Acoustic Guitar Guide to Strum Mastery Part 1

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Published on 05-9-2016
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There is no doubt that learning to play rhythm guitar is an art form in and of itself. Many musicians associate the main difficulties of playing with lead breaks and scale riffs, but there are also challenges that are intrinsic to rhythm guitar. We'll take a closer look at some of these challenges and collaboratively develop some exercises that can help you create new rhythms and smooth out old patterns that you may have been struggling with.

The Importance of Posture

The manner that you sit as well as how you hold the guitar can directly affect your ability to strum. Proper posture can often correct small issues related to strumming and rhythm play. Here are some posture guidelines:

1. Sit up straight - Relaxing on the couch while you strum is enjoyable, but it can also be counterproductive to strumming the guitar. Sitting on a stool or preferably a chair with no arms provides necessary back support and leaves the space surrounding you free for maximum arm flexibility. Although there is some degree of subjectivity on this matter, the underside curve of the body should rest comfortably on your right leg, while your strum arm should sit along the top curvature of the guitar, allowing your strumming hand to fall across the back edge of the sound hole.

One issue of note here is back support and fatigue. Many guitarists complain of back and arm fatigue after only a few minutes of playing. This can be caused by poor posture while strumming and can easily be rectified (in some cases) by simply adjusting your posture. If you're having problems of this nature, try and adjust the way you're sitting and see if it helps reduce fatigue.

2. Stand up - Standing with a strap attached to your guitar is also an effective strategy that can create the ideal posture for smooth and effortless strumming. Adjusting strap length is paramount to ensure that the distance between your strum arm/hand and the strings isn't too long or too short. This will be a decision that needs to be made by the individual based on his or her preferences as well as body dimensions.

3. Angle - The relative angle of the guitar to your body can be a contributing factor as well to your overall rhythmic quality. If the guitar is positioned at too straight of an angle up and down, or if it is stretched too far in front of you, you may struggle to maintain clean and accurate contact with the strings. Try and make small adjustments and then strum, paying attention to the ease of which you are able to strum and the cleanness and quality of your sound.

I have found that the ideal pitch (for me) can be discovered by positioning the bottom bout of the body of the guitar away from me at about a 100 to 110 degree angle to my right leg. Having the guitar at a slight angle can help you gain better access to the fingerboard. It also creates a visible plane if you need to see what you're doing.

4. Sizing - Finding a guitar that fits your body size will also help you “fall into” the proper posturing, which will in turn facilitate good rhythm play. Playing multiple guitars before making a purchase, as well as speaking to a qualified sales professional can help you make a wise decision about the ideal guitar body size for your individual needs.

The size of the body dictates how far your arm hangs over and can have a direct impact on the quality of your strum as well as the subsequent fatigue that you will experience. This relationship is especially applicable over longer periods of play or while performing. Body posture is simply one facet of import that the aspiring rhythm player needs to take into consideration.

The Plectrum

Another extremely important element is the use and application of the pick or plectrum. Although some players choose to strum with their hands, the pick can be an integral element to mastering strum technique.

1. Positioning - Because the pick is the only thing between your strum hand and the strings of the guitar, it is of the utmost importance that you pay some degree of attention to how you are holding it between your fingers. Many players hold the pick with the point extended out towards the strings. This is certainly an acceptable way to hold the pick (and the superior way for lead playing) and by no means wrong, but by holding the pick with a side exposed to the strings, you may very well be able to soften the landing of the pick on the strings.

Try and hold your pick with your thumb parallel to the outer curved edge. Leave about a third of the pick's surface exposed. This manner of positioning can benefit you in two ways. Firstly, the side of the pick gives you a longer edge to work with, which can help increase strumming accuracy. Secondly, holding the pick and allowing more of the flat surface to be exposed will help soften your landing, especially on upstrokes, a facet of strumming with which many players struggle. Try and hold your pick in this manner and pay close attention to how the quality of your strum changes. You can also use your previous technique followed by this one to compare the differences.

2. Gripping - The relative tightness of the pick in your hand also has an effect on the overall sound quality that you produce during strumming. A relaxed grasp of the pick allows it to flow over the strings in a more natural manner in comparison to a tightly grasped pick. The pick should be loose, but not loose enough that it will fall out of your fingers. This effect can be achieved by experimenting with different grasps. A harsher, grating sound may be an indicator that you need to lighten up your grasp. A tendency for the pick to move about in your fingers or fall out of your grasp dictates a tighter grasp. Again, experiment until you find a good balance where your sound is smooth and pleasant and you're able to grasp the pick without slippage.

3. Pick Selection - The variety and thickness of your pick can be a major determinant in strum quality and your consequent ability to produce desirable rhythms. Many picks are too smooth to hold onto properly, especially when in full strum and with sweaty hands. Picks that are too thick are often unwieldy and more difficult to produce a smooth strum with. On the other hand, picks that are too thin are prone to break while jamming out. Finding the right pick for you and your style of playing may take some experimentation. Keep in mind that although you can use any pick (or a coin, or a piece of a used credit card etc etc etc), finding a pick that fits in with your style of playing as well as the shape of your hand facilitates the strumming process.

