Strumming guitar is fun! A few basic principles are necessary to develop good rhythm (and believe me, nobody wants to jam with a guitarist who can’t keep good time!) You may want to review my lesson on note values and reading rhythms in addition to this. Ok, lets get started:
Keep good posture.
This is more important than you might think. Sit up straight and have your feet on solid ground. You will need to be able to tap your foot, so sitting on a stool–at least for now—is a bad idea. Make sure that the chair you’re sitting on isn’t too high or too low; your thighs should be able to comfortably support the guitar so that it sits perpendicular to the floor. Keeping the back upright will also help your strumming hand (usually the right hand) to comfortably rest on the guitar’s top, and keep you from pinching off any nerves in your arm as you play. Your strumming arm should rest on the guitar on the inner side of the elbow. Rest the guitar on your right leg if you are using a right-handed guitar and vice-versa if you have a left-handed one.
Strum from the wrist and move from the elbow.
This is a little hard to explain. In fact, 90% of the time my students end up doing this naturally after a few weeks of practicing anyway. Think of the strumming hand being supported by the way it sits on the guitar top and therefore free to receive most of its momentum from the forearm, pivoting from the elbow. The fine-tuning within the strum comes from the wrist by keeping it loose–think of the time you washed your hands and realized there were no paper towels left—yeah, shake it a little like that!
Strum like you mean it!
If I only had a dollar for every student that slowly raked their strumming hand over the strings scared to hit a bad note or get the slightest bit of string buzz… This is music—let’s make it loud and make it count! It’s important to learn the feel of a good strum from the beginning, so if you have to make a mistake…make a loud, ugly mistake! Your strum should comfortably cover all six strings and several inches of air space above and below. All strings should be strummed and ring together—this is the sign of a comfortable player. By taking this approach and strumming correctly from the beginning you will be setting up the fretting hand to properly learn its role.
Connect the foot with the hand.
After you are comfortable with the basic idea of strumming you should begin to work your foot in the mix. How many times have you watched a live performance and seen a guitarist tapping his foot or his knee? A lot right? This is one of the most essential habits to start building because the more complex the strumming rhythm becomes the harder it is to stay connected to the pulse of the music itself. No one wants to float away from his band-mates! Once you have learned this skill you can turn it on and off as you like, but having this ability is essential.
Some musicians tap their foot, others their knee, some bang their head—it all gets the job done—but to keep things simple we will start by tapping our foot, heel-down. I prefer to use my left foot because the guitar sits on my right leg and this way as I tap I don’t bounce my guitar around, but you may experiment on what works well for you. Again, try this only when you are comfortable with your strumming and are ready to start dividing your concentration.
For this exercise imagine your foot and your hand are both connected by a string–that is, when your hand strums down your foot taps down, when your hand strums up your foot comes up. They both go down and up together, never straying. Make sure your foot follows the steady pulse of the music you are making and that your hand doesn’t deviate from its strumming. Do not tap out your own rhythmic interpretation of the music—this will throw off everything!
These following examples are from Strumming Exercises #1, and we will be tapping and strumming on the quarter note. Since we are in 4/4 time we will have a total of 4 down-strums in each measure. I have written the beats above each example as a guide. Here is example #2* from the Strumming Exercises #1 PDF:
*For clarity reasons I have used the “+” symbol in place of the “&” symbol which is spoken “and.” Ex: “One and two and…”
The eighth note rhythm.
In this example you are strumming the E chord every time your hand moves. By strumming on the beat (the quarter note) you are creating an eighth note rhythm for your strumming hand because your hand passes over the string area twice for every beat (since your hand has to come up after it goes down.) Therefore by playing on the downbeats (1, 2, 3, 4) and on the upbeats (+’s) you are playing twice every beat, creating an eighth note strumming rhythm!
This is the beginning of everything awesome in regards to strumming the guitar. By connecting the foot with the hand you are preparing yourself for control of more complex (and interesting) rhythms in the future. By tapping on the downbeats you are enforcing the strength of each beat’s beginning and building your overall awareness of rhythm. A little patience goes a long way! In example #7 things start to make a bit more sense:
Keep the strumming hand moving.
In this example you’ll notice that on the downbeats of 3 and 4 there are no strums involved. The eighth notes on those beats are connected to the previous strums by ties (the curved lines connecting both stacks of notes) therefore connecting beat 3 to beat 2 and beat 4 to the upbeat of beat 3. To strum this correctly we must down-strum beats 3 and 4 even though we do not connect with the strings on those downbeats, then catch them on the up-strums. Developing the ability to keep the strumming hand moving is crucial to playing complex rhythmic patterns with a sense of feel. It is also a ton of fun!
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