Every good teacher knows the importance of right technique and will stress it at every opportunity. It is just as important with the guitar, especially for beginners who must get the basics right from the start. Learning how to play the guitar correctly has a lot to do with how well you master the strumming action.
There is a lot to get through until you can strum well, most of which will depend on how much you practice. But just as playing, you need to know your guitar and its different accessories. With that, an understanding of the basics alongside a few tips and exercises should set you off.
Let’s discuss a few basics before we share some tips and do a couple of exercises.
Should You Use a Pick or Your Fingers?
It is perhaps a personal choice whether you use your fingers or a pick but there are advantages to playing with a pick.
An obvious example is the strain that guitar strings can put on your fingers, though building up your calluses could make up for all the pain.
However, the best players in the world use them, and you should at least get comfortable with using a pic.
But those fingers can get really sore, especially for newbie guitarists. Also it may be difficult for beginners to get a clear sound with just your fingers.
If you can’t get your hands on a pick then you will have to brace yourself and rely on your thumb and index finger.
For such a small thing, or maybe because of its size, a pick can be hard to hold and use effectively.
The best way is to hold it as naturally as possible, with your thumb and two fingers. The pick’s pointed end must be facing downwards and the grip must be flexible but firm.
It will take you a while to master the pick, especially trying to adjust your grip while you play. Pointless to say, but dropping your pick in the middle of a song won’t be any fun at all.
Is There a Right (or Wrong) Strumming Action?
The short answer to this is yes. This is where technique comes in. Your ability to play for long periods of times depends on how you use your stronger hand when strumming. Yes, always strum with your strongest hand.
When you start playing, the instinct is to use just your wrist to guide your strumming action. It may eventually work for you but it is not comfortable and will overwork your wrist to cause you some discomfort. Playing entirely with your elbow, with your wrist locked, is no good either and will be just as uncomfortable. Better strum with both your wrist and elbow guiding your up-and-down motion.
The wrist will redirect your fingers or pick down and up as you strum with the elbow ordering the general movement. The general rule here is to strum from the elbow and pick from the wrist, with the picking action working most on your upstrokes.
Get Your Posture Right
Just as important as how you use your elbow and wrist when strumming is your posture. You want to play without discomfort in any area of your body and how you align your torso and neck is important for this.
To get your posture right, avoid leaning on your guitar or slouching when you play. Again, relax your shoulders and hold your guitar as naturally as possible. With these basics, your posture will improve as you practice.
Make sure to adjust your guitar strap optimally when you play from a standing position. Your guitar must hang just above your abdomen.
When sitting down, you will find it more natural and comfortable to balance the guitar on your on your thigh. Whether you are standing or sitting, both your hands must be able to negotiate the instrument without difficulty.
Generally, strumming is about two actions - down and up strums. A good guitarists will master how and when to use both. But for now, let’s just concentrate on how to play them.
Down strums are just that – fluid downward strokes through all the six strings. Up strums are the opposite.
But as you practice, it will become obvious that up strums do not have to go through all six strings. Just hitting the top three or four strings may be good enough to get the sound you are looking for. Besides, hitting all six strings with your up strums is not the easiest thing to do. It will require a lot of practice.
Down – Up – Down – Up – Down – Up
This is the first sequence you get down. With your fingers curled upwards, gently place your pick on the top string. Now, slide your pick downwards and through all six strings.
The trick here is to exert just the right amount of force at the start and to let it subside as you get to the last string.
Equally important is the follow through, which must be proportionate and smooth but not linger too much as you need to readjust for the next strum.
Reverse the action for the upstroke, remembering to reduce the force on the strings as you get to the top. The follow through must be just as subtle and measured too. Keep going like that, using your ear to keep on top of the rhythm. It may help to first practice both down and up strums individually before these exercises. If you feel confident enough to jump straight to the exercises then do so.
Tip: Where you position your strum determines its sound
Play right over the sound hole and the sound you produce will be deeper, bassier. And as you get closer to the bridge the sound will grow sharper. It will thus help to practice with different positions on the strings and familiarize with the different sounds it produces. Eventually you will find that positioning your strums between the sound hole and the bridge will produce a more balanced sound.
Down – Down – Up – Up – Down – Down
This exercise is good for training your strumming hand. It trains you to ‘mix it up’ when you play, not that you specifically have to use it in every song you play. Keep practicing this sequence until you master it.
Next, you will want to alternate two or more down strums with just the one up strum, and vice versa. Practice that and change to a 2 to 3, 3 to 2, 1 to 2 – whatever you feel like practicing. The point is to practice both strums while keeping a sense of rhythm. Learning to leave out one up or down strum will add depth to your playing and enrich your sound.
Tip: Use a metronome to pace your strums
At first, while you train your ear for rhythm, it will be immensely helpful to have a metronome order the pace of your strums. Yes, a metronome is not just for piano players. How well you can maintain a particular pace between your strums, including the force you put on each strum and the length of your follow through, determines how uniform and melodic your strums will sound.
There is no better tool at this stage than the metronome. Set its ticks at the speed you feel comfortable playing at. The metronome should also help you get used to playing with your ears and not rely too much on your eyes to pace your strums and gauge rhythm. Your ears are better attuned at this.
Getting It All Steeped In
There is no getting around this one. As with anything you do with a musical instrument, you only get better through constant repetition. Develop a habit for practice and dedicate part of your practice session to strum practice. Many guitarists also find interleaved practice to be a particularly helpful way of progressing. You will get better with every session.
Superior strumming ability is the Holy Grail holy grail of every guitarist. Achieving it will set you off on a truly wonderful musical journey. But it will require dedication and constant practice that is anchored on technique.
Get your posture right, whether you are playing from a standing or sitting position, and take care to put just the right amount of force on your strums. The follow through must be smooth but not lingering.
You can strum without a pick, but it is best to learn to play with it. It may be a small accessory, but you must learn how to hold and use it. The rest will depend on how creative you want to be. Should learning on your own prove too taxing, remember that you can always hire the services of a guitar teacher. There are plenty of good ones both on- and offline.
About the Author: Joseph Evans
My name is Joseph Evans and I am a guitar playing, freelance writing, online teaching music lover based in Seattle, WA. Growing up in a musical family naturally lead to obtaining my Bachelor of Music (BM) in Composition & Music Theory degree, after which I taught and traveled my way across Europe for 7 years before returning back home to settle in beautiful Seattle. On a typical day, you would find me playing my guitar, pottering around in the vegetable garden, going on long hikes, reading and/or writing.