How To Strum A Guitar

If you’ve just started learning guitar, you may have already found out that there’s a pretty sharp learning curve. And as a beginner, guitar strumming patterns can be intimidating. But with some knowledge and practice, you’ll know how to strum a guitar in no time. Here are some tips and tricks to help you along the way.

How to Start Strumming the Guitar

The Basics

Before you start strumming, you’ll want to make sure that you know how to hold your guitar. To play sitting down, you’ll want to put the body of your guitar on your right leg if you’re right-handed (and put the body on your left leg if you’re left-handed). In most cases, your right arm and elbow will rest on the top of the guitar body.

If you want to practice strumming while standing up, make sure you have a comfortable guitar strap first. You may need to adjust it a few times — you want the guitar high up enough so you can strum with ease, and you also want to be able to easily move your fretting hand up and down the neck.

One of the most important things to remember is to make sure you aren’t using your fretting hand to support the neck of the guitar at all.

This video gives you a better idea of how to hold your guitar properly. Be sure to sit up straight as you strum and avoid high-stress hand positions. Poor posture may not seem like a big deal, but it can lead to painful injuries over time. Once you’ve mastered holding the guitar properly, you’ll want to get an idea of the movement used when you strum a guitar.

One of the most important things when it comes to strumming techniques is staying relaxed. Make sure you aren’t holding any tension in the shoulder, elbow, or wrist of your strumming hand.

As you move your hand down the strings (in the next section, we’ll cover using a pick vs. not using one), focus on moving your hand with your wrist rather than from your elbow. If you strum from the elbow, the music won’t sound as natural, and you run the risk of an elbow injury, too. It may feel strange to play with a loose wrist at first. But if you watch any video of a rhythm guitarist, you’ll see that they mostly play from the wrist as opposed to the elbow.

Strumming With A Pick

Before you start strumming, you’ll need to learn how to hold the pick. You might not think this is something that’s important, but holding the pick incorrectly when you strum a guitar can negatively affect your playing, and it can also lead to hand strain and even injuries.

To hold the pick, start by curling your index finger forward. Then, press your finger down on the first joint of the index finger. The pick fits between these two fingers. How tightly you need to grip the pick is somewhat subjective — you need to hold it tightly enough that it doesn’t slip while strumming, but not so tightly that your strumming sounds too harsh.

The other consideration to make is the angle between the pick and each string. You might think that you need to keep the string and pick angle at even 90 degrees, but that isn’t necessarily true. There’s no set “correct” angle when you strum a guitar, but some experts recommend that the tip of the pick should be at about a 10-degree to 30-degree angle from the string. For now, though, mostly focus on the strumming movement itself.

As you get more practice, you’ll find what pick/string angle works best for you. Practice a couple of downstrokes to get the hang of strumming, keeping your arm relaxed, and keeping your wrist joint loose and flexible. If you want to see proper strumming techniques, this helpful YouTube video shows you a good example.

It’s worth mentioning that there are several different pick thicknesses out there. As you’re learning to strum, you may want to experiment with different pick thicknesses to find the right one for you. Here’s a quick guide:

  • Thin — These picks are great if you like a bright sound. Sometimes, they may sound a little “flappy.” Some people like this sound when they strum, and others don’t. If you want to play lead guitar, thin picks aren’t great, but they’re a perfectly fine choice for strumming.
  • Medium — These picks are very versatile, and they give you a little more substance than thin picks. They can be used for strumming, flat-picking, and even playing leads. Many beginners start out with medium picks.
  • Heavy — These picks are generally considered to be too thick for strumming, although they’re great for playing individual notes. But if you’re looking for an aggressive and powerful song, they may be a good choice.

As you can see, new guitar players have a lot to learn. And some aspects of strumming, like pick grip and the type of pick you use, come down to personal preference. These choices can quickly become overwhelming, which is why it’s good to have the guidance of a qualified instructor as you learn to strum.

Strumming Without A Pick

You might be surprised to learn that you don’t necessarily need to use a pick when strumming. In fact, some players actually prefer the sound of strumming without a pick. It’s a little softer and more muted than the sound you get when using a pick.

And while the quieter sound may not be right for everyone, it does have the advantage of letting you immediately switch from strumming to fingerpicking if you need to. (As a beginner, you probably won’t jump into this right away.)

If you do want to learn to strum the guitar without a pick, you can choose to use mainly your index finger or mainly your thumb. If you choose to use your index finger, you may find that this technique works well for slow, quiet strumming, but that it isn’t great for more vigorous strumming.

If you want to use your thumb to strum, you’ll find that this technique gives you an interesting sound. On the way down, you’ll probably use the pad of your thumb, which gives you a quieter sound. On the upstrokes, your nail will strike the strings, which gives you a sharper sound similar to using a pick.

However, the most common way to strum a guitar without a pick is probably holding your thumb and index finger together as though you’re holding a pick. This way, your finger hits the strings on the downstroke, and your thumb strikes them on the upstroke.

If you’re strumming very vigorously, this method may irritate your fingers and thumb after a while. And there’s one more thing to keep in mind — be sure to keep an eye on the length of your fingernails. If they get overly long, they may catch on the strings.

This can be uncomfortable, and it may also affect your sound. If you want to learn more about strumming this way, this useful YouTube lesson covers some of the basics of strumming without a pick for beginners. Part of the fun of mastering different strumming techniques is being able to develop your own distinctive style. 

Upstrokes And Downstrokes

Every strumming pattern for the guitar is made up of upstrokes and downstrokes. These are exactly what they sound like — with a downstroke, you strum down the strings. With an upstroke, you strum up the strings.