4. Balance - When playing with or without a pick, it's of the utmost importance that you find a balance between strumming too hard and not hard enough. This is determined subjectively by the individual and inevitably comes into the form of a range of strum volumes from a softer, subtle strum to a louder, more strenuous. In other words, you will likely develop a continuum of strum volumes that will find their way into your rhythms. Paying close attention to your sound as you play can help you find this range as well as the amount of pressure on the strings necessary to achieve the desired effect. This falls under the category of dynamics which, simply stated, is variation in sound and intensity to create a desired emotional effect. Changing the pressure of the pick on the strings and consequently the volume at which you are playing will help you gain more control over your strums and the effect they have on your listeners.

The Wrist

As usual, there are a number of ways to position the arm, wrist, and fingers to strum the guitar effectively. I have found from my years of experience as a rhythm guitarist that generating the brunt of the energy of the strum from the wrist is quite effective. In a sense, there is a circularity of motion that the wrist needs to adopt in order to work at its maximum efficiency and potential. Perhaps this circularity is more like a very narrow sphere or oval though as your wrist should be moving in a sort of elongated shape as you strum. Try moving your wrist near the strings of your guitar in an oblong pattern without actually touching them. Keep in mind that some movement from the elbow joint is essential when it comes to maintaining a relaxed strumming motion.

Now, with your pick in hand, allow your strum to come into contact with the strings. Play any chord lightly. Think of the oblong shaped strum having one side contacting the strings and the other side a small distance from the strings. The curved ends of the oblong contacts the pickguard (if you have one) and the top of the strings nearest you. This illustrates the general look of the strum. Keep in mind that there can and will be smaller and larger variations of the oblong pattern depending on which chords you're playing and what type and volume of sound you are looking for. Try to create your own oblong pattern and practice moving from the wrist.

Variations on this theme are almost infinite depending on the chords you're playing and the manner of sound that you're interested in producing. For example, if you're playing an open G chord, then your oblong pattern can be elongated to play all of the strings. However, if you're playing an open D chord, then you may not want to play all of the strings in lieu of the fact that some of those notes may sound dissonant (more on this later). So, shortening the dimensions of your strum and creating a more circular pattern may be better suited to your needs. Inevitably though, the strum should come from the wrist. If you find that your forearm is flapping around needlessly, then adjust so that your wrist is moving in the circular motion that we discussed.

Strumming from the wrist is a great way to gain a better mastery and control of your strum. It's also an excellent way to streamline so that you can play faster as well. A great exercise to gain more speed in your strum is to start strumming at a relaxed pace (you can use a metronome for this if you need to). Make sure that you are adhering to all of the guidelines laid out previously. If you are experiencing any pain or discomfort you may want to stop and/or stretch out your arm, wrist, and fingers thoroughly. Now, gradually increase your strum speed while making sure to pivot from the wrist. You should find that your strum has become more concise and easier to speed up as a result of your wrist control. The wrist is capable of amazing bursts of speed and when exercised and developed in a structured fashion, it can facilitate amazing strum patterns.

Exploring the Space of the Guitar

Many guitarists are reticent to use the entire top of the guitar to their benefit. What I mean to say is that they don't allow their strum hand to extend down into the pick guard, or if they don't have one, the space beneath the strings. This might be caused by a number of reasons, including fear of damaging the guitar or simply a general unfamiliarity with the potential for sound production of the acoustic guitar. Regardless of the reasons, it's important to be able to use the top of the guitar in its entirety in order to take full advantage of the possibilities intrinsic to the top of the guitar.

One way to begin this process is to allow gravity to take control of your strum and permit your hand to extend all the way down below the strings on each of your strums. This may be new to some players who are accustomed to controlling their strum hands and playing in smaller bursts. However, giving the strum hand leeway to simply relax and flow down across the strings and into the lower area of the guitar's top will help you create a fuller, richer sound from each strum.

Utilizing what I call the snap strum (see video lessons for more on this) is an excellent way to bring your strum back up in a timely and crisp manner and will offset your now fuller sounding downstrokes. Allowing your strum hand to extend further down also gives your hand the impetus and necessary energy to make clean and full sounding upstrokes as well, just as if your arm were pivoting on a huge rubber band. Consequently, the two strums are complementary to each other and help you synthesize a fuller, richer sound from your guitar. This manner of playing utilizes the natural kinetic energy stored in your hand, wrist, and arm and can help the aspiring player use the body's energy more efficiently. It is important to mention here that it is more than likely that strumming in this fashion will put some scratches on the body of your guitar, especially if you don't have a pick guard. So, if you're a person who is trying to maintain the integrity of the instrument for investment or sentimental reasons it is advisable that you install a pick guard or stick to smaller controlled bursts on that particular instrument.

