How to Strum – Playing Rhythm Guitar

Published: 22nd November 2011
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How to Strum – Playing Rhythm Guitar

The aim of strumming is to make more than one string sound at the same time on a guitar. You can use your fingernails or a pick held in your right hand and pull down across all the strings, while you hold a chord down on the frets with your left hand.

Strumming is done in a pattern – a set of up-down strums that are to a certain rhythm and fit the beat of the song you are playing. There are many different types of strumming patterns based on the style of the music you are playing. People invent new ones every day!

It’s not difficult to develop your strumming techniques and guitar skills; the key is practice.

Smooth strumming – acoustic guitar technique

In an acoustic guitar the strings are usually strummed in a down-up path over the sound hole. There’s no hard and fast rule that says you need to strum there. Many different sounds can be achieved if you strum in different parts of the guitar; you can get crisp and sharp sounds closer to the bridge for example.

Electric guitar strumming is very similar to acoustic guitar, except that it is usually done just over the first pickup.

Smooth strumming can be achieved by holding the pick loosely. If you hold it with too much pressure, then you will be pushing down on the strings too hard and the sound will be too loud. You need to hold your pick loosely enough so that you can easily switch sides of it as you are strumming – when you strum down, the bottom half of the pick will be touching the strings and as you come back up, it’s the top half that will touch them. The volume of the chord you strum will be determined by the pressure which you put on the strings with the pick.

A good way to practice getting the right volume coming out of the strumming is to sing lyrics to songs while you are playing. Others will be able to tell you whether or not they can hear the words or not. If they can’t hear them, you’re putting too much pressure on the strings and you will be strumming too harshly!

It’s also good to pick a thin or a medium pick when you’re starting out (refer to other article about different types of picks). Heavy picks are usually used by musicians playing the lead riffs and solos.

Positioning of the various parts of the guitar, your hand, elbow, angle of the neck of the guitar also need to be comfortable. The more comfortable you are while you are holding the guitar, the easier it is to strum more smoothly and with less pressure.

Smooth strumming itself is also not a straight up and down motion; many guitarists refer to the correct strumming technique by thinking of “little orbits.” You actually make tiny circles while you strum across the strings as you pull down and up; your wrist moves in these tiny circular motions across the range of strings that you strum for your chord.

For more ideas and tips of good strumming technique, you can refer to this online series of free videos. (

Guitar strum patterns – strumming exercises

There are many patterns that you can practice when you are learning how to strum a guitar. Some of the most common ones are as follows:

Rock and Pop

a) down down-up up up-down-up
b) down down down down
c) down-up-down-up-down-up-down-up
d) down down-up-down down-up

Jazz and Funk

a) Jazz guitarists often play with a simple four-to-a-bar rhythm, with variation of chords on each beat
b) “straight eights” are a simple eight-to-a-bar rhythm, while “swung eights” are played with each pair as the first and third notes in a triplet
c) staccato and percussive effects can be created by lifting the fretting hand off the fretboard to dampen chords
d) Sixteenth note patterns are used in funk
e) There is often lots of syncopation used in jazz strumming as well


There are also many fingerstyle strumming techniques that you can use; this is done by plucking the string directly with your fingertips, fingernails or picks stuck to the fingers; this is often used in classical, flamenco, bossa nova, ragtime, clawhammer, folk and baroque music

Mistakes that lead to harsh/rush strumming

The main reason why harsh and rushed strumming occurs is because you are usually putting too much pressure on your strumming. You can relax your arms more and make sure you are using circular motions of your wrist to strum the chords. Hold the pick lightly and not too tight and let it loose.

Harsh and rushed strumming could also happen when you are not strumming down and up at the same pressure. Practice strumming only a few strings in tiny circles until you have an even strum for both down and up motions.

Solutions for getting tense

If your hands are getting tense then here are a few things you can try:
- stop playing, shake your hands and fingers out
- when you start strumming again, go slower than you did before
- as soon as you start feeling tense again, stop playing and stretch your fingers again
- use circular motions of your wrist to strum
- practice only on a few strings at a time until you get the strumming right
- make sure you take a 5-10 minute break after playing for about 45 minutes; come back refreshed and slow down your tempo a bit
- try to always feel loose and comfortable! never put pressure on any part of the guitar

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