Strumming should feel easy, effortless and natural. But that will never happen unless you get your strumming technique right.
So in this guide, you’ll learn how to strum a guitar correctly. We’ll start off with some vital rhythm guitar tips that will make strumming a lot easier. Next, you’ll learn 7 popular strum patterns that I’ve put in order from easy to more challenging.
I like to use as much ‘real’ music as possible, so each strum pattern comes with a few song examples. This allows you to hear what each strum pattern sounds like in ‘real’ music. I’ve also added the chord progressions for the songs so you can grab your guitar and start practicing right now. Last, I’ll tell you a bit about my course, Strumming Skills Bootcamp. Alright, let’s go!
Tip 1. Say it before you play it
Strumming patterns involves strumming down and strumming up. Sometimes, players get overly focused by when their hand needs to go down or up. You’ll learn the logic behind that in section 2. But don't forget: strumming a guitar is all creating a solid rhythm. You need to think like a drummer: your main job is to keep up that groove.
So before you even touch your guitar, you need to hear the rhythm you want to play in your head first. You should be able to imagine in your mind what the strumming rhythm sounds like. A great way to check if you if you really ‘know’ the rhythm is to sing, hum, beatbox, tap or say it out loud. In other words: say it before you play it. ‘Cause if you can’t do that, playing a solid strumming groove on guitar will be impossible.
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 part of your arm (your forearm), 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. We’ll take a closer look at how this works in section 2.
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.
To learn effectively though, you need need to focus on one thing at a time. 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. I’ve also included a few ‘one chord songs’ from my course Strumming Skills Bootcamp so you can do just that.
When strumming a guitar, you’ll use both downstrums (i.e. where your picking hand moves down) and upstrums (where your picking hand moves back up). There’s a simple logic behind when you should use a downstrums 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 the music is divided into groups (called ‘bars’ or ‘measures’) that consist of four beats.
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 downstrum on every beat.
Strum Pattern #1 - Downstrum 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 upstrums. Here’s a pattern which is similar to the first pattern we saw, but with two upstrums added in.
Strum Pattern #2 - Adding two upstrums
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.)
Next, let's practice playing this rhythm! A great way to do that is with a song that uses only one chord. This allows you to forget about changing chords and focus completely on your strumming. I made this next track for my course Strumming Skills Bootcamp. The video starts with some 'say it before you play it' practice and that goes right into the song. Give it a shot!
Hope that went well! Here’s the next pattern, with one more upstrum.
Strum Pattern #3 - Adding three upstrums
See if you can hear it in this song.
Here's another song example that's a bit faster:
Let's practice this pattern with another one chord song from my course Strumming Skills Bootcamp. Again, it starts with some 'say it before you play it' practice and then moves on to a song that's played entirely with an E7 chord. (If you don't know how to play an E7, you can also simply play an E chord.) Check it out!
Hope that last tune went well for you!
Now, you might have noticed a certain logic in when we’re playing downstrums and when we’re playing upstrums: all the downstrums are on what we call ’the downbeat’: on the 1, 2, 3 or 4. All the upstrums are on what we call ‘the and’ or ‘the upbeat’: right between the 1, 2, 3 and 4. They’re always on the ‘&’. This next pattern shows this basic logic:
Strum Pattern #4 - Downstrum on the beat, Upstrum off the beat
This is a pretty common pattern. Listen and play along with this next song by Fleet Foxes for example. This song is also part of my course Strumming Skills Bootcamp, so I’ve added a chord scheme that highlights what chord you should play when you play the video. If you don't know the chords, you can also switch to a Capo version, so you can play it with some easier, open guitar chords. So grab your guitar and play along! (Strumming starts at 0:18.)
Hope you managed to play along to this last tune! If you enjoyed it, check out Strumming Skills Bootcamp, which features 29 more songs like this.
Moving on, here's another example of this strumming pattern:
Once you’re comfortable playing down and upstrums, 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 downstrums on the beat (1, 2, 3, 4) and upstrums 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 upstrums following each other
See how this pattern has two upstrums 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 downstrum instead of that second upstrum, because you’ll interrupt the down-upstrum 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 upstrum following an upstrum twice.
Strum Pattern #6 - Two upstrums 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 strums, which might seem easier, but can be pretty tricky.
Strum Pattern #7 - An upstrum follows a downstrum 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:
- 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
To make strumming sound good, you want to tap into that innate sense of rhythm as well. That’s what all experienced musicians do. It’s why they say things like ‘just play what you feel’ or ‘I never think about strumming, I just do it’.
So how do tap into that inner sense of rhythm when you strum a guitar? Here are the three steps you need to take:
- Understand correct strum technique. Most importantly, you need to know how and when to move you strumming hand up and down (as explained in section 2).
- Get the strum technique in your system, so it becomes automatic and you don’t have to think about how to move your strumming hand anymore. This is a matter of putting in a lot of focused practice.
- Learn to listen to a strumming rhythm and play that rhythm by ear
This guide (the one you’re reading right now), is mostly about the first step. I hope it has helped you understand how strumming works and given you some good practice as well.
My course Strumming Skills Bootcamp tackles all three steps. Using animated videos, it explains everything in this guide, but in more detail (step 1). You’ll play more strum patterns and learn more about how rhythm works. You’ll also learn to play with a straight or a swing feel.
I’ll also give you step-by-step exercises (including 30 songs) so you put in the practice you need to get correct strumming technique in your system (step 2). Laserfocused practice like that is what makes strumming feel effortless and natural.
Lastly, we’ll work on developing your inner ear for strum patterns that allow you to play strum patterns by ear (step 3). I built a special tool so you can practice this. It allows you to fill in the strumming pattern you’re hearing and check if you got it right.
You can find out more about the course here or simply get started with free sample course. This mini-course includes five lessons that will explain some of the basics of strumming and put in some (ear training) practice. Check it out!
The power of strumming
You know what they say. It ain’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing. Music always starts with a solid rhythm. You can even get away with playing ‘wrong’ notes or weird chords as they’re properly timed. That’s the power of rhythm.
I hope this article has helped you understand how to strum a guitar and has give you some good practice to get it in your system. Proper strum technique helps you tap into your innate sense of rhythm! And as you may know, I’m all about helping you use and develop those inner music skills that make playing music feel natural.
As always, if you have any questions, leave a comment below or email me at Just (at) Stringkick.com.