Once you’ve learned the basics of playing guitar - how to hold it, hand/finger placement, open/barre chords - the next question is typically, “Now what?” You’ve got all of the basic tools to play the instrument, so when can you start making actual music? Simply put, your next step in becoming a great guitar player is to unlock your secret weapon: your strumming hand. You could spend your time learning 100 different chords, but the strumming patterns you apply to those chords is where the real music-making magic happens. While we tend to idolize guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan for their soloing prowess and innovation, the truth is that guitarists spend the majority of their time playing rhythm. If you think of songs like “Wonderwall,” “Master of Puppets,” or “Hot For Teacher,” what makes those songs great aren’t the blistering guitar solos (which admittedly are an added bonus). Rather, it’s the catchy riffs played by the rhythm guitar that stand the test of time and make those songs so iconic.
The guitar is an incredibly versatile rhythmic instrument, and the strumming patterns we employ can change a song drastically. Musical styles like funk, reggae, punk rock, and country all have strumming patterns and techniques that are unique to their respective genre, and learning some of them can open you up to a whole new world of guitar playing. So, let’s break down some of these patterns and start putting them to use on our own instruments.
Tips on Timing and Technique
Before we get started, there are a few things to consider when learning proper strumming technique. Here are some tips on how to develop your rhythm playing:
Have a comfortable grip on your pick
Hold your pick with your thumb and index finger, and employ a Goldilocks-style grip: not too tight, not too loose, but just right so that it is comfortable to you. With the right grip, you should be able to pick/strum through all the strings without getting caught on a string or dropping your pick. Additionally, you can experiment with the placement of your middle/ring/pinky fingers either fanned out or folded into your hand to find what works best for you. Generally, it can be easier to have your fingers tucked in while strumming at faster tempos.
Strum primarily using your wrist
You’ll feel a slight bounce in your elbow naturally, but most of the strumming action should come from the wrist. This promotes better speed, timing, and accuracy - the smaller the motions, the smaller the margin for error. The turn of your wrist also helps angle your pick up or down to ensure clean contact with the strings on each stroke.
Keep your strumming motion constant and consistent
Your strumming hand acts as the perfect metronome. Even if you’re just playing whole or half notes - and especially if you’re playing more syncopated patterns like in funk or R&B - constantly feeling the beat in your strumming hand will help you to stay in time with the song and can give you the precision to nail more advanced syncopated rhythms.
Sync your downstrokes with a foot tap
Another tip to conquering heavily syncopated rhythms is to keep tempo with your foot and align your downstrokes with each foot tap. This can help you subdivide 1/8th notes and even 1/16th notes with greater precision and prevent you from rushing or dragging the tempo.
Upstrokes are usually done on the G/B/E strings
A common misconception is that you must hit every string with your upstrokes just as you do on your downstrokes. Try that on your own and you may find it to be unnatural and uncomfortable. The truth is a natural upstroke (returning your hand to its starting position to begin another downstroke) will usually only strike the 2 or 3 highest strings. This helps with strumming speed and accuracy and also helps strongly reinforce the downbeat by emphasizing the low strings only on a downstroke, creating a virtual drumbeat on your guitar.
With these tips in mind, learning to strum your guitar should hopefully feel a little less daunting. Next, let’s talk a little about how to break down a brand-new rhythm or strumming pattern and what you can do to simplify a rhythm to make it easier to understand.
How to Learn and Practice New Patterns
Say it before you play it
As you’re reading a new rhythm, it can be incredibly helpful to recite it as you’re reading it by simply saying the beats. For example, a measure of all 1/8th notes could be counted with the word ‘and’ representing the offbeats. This would look and sound like this:
If a rhythm contains 1/16th notes, the pattern then becomes:
Syncopated rhythms will omit beats, so those beats will not be said aloud. For example, an 1/8th note strumming pattern that does not contain a note on beat 3 will be counted as:
Speaking these rhythms will allow you to understand how they should sound before you play them and will help you apply them to your instrument.
