First published in Victory Review, February 1999.
I often work with beginning guitarists who have learned some simple rhythmic
strum patterns by ear. For many, even though they play the right rhythm,
the music doesn't groove. This month, we'll explore some reasons for this
and what to do. The focus here is on simple down-up strumming, but the
ideas discussed can be adapted to other styles as well.
Rhythm is physical. Music that grooves makes us move, makes us sway and
dance. Why? Because there's a steady pulse in the music that we sense
and respond to, and all the rhythms are heard in relation to it. Music
that isn't groovy confuses the body, and the cause is usually confusion
in the musicians' own bodies. If they don't feel the pulse, neither will
the audience. Therefore, rhythm players must embody the pulse and the
rhythms they play. While the pulse is regular and constant, most rhythms
are not, so you must feel both at once.
When you strum, you sweep your hand across the strings, either down toward
the floor or up toward the ceiling. Many beginners prefer down-strokes
to up-strokes, or they treat the choice or down- or up-stroke as arbitrary;
it's not. When learning to strum, learn to mark the pulse in your hand
with a steady, ongoing motion: down-up-down-up, etc. Align this motion
with the pulse by counting the pulse out loud. In 4/4 time, for example,
you count quarter notes: "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4..." etc. Count
at a relaxed, steady pace, and as you say each number (i.e. each "beat"),
make a down-stroke with your hand. From now on, every beat will be a down-stroke.
Maintain this motion throughout a song, constantly marking time whether
you're hitting the strings or not. With practice, you eventually won't
need to keep your hand going like this all the time, but in the early
stages, it helps you make sense of the pulse physically.
Most strum patterns are more complicated than simply playing down-strokes
on quarter notes, often including strokes that fall between the beats.
We'll start with the simplest of these: 8th notes. Eighth notes divide
quarter notes in half (i.e. there are two eighth notes in a quarter note).
Notice that, when you play down-strokes on the quarter notes, in between
each beat your hand is doing an upstroke This is upstroke falls on what
is called the "upbeat" (as opposed to the beat). In 4/4, upbeats
are those eighth notes halfway between the beats.
To count quarters and eighths together, say the word "and"
between the numbers: "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4
and 1..." etc. The beats are the same speed as they were before,
with "ands" inserted halfway between them. It can feel as though
you're counting twice as fast as before, because you're dividing each
original beat into two parts: "1 and" in the space of the original
"1." Strum your hand in the air as you count — each
beat (number) is a down-stroke, and each upbeat ("and") is an
In modern guitar styles, there is another common way to play beats and
upbeats, and that's to make them all down-strokes. In other words, you
double the speed of your down-strokes so that everything in your count
("1 and 2 and 3...") is a down-stroke. This produces a much
more insistent sound than the down/up combination we started with. In
practical terms, the down/up style works best at faster tempos, or when
you want a lighter effect, and the down/down style works best at slower
tempos, or when you want a heavier or edgier effect.
When you use the second, down/down style, if you play the upstrokes in
between those down-strokes, you get sixteenth notes, the staple of funk,
R&B, modern rock and pop. To count sixteenth notes, you say, "1-e-&-a,
2-e-&-a, 3-e-&-a, 4-e-&a, 1-e-&-a..." etc. The numbers
and "&s" are the quarters and eighths we had before, and
the "e's" and "a's" are the upstrokes between them.
They go by pretty fast — try it.
Now play a rhythm on your guitar, perhaps one you've had trouble with.
Decide whether it's made primarily of quarters and eighths, or whether
it uses sixteenths as well. If it uses sixteenths, you must use the down/down
style. If it's only quarters and eighths, you can pick the down/up or
down/down style — whichever sounds and feels most appropriate for
the tempo and style you're playing.
Play your rhythm very slowly, and (if you can) count aloud as you play.
Keep your hand going up and down throughout, hitting the strings when
the rhythm calls for it, and silently strumming the air just above the
strings the rest of the time. Keep your hand going all the time, stroking
all the beats and upbeats, and sounding the chord only when needed.
Notice whether you're playing any upstrokes on beats, or any down-strokes
on upbeats, or if there are any hesitations or unnatural reversals in
the motion of your hand. The goal is to maintain a perfectly regular,
continuous strum motion and catch the accents in the rhythm pattern with
whatever down-stroke or upstroke is available at the proper moment.
Getting this up/down issue straight solves a lot of rhythmic problems.
By marking the beats and upbeats with a steady hand motion (either the
down/up or down/down strumming style), you can feel the pulse, and which
down-strokes and upstrokes should be used to to play a rhythm. No extra
effort is needed to get those strokes because your hand is already doing
Again, once you physically understand how to strum, you won't need to
keep your hand going all the time. But for now, do it. Be patient, don't
rush the process. As you develop your skill, use these techniques to "sound
out" rhythms that you hear on records, or that you make up on your
Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
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is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm"