Day #2: How to Become a Better Strummer

Whenever I post chord charts for songs on Guitar Friendly, the question I hear most is: What is the strumming pattern for this song?

For many people, and maybe yourself included, it can be really hard to figure out the right strumming pattern for a song, or at least, one that actually works and sounds good.

The above question is a fair question. However, I don’t think people realize how easy it is to figure out a strumming pattern for a song.

In this lesson, I want to look at how you can find the perfect strumming pattern for any song. We’re going to look at a few specific exercises you can practice that will help take your strumming and rhythm skills to a further level. This will allow you to be able to look up chords for any song on the internet and find a strumming pattern that works.

Are you ready? Let’s take a look.

Timing Is Everything

The most important thing we have to understand is that all songs are written around a very simple timing structure. The majority of pop songs are counted in four (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, etc.). These songs will have a pretty straight feel to them, although you can swing a song counted in four (think “jazzy”).

Some songs are written in a timing of three or six. These songs will have a more “waltzy” feel to them.

Ninety-nine percent of songs you will play on guitar will be structured around these simple counts: four, three, or six.

As you listen to songs on the radio or on your iPod, you might practice counting along to these songs to figure out what count they are structured around. The count will be steady, even, and consistent. It rarely ever changes.

If we know how a song is counted, we’re half way to figuring out what strumming pattern to use for that song. Essentially, all we have to do is figure out a strumming pattern that fits within the timing of the song.

The Right Way to Count a Strumming Pattern

In order to know how to create a strumming pattern that fits within the timing of a song, we have to know how to count our strumming pattern.

Thinking about strumming only in terms of down strums or up strums is a bit limiting. It’s best to think about timing in terms of quarter notes, eighth notes, or sixteenth notes.

If we are playing a song that is counted in four, every four beats represents one measure. Each beat of that measure receives a quarter note in length.

If we divide a quarter note in half, we get two eighth notes. And then, if we go further to divide an eighth note in half, we get two sixteenth notes.

If this a little bit confusing, that’s okay. It’ll make more sense if we look at some exercises.

How to Find the Right Strumming Pattern For a Song

For the purposes of this lesson, I’m just going to look at creating strumming patterns in a count of four. You can apply the same principals to other time signatures as well.

The easiest strumming pattern that will work for any song is a strumming pattern with all quarter note down strums. It looks like this:

It’s easy. I know. However, whenever you’re in doubt, find the count of a song and do all down strums to it. It will sound much better than fumbling through a random order of down and up strums.

Plus, from this simple strumming pattern, you can “spice” it up a little. For example, we might divide the quarter notes into all eighth note down strums. I use this strumming pattern a lot for faster, driving songs. We count these eighth notes by saying “and” between each beat.

Instead of doing all down strums, you might do up strums on the “&” beats.

Here’s where we can start getting creative with our strumming. We might mix and match quarter and eighth note strums. This strumming pattern is another “go to” strumming pattern for songs with a count of four.

To create interesting feels, you might insert a rest on a beat of the measure. This strumming pattern is the exact same as the previous but we don’t play the down strum on beat three of the measure.

All I’m doing with these strumming patterns is mixing down strums and up strums with different note durations (e.g. quarter or eighth notes). However, I’m doing it so it’s in good timing. Any of these strumming patterns will work for a song that is in a count of four. It’s that easy to create your own strumming patterns!

When it comes to figuring out the right strumming pattern for a new song, the first thing you must do is figure out the count of a song. Is the song counted in four? In three? In six? Once you know that, you can create a strumming pattern around that count that works for the song. Start out with a simple strumming pattern like I did above, and as you’re comfortable, start to make it more complicated.

Be sure to count out loud as you practice so you can lock in with that timing.

Your Practice Goals for Day #2

Continue to keep working through the “Iris” song lesson. Once you start to feel more comfortable with that, you might try practicing some of the above strumming patterns. Your goal is to count out loud as consistently as possible. Sometimes I will practice my strumming along with a metronome. I’ve noticed huge improvement in my strumming whenever I use a metronome. Play these strumming patterns along to the count and try to keep your strumming as steady to the count as you can.

If you consistently practice these strumming patterns and focus on keeping steady timing, you’re strumming and sense of rhythm will continue to get stronger and stronger. Even if some of these patterns are a bit basic, the focus of keeping steady timing in a simple way has the ability to really effect your playing in a positive way when you want to make your strumming more complicated.

Do you struggle with singing and playing at the same time? For tomorrow’s lesson, I’m going to be sharing some of my own tips for when it comes to singing and playing your favorite songs. See you then!