Take it slow
Taking things at a slower tempo at first will also help to ensure you are reading/hearing/playing the rhythm correctly. Playing a new concept quickly or at tempo right away before you’ve had time to properly learn it leads to sloppy playing - a bad habit that can be difficult to quit.
Speak or play the pattern at a tempo slow enough that allows you to play it mistake-free. When you’re ready to try it on guitar, playing at half-speed or half-time can be a great starting point but feel free to start from a tempo slightly slower or faster than that if that’s more comfortable for you. From there, you can gradually increase your speed until you finally reach the original tempo of the song. Try setting milestones for yourself to reach along the way - 60% speed, 75%, 90%, etc. Practicing at slower tempos helps build up your muscle memory and before you know it those tricky rhythms will become a lot easier.
Practice on a single chord
Many songs will repeat a strumming pattern throughout an entire chord progression consisting of 2, 4, and sometimes even 8 different chords. However, playing these chord changes while trying to learn an already-difficult strumming pattern can cause more trouble than necessary and hinder your learning process. Instead, choose one chord and practice the strumming pattern solely on that chord. Once you’ve built up the muscle memory and you’re able to cleanly loop this new pattern over and over, then the next step will be to add the other chords in the progression. It could be helpful to take this step at a slower tempo as well to solidify the timing of the chord changes as they fit within the strumming pattern.
Now that you’re ready to tackle some new strumming patterns, let’s take a look at some iconic songs that utilize some of the most essential rhythms and techniques that every player should keep in their bag.
Essential Strumming Patterns
Quarter Notes (example: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day)
The intro to “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” consists of only ¼ notes (albeit with some assistance from a delay pedal). With two quarter notes per chord, the song moves quickly through the progression despite the spacious strumming pattern. This pattern should be played only with downstrokes, and will help you get comfortable with keeping and controlling the tempo in your strumming hand.
Eighth Notes (example: “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac)
While the verses are slightly more syncopated, the chorus of “Go Your Own Way” is straight 1/8th notes. This song is at a much quicker tempo than the last, so feel free to begin practicing with ¼ notes to get comfortable with your timekeeping. When you’re ready, add in the upstrokes between every beat (play the &’s between each downbeat) to give the song a driving, double-time sort of feel.
Sixteenth Notes (example: “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” by James Brown)
Depending on the tempo of the song, often the smallest subdivision of notes that we can play on guitar is the 1/16th note. Funk music is built upon the foundation of the 1/16th note subdivision because of the great opportunities for syncopation. For this example, however, we are going to focus on straight 1/16th notes played throughout an entire measure with no rests or syncopation. The chorus in “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” always ends with a 1/16th note riff played on an E9 chord by guitarist Jimmy Nolen that leads us back to the top of the form. This can be tricky to play at full tempo because of the speed and precision required to play every stroke, so it would be a good idea to take this at a slower tempo at first.
Mixing Eighth & Sixteenth Notes (example: “Zombie” by The Cranberries)
If we combine 1/8th and 1/16th note rhythms within the same measure, we can create syncopation that helps loosen up our guitar parts and gives them a little more momentum. The intro to “Zombie” is a great example of this, especially in contrast to the more straightforward, militaristic guitar rhythms played during the chorus. Thanks to the slow tempo in this example, the first four 1/8th note beats of each measure (1 & 2 &) are going to be played as downstrokes, immediately followed by some upstrokes that create our 1/16th note syncopation. Take a listen to the song to get a feel for it, and this example would be a great one to practice by speaking or counting the rhythms out loud while tapping your foot. You’ll get a sense of how those 1/16th notes fit perfectly in between the downbeats.
Muted Sixteenth Notes (example: “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin)
In “Zombie,” we let our chords ring out through each measure as we strummed to create a fuller sound. That is not the case for all songs. Often, we release the pressure of our fretting hand to deaden or mute the strings to create a rhythmic “chucking” sound. This is found most commonly in funk music which, as we know, features a lot of 1/16th note rhythms.