The Short Strum

Shortening up your strums for rhythmic reasons is an excellent and multifaceted practice that can help you create unique strum patterns. Many people do this naturally, but it can be important to learn how to control it so you can dictate when and where you might want to use it. Again, think of strumming in terms of creating oblong spheres. In this case, create smaller spheres than before. In fact, it can be helpful to look at the chords you're playing and allow the construction of those chords to dictate the size of your spherical strums. For example, take the open D major chord:

D
E_2_
B_3_
G_2_
D_0_
A_X_
E_X_

This particular chord stretches across four strings, D G B and the high E creating a relatively small chord, relative to many others. Subsequently, your strum sphere should be designed to play those four strings and no others. This is an important point, since developing a succinct manner of creating your strum spheres will help you become a cleaner sounding guitar player. Playing a barre chord like this:

F
E_1_
B_1_
G_2_
D_3_
A_3_
E_1_

This is a much easier strum sphere to create due to the fact that you can simply strum all of the strings without worrying about mishitting an undesired note, right?

For smaller chords, it can be especially helpful to shorten your strums for numerous reasons. Reason one: speed! Creating smaller strums can help you to move faster if you desire to do so. Reason two: diversity! Creating smaller chords, smaller strum spheres and smaller bits of colorful sound will help you to expand the base of sounds and colors that you are creating as a rhythmic player. Reason three: ease! Sometimes it's just easier to create smaller spheres rather than big and bulky barre chords. But, how do you learn to create your spheres in a clearer and more precise manner and avoid hitting notes and undesired open strings?

Point of Strum Origin

Picking a point to begin your strum can be an invaluable tool in creating the precise strum spheres that you desire. This is done by finding the lowest note in your chord, frequently the root or tonic, and positioning your pick near or even on that string. Once you have done that, you can begin your strum from that point, allowing your strum to extend down into the pick guard with fuller booming strums, or maintain smaller strum spheres, or somewhere in between. Regardless of how long you have made your strum, you are now controlling the parameters of the sphere itself which will inevitably allow you to create the exact sound that you desire. You may be asking “well that's all well and good for the downstrokes, but how do I stop in time on the upstrokes?” That's a great question! This facet of creating strum spheres is a little more difficult and will likely take some practice, but it's certainly achievable.

Earlier in the article we discussed the inception point of making oblong spherical shaped strums away from the strings before we actually started making chords, right? Try this same exercise again. Make a strum pattern just above the strings of the guitar. This time, pay closer attention to customizing your sphere to the size of the chord you've chosen. Don't forget to play from the wrist and allow the wrist to pivot without moving your arm any more than you need to. Now, close your eyes and visualize the sphere. Feel how your wrist is moving and more specifically, how far and wide it is stretching. Developing an inner sense of your body's motion will help you evolve a stronger and more innate sense of sphere size. This is an important note as over time, you will need to stop looking at your chord hand when you play so that you can focus on other aspects of playing. Try this technique over and over again with different sized spheres. At first, measure them out to chords you want to play and then again with your eyes shut.

Now, go back and play some chords while paying attention to your point of origin. Also, keep your strum sphere uniform so that you avoid hitting undesired strings. You may struggle a bit with this initially, but over time, you will start to develop a stronger, more innate sense of creating precise spheres.

Alternating your Points

Obviously, you won't be playing just one chord over and over again, so it's important to be able to switch your strum point of origin on the fly. This is done by changing your point of origin and expanding or contracting your strum sphere accordingly. Again, try the above exercise and adjust the scope of your spheres. Remember to play from the wrist as much as possible.

One great way to conceptualize this process is by thinking of the different strings of the guitar as individual notches or grooves that your pick can slide into. This can be a helpful way of looking at this process in lieu of the fact that your pick is in a sense locking into position over and over again. Then, all you have to do is make slight adjustments to lock onto any given groove.

Move your strum hand vertically across each string. Focus on “locking” the pick into position and pay attention to the spaces between the strings. This is an important point in lieu of the fact that since your strings are now grooves in which to place the pick. There are no longer spaces in between for the pick to go (figuratively speaking of course). Move your strum hand from string to string while carefully measuring the distance visually as well as mentally.

Now, begin a strum sphere from each point, the G chord from the low E string, C chord from the A string, D chord from the D string etc etc. Again, go through the process discussed previously while making sure to play from the wrist and expanding and contracting your strum spheres as you change chords. The more you go through this process and practice using each string as your grooved point of origin, the more you will begin to develop a conditioned response to alternating your points or origin.

Synthesis

Although each component of strum mastery is integral to evolving into a better rhythm player, it's even more important to combine the various elements effectively in one smooth and cohesive package. If you find that you're just not getting the hang of the techniques discussed above, go back to the beginning and adjust your posture, or try new picks, or focus on wrist action. You may very well need to develop a checklist, whether it be written or simply in your head, to make sure that you are making the necessary adjustments and acquiring the essential mental elements to acquire these skills. Then, if you find you're just not grasping the techniques at hand you can go back and verify that you are indeed adhering to the guidelines established previously.

Future strum work including the use of more advanced techniques like palm muting, rakes, stalls and synthesizing strum and scale patterns will rely on mastery of the aforementioned skills, so it's critical that the aspiring rhythm guitarist make the necessary adjustments and master the techniques set forth to the best of their abilities.

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