If you’re like most people who are new to playing guitar, you probably aspire to play complex, beautiful rhythm patterns. But to get there, you’ll first need to master a simple strumming pattern.

For this pattern, we’ll stick with downstrokes. Strum down the strings four times, tapping your foot with every beat. Don’t worry about playing chords right now — just focus on each strum. You can use your fretting hand to mute the strings, or you can choose a chord you like.

Next, do the same thing with four upstrokes. Remember to keep your strumming hand relaxed and your wrist loose. Once you master this strumming pattern, you can combine the two. This time, switch the direction of every beat. That means you’re playing down/up/down/up.

Of course, these strumming patterns are just the foundation. Don’t worry if they seem dull — playing rhythm guitar does get more exciting! Some patterns skip certain upstrokes or downstrokes for a more syncopated feel. If you’re looking for some more challenging patterns that vary your upstrokes and downstrokes a little more, check out this helpful video lesson.

Playing In Time

Depending on who you ask, you may or may not need to use a metronome when you practice strumming. But when you’re just learning to strum a guitar, we think practicing with a metronome can be extremely helpful because it helps you play in time. Playing in time just means keeping up with the tempo.

If you’re practicing strumming by yourself, playing in time may not be much of an issue. But if you’re playing with other musicians, it’s absolutely necessary. As you practice strumming patterns, set your metronome to a reasonable tempo. Make sure each beat of the strumming pattern matches up with each tick of the metronome.

Part of the goal of practicing with a metronome is helping you develop a good internal sense of rhythm as you strum. After all, members of a band don’t have a metronome going as they perform. But each member knows the song’s tempo and sticks to it.

As you’re practicing strumming the guitar, you might look for ways to test your ability to play in time. Some online guitar platforms like JamPlay come with backing tracks that let you practice songs or individual skills. With JamPlay, these backing tracks are called JamTracks.

They give you the feeling of playing with a whole band, so you can play along with bass, drums, and lead guitar. Since JamPlay is one of the larger platforms out there, you can find JamTracks for just about every genre, from acoustic folk to heavy metal.

And if you’re looking for a metronome, don’t worry — plenty of lesson sites, including JamPlay, come with a free suite of online tools for any guitarist. Among these tools is an online metronome you can use while practicing strumming and other guitar skills. If you aren’t quite sure how to use a metronome for guitar, check out this helpful video.

Sound And Hand Placement

As you practice each strumming pattern, you may realize that your guitar sounds slightly different depending on where your hand is placed. If you have an acoustic guitar, you can achieve different tones depending on how close your hand is to the soundhole. If you strum over the soundhole, you’ll get a warmer sound with more bass.

On the other hand, if you strum further back behind the soundhole (closer to the bridge), you’ll notice that your guitar sounds a little sharper and less resonant. Most players don’t routinely strum this far back, but when used occasionally, strumming close to the bridge can add an interesting change in tone during a song.

Part of strumming properly is finding what suits you best. Some players prefer to strum right over the middle of the soundhole, while others strum a little further back. Once you start developing as a guitarist, you may find that your preferred hand placement changes.

Of course, if you’re learning to strum on an electric guitar, you don’t have a soundhole to guide you. On an electric, you’ll want to strum approximately halfway between the neck and the bridge. With this type of guitar, hand placement doesn’t affect tone as much.

However, if your guitar has multiple pickups, you’ll probably find that using one closer to the neck results in a warmer sound, while using one towards the bridge results in a thinner, “twangier” sound. Check out this video lesson if you want to see an experienced guitarist demonstrating how to strum an electric guitar.

As you become a more experienced rhythm guitarist, you’ll find that you’re able to put your own creative spin on strumming patterns and other techniques.

Adding In Chord Changes

Learning to strum a guitar takes time and focus. And whether you want to use a pick, strum with your thumb and first finger, or both, it’s important to feel completely comfortable with a few basic rhythm patterns before moving forward.

If you’re playing songs as a rhythm guitarist, you’ll usually be following the same rhythm pattern, but you’ll switch between chords. Depending on the exact way you’re learning, you may already have a good bit of experience switching between chords.

If you haven’t yet practiced moving between chords, it’s a good idea to start practicing that before you attempt to strum a rhythm while switching chords.

If you have some experience, you can start by playing easy chords and a simple rhythm pattern. For our example, let’s say we’re switching between G and Em. We’ll use the first pattern we covered — four downstrokes in a row.

To do this pattern, strum four downstrokes with the G chord. Switch to Em and play four more downstrokes. The beat shouldn’t be interrupted — make sure there isn’t an extra pause as you switch from G to Em. If you aren’t quite sure if you’re playing the pattern properly, your metronome can be useful here.

Choose a slow tempo until you get the hang of it and increase the tempo from there. As you grow more confident as a guitarist, you might want to find more rhythm pattern examples and more chord progressions. This useful video shows you a few very common chord progressions you can start integrating into your practice routine.

Learning to strum and switch chords at the same time can take some practice. But once you can successfully coordinate your strumming hand and your fretting hand, you’ll be poised to learn even more.

That said, it’s generally good for newer players to be able to follow a curriculum. YouTube videos and online tutorials are fine for some of your first steps as a musician, but in order to really make sense of everything you learn, it’s a good idea to take an organized course that will teach you to play.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, our list has helped you to start strumming! Once you have the basic guitar strumming patterns down, don’t forget that part of the joy of music is creating your own style — you can write your own rhythm patterns and practice them along with chord changes. What do you think? Did we leave out any important tips on how to strum a guitar? Please let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share if you found our list helpful!

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