However, one of the most famous examples of this strumming pattern can be found in one of the most famous songs in rock history - “Stairway To Heaven.” The climax of the song, which follows Jimmy Page’s epic guitar solo, features a syncopated strumming pattern that sees Page constantly muting and unmuting the strings (particularly on the F major chord) to create a staccato effect. This gives the illusion almost like the victorious fanfare of a horn section as the chords shoot in and out, alternating accents between the downbeats and the upbeats. This takes some coordination between your strumming hand and your fretting hand in order to accent the correct beats, so be sure to slow this one down to take a closer look at it.
Eighth Note Downstrokes or “Chugging” (example: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica)
We have seen varying examples already of songs in which we play our 1/8th notes using alternate picking (“Go Your Own Way”) and using only downstrokes (“Zombie”). When playing heavier music such as rock or metal, 1/8ths are much more often played using only downstrokes because many of the riffs are built upon the low strings as we see in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” particularly in the main riff that moves chromatically from a G5 to an E5 chord.
This type of downstroke picking requires a bit of palm muting; that is, using the side of our strumming hand to slightly mute the strings as we strum to keep them from ringing out. This creates a short “stab” of a chord that allows us to move quickly to the next chord. You’ll notice the chords in this riff are very short and don’t last very long - that’s the palm muting effect which is also known as “chugging.” This technique relies heavily on the wrist both for speed and to ensure our hand does not move far from the strings so that we can quickly mute them as needed. If you’re not used to this technique it can be quite straining and tiresome for your wrist, so take it slow!
Upstrokes/Offbeat/Reggae (example: “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley)
A major characteristic of reggae music is that the guitar plays almost exclusively on the offbeat - never on a downbeat. Looking at the tab for “Three Little Birds,” you’ll see that every downbeat has an eighth note rest which means you’ll be playing on the “&” of every beat. In order to feel this naturally and stay in time, we play each chord with a quick upstroke. Allow your hand to play a muted downstroke or come to rest on the strings on every strong beat (1 2 3 4) which will help you continue to feel the beat naturally in your strumming hand as you would on any other song. And just as we mentioned before, these upstrokes won’t include all 6 strings - only the first 3 (G/B/e)! Additionally, you’ll want to quickly release the pressure of your fretting hand to cut off the sound of each chord as we do not want them to ring out. In fact, the shorter and more percussive you play the chords, the better they will sound! Luckily, reggae music is often played at a slower, more relaxing tempo which will make it easier to perfect the sound. This strumming technique is also found in ‘90s ska punk music, though played much faster!
Triplets (example: “All My Loving” by The Beatles)
Perhaps the trickiest pattern of all is the triplet pattern which sees the guitarist strumming a chord three times per beat, hence the name. Again this pattern can become quite difficult at faster tempos, but with lots of practice can greatly improve your precision and timing. On “All My Loving,” John Lennon strums a very jangly triplet pattern throughout the verses, giving the song its signature sound. Because of the unique concept of fitting 3 strokes inside a single beat, we also must count it differently:
Besides the tempo, what makes this pattern so difficult is that the 3-stroke pattern begins with a downstroke on the odd-numbered beats (1 & 3) and with an upstroke on the even-numbered beats (2 & 4).
It may be helpful to think of the pattern as strong-weak-weak, meaning you emphasize the first stroke which falls on “1”, followed by two weak strokes on “& a.” As you repeat this pattern on beat 2 it becomes flipped, so you’re constantly alternating:
This can feel unnatural and uncomfortable at first, so it is important to practice this pattern slowly. This will allow you to get comfortable with accenting beats 2 and 4 with an upstroke which we haven’t seen in any other strumming pattern.
The measure of great guitarists throughout history is too often their soloing ability, but that is only one aspect of being a great player. Guitarists such as Malcolm Young, Nile Rodgers, James Hetfield, and Pete Townsend - while not known necessarily for their soloing - no doubt belong in the conversation of greatest guitar players of all time for their mastery of rhythm. A guitar can sound like a symphony when played by the right player and we hope this article has helped move you in that direction. Just remember to slow things down, take your time, and above all - practice, practice, practice!
About the Author
Tim Clark is a guitar instructor at School of Rock Natick.