Acoustic Guitar Guide to Strum Mastery Part 6

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Published on 11-7-2016
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As we've been discussing in the previous installments of this series, once you've mastered certain techniques you will undoubtedly want to start putting all of the pieces together so that you can use them in your playing. Of course, if you haven't quite achieved the desired level of control with them you may want to continue practicing until you feel comfortable playing each of the techniques discussed previously. In lieu of this, it may very well be beneficial to go back and read the previous five installments so that the new material discussed herein will not upset your apple cart, so to speak. We'll begin this installment by discussing a fairly challenging technique I like to call the muted snap strum.

Muted Snap Strum

As discussed previously, the fine art of palm muting can take some practice but can be used in numerous different applications once you've got the hang of it. Recall the “race car” manner of palm muting that we discussed in part 4 of this series. If you don't remember it or are having difficulties with this technique please review that article and practice the race car until you feel comfortable with it. We'll be using that manner of muting repeatedly so it's even more important that you have a good grasp of it.

Hopefully you all recall what I am referring to when I indicate a snap strum but if you don't, just think of it as a down-up strumming motion across the strings of the guitar. But rather than simply consecutively strumming a down strum and an up strum, the strums come together as if you have a huge rubber band on your shoulder bringing your strum arm back immediately after strumming down and “snapping” your arm back up. Consequently, the snap strum is one deft motion down and up across the strings of the guitar and could even be viewed as one strum covering both down and up.

For those of you who already know how to do this, you may want to take your snap strum to the next level by keeping certain specifics in mind. First of all, the manner that you strum upward can be the key piece of a snap strum in lieu of the fact that most people struggle with the up strum and not the down. By paying attention to the manner in which you're holding your pick, the type of pick and how tightly you're holding it you can dictate the relative success of your snap strum. These issues should all fall under the category of review but it's of the utmost importance that you learn to master the snap so that you can move to the next level of strumming, the muted snap strum.

There is more than one way to create the muted snap strum but I have found one particular manner to be quite effective. Here's how you do it! Let's start with a barre chord so that we can strum across all of the strings and not have to worry about that facet of playing while we're focusing on the strum:

F#m (2nd fret)
E_2_
B_2_
G_2_
D_4_
A_4_
E_2_

Get comfortable with playing this chord if you haven't already done so and warm up with it by strumming for several moments. Now, forming your strum hand into the race car position, practice muting the chord, remembering to work on changing your level of muting periodically. This will allow you to master the ability to change the relative amount of muting that you're doing on the fly.

Percussive Pop!

A key piece of the muted snap strum can be referred to as a “Percussive Pop!” or the ability to use the strings of the guitar in a percussive manner. Practicing this activity by itself can help you to grasp the overall concept of the muted snap strum more readily. With your hand in the race car position strike the strings with your hand from about one inch (a little more if desired) above the strings. In other words, hit the strings with your hand from directly above them in order to both mute them and create sound as well. Your hand should fall down onto the strings covering all six, or twelve if you're a twelve-string strummer. The sound you create should be similar to the sound a guitar makes when you strum with all of the strings muted, resonant but not ringing out.

Don't be afraid of hurting the guitar unless you're playing an antiquated instrument that may already be damaged. Most guitars can take more punishment than you might imagine and will respond well to a little bit of percussion. Practice striking or popping the strings multiple times making sure that your hand is at least an inch or so above the guitar in order to get a nice sound out of the strings. This is an important piece of the muted snap strum in lieu of the fact that if you are not a decent distance above the strings you will not be able to get an ample amount of sound out of the guitar when you slap it.

Transition Strumming

Now strum the F#m chord in a downward fashion without any muting, the muted portion of this technique is yet to come. Strum the chord and then on the way back up snap the strings as you would in a normal snap strum. This time try to only strum the highest two or three strings. In other words, avoid strumming all of the strings on the up strum. The reason for this is that you will be using the energy from the remainder of your up strum to strike the strings percussively (the pop!) and this action will need to occur in one smooth motion. Practice your snap strum focusing on creating a smooth strum and only strumming the G, B and E strings or even just the two highest. In a sense, you're using the up strum as a transition into the pop rather than using it as a full-on strum.

On the up strum you can angle your strum upward (of course) but outward as well, away from the guitar. Doing this can help you to create the distance you need in order to make a good percussive slap which will help to create an audible effect on the strings. As mentioned, not enough distance away from the strings and your slap won't be audible and the effect will be diminished.

In summary, there are three integral pieces to the muted snap strum:

1. A smooth downward strum.

2. An up strum that is brief and covers only the highest strings. This variety of up strum is an important part of this technique as well others that require a quick, brief transitional strum.

3. The percussive pop!
Putting it all Together

By themselves, the pieces of this technique aren't all that exciting so it's important to develop each phase individually so that all the pieces fit together in one cohesive unit.

The first portion is easy, just a simple down strum, but it's important that you're ready for the next two parts as they are undoubtedly the meat of the technique. Consequently, when you're doing the down strum, you need to be ready both mentally as well as physically to do a quick, brief up strum into the percussive pop. Practicing the up into the pop is likely the most helpful here, because as mentioned, they need to be done in one smooth, deft motion. So, your sound throughout the two latter portions, up and pop will be as such: up-pop!, up-pop!

There is no pause and there is no space in between the two but simply a smooth transition from the brief up strum into the percussive pop. That's why your up strum is both brief, covering only a couple strings and angled outward slightly. The up strum is the lynchpin for the entire technique and as such needs to be nearly perfect to master truly master it.

