Why does it feel so tough to get the strumming patterns down for a song you’re trying to learn? When you watch the songwriter or performer play the same song, it seems as if they can play it with such ease. Sometimes even while singing simultaneously!
Learning to strum a guitar correctly is a skill that takes time and dedicated practice. Many beginners are tense because they have not yet gained the muscle memory it takes to strum and play the guitar while remaining relaxed. The more you practice, the easier it gets.
If you are at the stage in your guitar playing where strumming through the chords of a song is a difficult endeavor, don’t worry, you are not alone with this feeling of frustration. Most guitar players go through this stage at one point or another. Here are some tips on how you can ease the learning process.
Much of the difficulty that comes with strumming a guitar comes from being too tight or tense.
I get it and I remember the feeling. You are trying to learn a song on the guitar, and if contorting your hand to press the strings and make the chord shapes wasn’t complicated enough, you now have to somehow move your other hand up and down to the beat, only hitting the right strings at the right moment. I quit, this is impossible!
Well, first off, DON’T QUIT. It’s difficult, not impossible. You have to work on finding a way to keep yourself relaxed while playing. I still, to this day (almost 20 years of playing guitar), find myself tensing up as I play through a song. People used to tell me, “You’re too tight” or “Loosen up”. Great, thanks. How exactly do I do that?
It starts off with being aware of where the source of the tension in your guitar strumming comes from. Is it in your shoulder? Your wrist? Are you gripping the slippery pick too tightly with your fingers? Play through the easiest piece of music you know repeatedly and start to become conscious of where the feeling of fatigue or tightness is starting to form.
Then, take a five-minute break to let your muscles relax and play through that same piece of music again. This time though, really focus on keeping the areas of tension in a relaxed state. Shake your wrist out and let it flow up and down to the beat while gently raking the pick across the strings. Do your best to keep good posture, and don’t grip the guitar with all your might on your fretting hand.
The best example of a guitar player that I can think of that looks (and is) completely relaxed while playing guitar is Noel Gallagher from the 1990’s English band Oasis. Below I have added a video of Noel playing a song live at a radio station.
Notice Noel’s: Fretting Hand, Strumming Hand, Strumming Elbow, Strumming Shoulder.
Not a single ounce of tension anywhere. Just looking at him could almost put you to sleep (if the song doesn’t first.)
Ok I can’t lie, I kinda like that song….
This is how you want to look while you are playing.
Although his posture isn’t fantastic, the rest of his body language very gently screams total relaxation. He could play like this four hours and never get fatigued.
Keep this video in mind the next time you play and see if you can remove some of the tightness in your hands, arms, and shoulders. You should notice a difference instantly.
What else can we do to improve our guitar strumming?
Tap your foot to the beat of the song.
A small and simple addition you can add to your playing routine is to simply tap your foot along with the beat of the song. You would be surprised how much this actually improves your strumming and timing on the guitar. When you listen to a song and tap along with your foot, you are tapping to what is known as the downbeat.
The downbeats are the main, most powerful beats of a piece of music. Listen for a minute or so to the song Around The World by Daft Punk. Tap your foot to the beat. It will come to you quickly.
You are tapping to the downbeat.
Now, add foot tapping the next time you are strumming along on your guitar. Typically, the downward strumming motion of your hand lands on one of these downbeats.
Go back above and watch a few seconds of the Noel Gallagher video. Tap your foot along to the beat of the song. Do you notice that every time your foot hits the floor, Noel’s hand is strumming in a downward motion?
If you have a hard time seeing it, click the little “gear” shaped icon on the bottom right-hand side of the YouTube video and change the playback speed to 0.75 (this will play the video at 75% speed), and try tapping your foot along now. Interesting, right? Noel is always strumming downwards on the downbeat.
This pattern is very typical of the way guitar players write music. You’ll find this happening with most of the songs that you learn how to play. Tapping along with your foot will help your timing and help you to know when to strike the strings and change chords at the appropriate moments.
Give it some practice. It may feel slightly awkward at first, as it is another draw on your motor skills, but it is worth the effort. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen videos of Paul McCartney doing it, and it sure has seemed to work out great for him.
Don’t try to play TOO much.
When you listen to a song and play along with your guitar, you’ll notice that for most songs, the version you’re playing really doesn’t sound much like the recording. If you’re playing the correct chords or notes in time with the music, it won’t sound wrong or offensive, but it just sounds a little weak or thin. This bothered me for a long time.
One person playing one guitar is just one piece of a song. The recording that you are listening to may have 5 recorded guitar tracks all playing simultaneously. And unless you have 10 arms, it will be very difficult for you to replicate this on your own.
My point here is, don’t try and play everything you hear in a song or read in tabs along with a piece of music. When you are learning to strum the chords along with a song, you only need to match the gist of what you hear in the recording.
Play the main chords on the main changes of the song, and you’ll be doing just fine. If you are struggling with the strumming patterns of a song, you are much better off playing simple chords that are easy to transition so you can really focus on your timing and play correctly to the beat.
Stay away from strumming diagrams. Just listen to the song.
I’ve never been a fan of guitar strumming diagrams like the one pictured below.
If you are in the very beginner stages, diagrams like this may give you a little help to get your hand strumming up and down on the strings. Relying on it at any point after that, though, will be more of a hindrance than a helpful tool.
Here’s a much better way to get the rhythm pattern of a song down. First, learn how to dampen or deaden all of the strings on your fretting hand. This is achieved by lightly laying your hand across all six strings roughly around the 5th-7th frets. All you’re trying to accomplish is keeping any of the strings from ringing out.
Now, start listening to the song you are trying to learn. Start lightly tapping your foot to the beat.
Then, keep your fretting hand in the spot dampening the strings, and strum the guitar up and down while lightly raking across the strings. Work on really trying to internalize the rhythm pattern you’re hearing from the guitarist on the recording. Play through the entire song a few times with this method, just focusing on keeping the beat.
Soon enough, you’ll start to feel the groove of the song. You can also use the playback speed trick from above to slow down the song if need be.
If you can find a video of someone playing the song, it would be a great exercise to try and match their strumming hand with your own. Don’t worry about the chord changes until you can get a good grip on the rhythm.
This really comes down to just listening to what you hear in the music. Your learning curve will be much faster if you don’t rely on things like strumming diagrams to learn the strumming rhythm of a song.
Playing guitar is a difficult skill that takes many years to master. Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t get it right on the first attempt. The learning process is always going to take longer than you want it to. Just stick with it. Persistence is the key to making progress. Practice for even just a few minutes every day, and the improvement will come. DON’T QUIT.