we’ll get to shortly.
All the strum patterns we’ll be looking at in this section are in a 4/4 measure. In short, that means that every measure consists of four beats. For this first pattern, simply play a downstroke on every beat.
Strum Pattern #1 - Downstroke on every beat
Check out the first thirty seconds of this song for an example of this simple, but effective pattern:
Now that you’ve gotten a basic feel for this strumming thing, the next step is to start adding some upstrokes. Here’s a pattern which is similar to the first pattern we saw, but with two upstrokes added in.
Strum Pattern #2 - Adding two upstrokes
To hear this pattern in action, check out this song. See if you can recognize it.
(Note: If you want to play this song, listen closely! In the fourth bar, they've sneakily removed two beats. So you'd count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2, and then you repeat.)
Another good example of this pattern is a song called The Turnpike by The Lemonheads. I couldn't find a YouTube link, but you can check it out on Spotify here.
If you’ve managed to play this pattern, here’s the next, with one more upstroke.
Strum Pattern #3 - Adding three upstrokes
See if you can hear it in this song.
Here's another song example that's a bit faster:
Now, you might have noticed a certain logic in when we’re playing downstrokes and when we’re playing upstrokes: all the downstrokes are on the beat: on the 1, 2, 3 or 4. All the upstrokes are what we call ‘off the beat’: right between the 1, 2, 3 and 4. They’re always on the ‘&’. This next pattern shows this basic logic:
Strum Pattern #4 - Downstroke on the beat, Upstroke off the beat
This is a pretty common pattern. Check out this song for example (guitar strumming starts at 20 seconds):
And here's another example:
Upstrokes following upstrokes
Once you’re comfortable playing down and upstrokes, there’s just one more thing you need to learn to complete your basic strumming technique. So far, you might've noticed two things:1. You’re strumming hand keeps moving up and down all the time. 2. You’re playing downstrokes on the beat (1, 2, 3, 4) and upstrokes off the beat (on the &).
I chose strumming patterns up until now where it feels very natural to do this. But there are also patterns where you might be tempted to break these ‘rules’. Take a look at this next strum pattern for example:
Strum Pattern #5 - Two upstrokes following each other
See how this pattern has two upstrokes that follow each other? This feels a little weird to play in the beginning, but it’s essential to be able to do. Don’t play a downstroke instead of that second upstroke, because you’ll interrupt the down-upstroke logic your hand is following. Here's an example of a song that uses this rhythm.
If you’ve managed this last pattern, try this next one. It has the same challenge of an upstroke following an upstroke twice.
Strum Pattern #6 - Two upstrokes follow each other twice in one bar
This is a very common strum pattern. Just check out these song examples:
This next song is fun to play and the chords aren't very complicated. But, what makes it tricky is that they've taken away two beats in the fourth bar. So you'd count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.
Now, for our final challenge! The next pattern has you play fewer strokes, which might seem easier, but can be pretty tricky.
Strum Pattern #7 - An upstroke follows a downstroke and a pause
What makes this pattern difficult, is that the long pause makes it tempting to stop moving your hand. But keep your hand moving at all times! Even when you’re not hitting any strings, your hand needs to keep moving up and down. This is essential to keeping a steady rhythm. Check out this song to hear the strum pattern in action:
Here's a slightly more rocky example:
Twelve Strumming Songs, from Easy to more Advanced
Here are all the song examples I used in section 1. So if you want to check how to play the strumming pattern, just scroll up!
- Femme Vanille - Another Time
- The Lemonheads - The Turnpike Down
- Teenage Fanclub - Straight & Narrow
- Daniel Johnston - Squiggly Lines
- Train - Hey, Soul Sister
- Fleet Foxes - White Winter Hymnal
- Travis - Closer
- PJ Harvey - This Mess We're In
- I Will Spend My Whole Life Loving You
- Outkast - Hey Ya!
- Vance Joy - Riptide
- Feist - I feel it all
The power of strumming
To become a good rhythm guitar player, you obviously need to learn guitar chords and make sure you fret them correctly so they sound clear. But music always starts with rhythm: if the rhythm doesn’t feel good, the music doesn’t sound good. You can even get away with a lot of ‘wrong' notes as long as it’s properly timed. So I hope this guide has been helpful in making you a better rhythm guitar player. As always, if you have any questions, leave a comment below or email me at Just (at) Stringkick.com.