Let's try the strum again with a set of chords to give you a little better idea of how the muted snap strum can be applied in a real-life setting. Let's use 3 simple chords so we can focus on the strum and not so much on chord formation:

Em
E_0_
B_0_
G_0_
D_2_
A_2_
E_0_

D
E_2_
B_3_
G_2_
D_0_
A_X_
E_X_

C
E_0_
B_1_
G_0_
D_2_
A_3_
E_X_

Play the three chords using one phrase (a phrase equals the down strum, up strum and percussive pop in this case) for each chord. Remember to incorporate the snap strum into each phrase, that is the up strum into the pop. The better you're able to grasp that particular piece of the technique the better you will be able to incorporate the technique into your playing. Getting the idea firmly set in your brain that those two pieces should be played as one will help you to nail this technique without too many problems. Think of it as up-pop up-pop up-pop!

Tapping to Keep Time

Many people struggle with getting the timing right, especially when it comes to more difficult types of strum patterns. Tapping out the beat on the body of the guitar (or elsewhere for that matter) can be very helpful and can help to create a firmer grasp of the relationship between each beat and each portion of the strum pattern.

In the case of the muted snap strum, there are three distinct parts of the strum: the initial down strum, the brief up strum and the percussive pop. If you were going to tap out the beats for this strum pattern you would tap like this: tap, tap-tap, where the last two taps are successive and fall quickly one after the other. Practice tapping out various beats making sure that your tapping directly reflects each beat in the strum pattern precisely, including any pauses or the lack thereof.

Transitional Strumming

There are numerous ways to transition from one point to the next within any given song in terms of one's manner of strumming as well as the technique employed to get there. As we discussed, the second part of the muted snap strum can be viewed as a transition to the percussive pop in lieu of the fact that it's so brief and only covers the highest two or three strings. The strum is intended to be a flash, a brief passing over the strings and as such can be viewed as a transitional strum to the next part. Using strums of this variety can be very useful to speed up some of your strum patterns or add quick rhythmic strums to help you keep time. But it's important to practice this in lieu of the fact that it's so very different from a traditional strum. Take some time and repeat the up strum making sure that you're only playing the highest 2 or 3 strings and that you are simply brushing your pick (or hand for that matter) over the strings. A fast and smooth transition strum will allow you to get to the next piece of the technique more efficiently.

Ghost Strumming

Ghost strums are another variety of transition strumming, which are typically strums that do not touch the strings but glide over the tops in time with your strum pattern. In other words, as you strum a particular sequence such as down down-up down, you can substitute one or more of your strums with ghost strums, thus eliminating a strum in your pattern and opening it up, so to speak. Ghost strumming is a way to keep time and develop fluidity in your strum patterns without coming in contact with the strings of the guitar. There are a number of reasons to do this and we'll cover some of them here.

I. Function

One of the most important reasons to use the ghost strum is utilitarian in nature. It is simply to get your strum hand from point “A” to point “B” without actually touching the strings. This can be especially important if one part of your rhythm ends on an up strum causing your hand to be near the low E string, while the next begins with an up strum which requires your hands to be near the high E string. In other words, you need to have your hand in a given spot by the time the next beat begins and you don't want to have an audible strum in between.

This brings to light an important note about the importance of not over strumming. When most of us begin to play the guitar, we have the tendency to strum too much. Many of our patterns are simply up down up down patterns with little deviation and often way too many strums. Ghost strumming allows your hand to move without coming in contact with the strings when you don't really want to, but gets you where you need to be when you need to be there.

Let's consider a strum pattern that alternates. That is, the amount and variety of strums that you're incorporating changes from one chord to the next although in a predictable pattern. Let's use the chords D, A, C and G (D and C are tabbed above).

A
E_0_
B_2_
G_2_
D_2_
A_0_
E_X_

G
E_3_
B_0_
G_0_
D_0_
A_2_
E_3_

On the D and C chords (the first and third in the progression) we'll play down down down-up and on the A and G (the second and fourth in the progression) we'll play up up-down, up-down. You will hopefully notice that the last strum on the D and C chords is an up strum, while the first strum on the A and G chords is also an up strum. So how do we get our strum hand back down where it needs to be to do consecutive up strums. The answer: a ghost strum!

So here's how it's done. Get used to the strum pattern listed above with the four chords indicated. When you get to the point at the end of the D chord when your strum hand is at or near the low E string, move your hand quickly back down towards the high E string without touching the strings, to ready yourself for the next series of strums. This is the ghost strum and will allow you to move smoothly and quickly without adding an extra strum or losing your time signature.

II. Form

You can also eliminate strums and substitute ghost strums in what I like to call a quantitative change. In other words, you are eliminating strums to streamline your strum pattern and introduce more space between strums. This process can truly help to beautify strums and reduce strum clutter which can make rhythms sound clunky and busy.

Let's take a simple strum pattern like down, down-up-down using the four chords listed above. Play the rhythm with the above pattern a few times and then substitute the second down strum with a simple tap on the body of the guitar at or around your pick guard (if you have one). So now your strum pattern looks like this: down tap up-down. You have substituted one of your down strums with an empty space marked by the tap on the body of the guitar. Try this numerous times making sure that your tap stays in time with your rhythm and takes the place of your missing strum. And in truth, you don't even necessarily need to tap but it can be helpful to make sure that you aren't losing time when you eliminate a strum.

This is an example of a ghost strum that can help to reduce the number of strums in a given rhythm to improve your overall sound or just to change things up a bit. We'll discuss other uses as well as the importance of ghost strumming more in the future.

The Vast Continuum

This point brings to light the notion that you can have a wide range of strum types within a given strum pattern. On one end of the spectrum you can have more heavy handed strums, fast and rockin' strums and on the other extreme you can have light, flash strums serving as transitions into other strums and finally ghost strums. In truth there are almost infinite shadings in between as well. Developing a wide range of strums will help you to develop subtlety and finesse in your rhythms and help you to improve your overall sound as a rhythm guitar player.

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