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"Rhythm Strumming for Guitar"
by Richard Middleton

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 upstroke.

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 them.

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 own. Enjoy!

Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).