Introducing the Learning Guitar Series. Over the next few months, our friend and guitar teacher extraordinaire Haley Powers will teach you how to take your guitar playing to the next level. From locking down a practice routine to nailing an acoustic cover, Haley has you covered.
If you’re a beginner guitar player and struggling with strumming, you’re not alone! Most beginners are taught a few strumming patterns, but teachers quickly turn the lesson to focus on the fretting handwork (so learning chords, licks, and theory). But strumming is what can make or break the emotion of a song, how adept you sound, and whether or not a song sounds catchy.
Living in Nashville, I commonly get hired to accompany singer-songwriters at writers’ nights, so I have heard plenty of different approaches to songwriting. One of the biggest things I’ve noticed is how songwriters add new dynamics to their songs –– meaning they switch between strumming softly and strumming more intensely, letting the acoustics ring out.
This makes it easier to feel movement and emotion in their songs. Writers who don’t switch up their strumming pattern can make the song feel “monotone” –– they miss out on opportunities to build up the feeling in their song, whether it be heartfelt, epic, or somber. Songwriters tend to use a lot of the same chords, but with dynamic strumming, they can create an entirely new experience.
Strumming is a crucial part of mastering acoustic guitar and bringing your songs to life, but it’s not always easy to get down at first. In this final part of the First Strums Series, I’ll give you my best tips for strumming so you can feel confident on your Orangewood guitar.
THE SCOOP ON PICKS
Let’s start with the basics — the pick! A surprising number of my students hated using picks, so if you’re in this camp, just know that once you start, you’ll realize their magic. Though strumming without a pick and fingerpicking are great options, I think it’s better to intentionally choose not to use a pick than not know how to use one at all.
You’ll want to start by holding your pick at the widest part with the side of your thumb. Then take the tip of your first finger and hold the pick so the point is facing the strings. Keep in mind that everyone holds a pick slightly differently, so you may want to play around with the exact positioning and see what feels most natural to you.
Your other fingers can either curl under slightly or stay long, and your wrist can stay straight. One of the trickiest things for beginners is holding the pick so it doesn’t fall out of your hand while keeping the hand relaxed when strumming. Like anything, it’s something that just takes some practice.
A light or medium thickness pick is usually best for beginners. I like these standard Ernie Ball Standard Assorted Picks. They’re a very common type of pick, so in the future, if you have to borrow one from someone else, it won’t feel weird strumming with it.
There are also specialty picks; for example, if you tend to drop your picks a lot, you may also want to look into picks with grips on them. But, no matter what picks you’re buying, remember to always buy more than you think (mine constantly vanish only to be found in my washing machine).
GENERAL STRUMMING TIPS
Now that you’re all set up with your pick, let’s move on to my 3 tips for gorgeous strumming.
My number one tip is to play softer than you think. When you gently sweep your pick across the strings of your acoustic, it sounds beautiful. You can see how guitarist Ruban Wan uses a lot of dynamics (strumming softer and louder) in this video. The more you dig into your strings, the more you might miss out on the prettier sounding vibrations from your acoustic.
My next tip is playing around with your strumming hand positioning. I generally like to stay strumming right in the middle of the sound hole, but you should experiment around with what you like. Playing closer to the bridge will sound brighter while closer to the neck will be darker and a bit more bassy. Sometimes I’ll even switch up my hand position for a certain part of a song to give it a different sound.
Lastly, pay attention to the beats when strumming. I think strumming patterns are helpful when it comes to the coordination of a guitar part or when you aren’t quite getting something.
TIME TO PRACTICE: BASIC STRUMMING PATTERNS
Tapping your foot and thinking of your down strums as the “1 2 3 4” and your ups as an “&” in-between “1&2&3&4&” is a helpful way to start. If you’re beginning, here are some common strumming patterns to try out (D = down, U = up, _ = pause):
DD _UD/DD _UD
This is easier if you can see someone strumming, so if you’re looking to learn more about strumming patterns, I highly recommend this strumming series by Marty Music or check out my free beginner course for lessons on strumming, chords, and techniques.
TIGHTEN UP YOUR STRUMMING
Once you’ve got the basics down, the last step is to hone your rhythm. One of the biggest things you can do is practice along with someone or something that forces you to stay on tempo. This can be a metronome app, a pulse watch, or just playing along to a song.
Practicing with something that keeps time is a game-changer because you begin to realize whether you have a tendency to slow down, lose rhythm, or speed up (like I always do) in certain parts of a song. If you’re in a place where you’re first starting to strum but still feel awkward, know that it gets easier as you build muscle memory.
I hope our beginner series helps you, whether your first Orangewood just got delivered to your door, you’re starting to learn songs, or you’re simply looking to tighten up your playing. Remember that it’s all trial and error, so give yourself the freedom to play with or without a pick, strum in different places on the guitar, and try different picks to see what you like. At the end of the day, it’s all about having fun and learning how to express yourself through music.
Haley is a guitar player, blogger, and guitar teacher based out of Nashville, TN. When she's not playing or writing, you can find her in line at her favorite breakfast taco shop, taking her dog hiking at the nearest waterfall, or binging Outer Banks with her hubby.