Acoustic Guitar Guide to Strum Mastery Part 7

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Published on 11-11-2016
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Ghost Strumming

We began to talk about ghost strumming in the last installment of this series and how we can use such a technique to improve the overall sound of our strum. Ghost strumming, as you might recall, is the process whereby you “skip” a strum in order to reduce the amount of strums in a given pattern or move from one place to another without actually touching the strings. Let's look at the first example and the importance of reducing the amount of strums in a rhythmic sequence.

There is undoubtedly a subjective element to what is the right number of strums or what sounds “good” in any given strum pattern. And while one person might prefer less strums per measure, another may like a constant flurry of strumming. It's important to recognize the difference between a few sparse strums and constant, perhaps way too busy strums. So how do you know what's best for you?

A good way to go about this process is to experiment. Try playing a down, down up down strum (d dud) pattern to begin with. Use these chords:

Em
E_0_
B_0_
G_0_
D_2_
A_2_
E_0_

G
E_3_
B_0_
G_0_
D_0_
A_2_
E_3_

D
E_2_
B_3_
G_2_
D_0_
A_X_
E_X_

A
E_0_
B_2_
G_2_
D_2_
A_0_
E_X_

Focus on the downbeat of the pattern, which is the initial down strum, and place emphasis on that first strum either by playing the strum slightly harder than the others and/or by tapping your foot. This process will help you develop a feel for the rhythm and will help you keep close contact with the rhythm when we start to eliminate strums from our pattern. This is an important point. In order to eliminate strums in your strum pattern, you will need to be able to keep time and maintain the overall integrity of the groove. Make sure that you're making clean contact with all of the strings and that you're not muting anything.

Now, eliminate the very first strum, but tap your foot in place of it so that you're still maintaining the initial downbeat even without a strum. You can also “strum” but without coming into contact with the strings. This is often referred to as a "ghost strum." In effect, you're keeping time on the guitar without any contact with the strings. Your strum pattern now becomes ghost-strum, down up down or in notation form G DUD. Practice this numerous times until you feel comfortable with leaving the strum out.

Now let's try leaving out the second strum and replacing it with a ghost strum. This might be a little more difficult for some, but it creates a very cool effect in lieu of the silence that you are now introducing into the pattern. One way to keep time while eliminating strums is to tap on the body of the guitar at or near the pickguard. This helps to keep a clean count of the beat without a strum.

So, strum your first down beat or the first strum of your rhythm. Then do a ghost strum downward. When your hand reaches the region at or near the pickguard, tap lightly on the body of the guitar. Then, strum up and down again. This time, your pattern is "down, ghost strum, up, down" or notated like this: D G UD. Again, practice playing this pattern over and over again until you feel comfortable with eliminating the second strum and are able to keep time effectively.

You can use this technique with almost any rhythm. However, it works better in some applications than in others. Try eliminating the third and fourth strums of our pattern in the same manner described above and see if it works as well.

More Complex Patterns

Now, let's try this again with a more complex strum pattern. This time, let's use some more interesting sounding chords.

Em9
E_0_
B_3_
G_0_
D_4_
A_2_
E_0_

Emadd9/G
E_0_
B_0_
G_0_
D_4_
A_2_
E_3_

Em
E_0_
B_0_
G_0_
D_2_
A_2_
E_0_

E
E_0_
B_0_
G_1_
D_2_
A_2_
E_0_

Let's use the strum pattern down down-up-down-up-down down-up-down-up- down or in notation D DUDUD DUDUD. Get comfortable with this rhythm and make sure to keep time either in your head or by tapping your foot with the beat. Now, leave out the second downstrum in each pattern. Now your pattern will look like this: D GUDUD DUDUD. Again, tap on the body to replace the missing beat if you need to. I have found that even a light tap can be an invaluable when keeping my time straight, especially when using ghost strums. Now, let's step it up a bit shall we? Eliminate the first down strum of the third phrase. Your strum will now look like this: D GUDUD GUDUD. Do you notice a big difference in the sound quality of your rhythm now? Do you think that the silence you have introduced into your rhythm makes a difference and would you say it improves your overall sound? The answers to these questions is undoubtedly subjective and will need to be answered by the individual.

The truth is that it is important to be able to do all of the above. The more flexible you are as a rhythm player, the more musical situations you'll be able to accommodate. In addition, if you're able to play full strum patterns as well as assimilate ghost strums into the mix, the more interesting your playing will be to yourself as well as others.

Transition Strumming

Adding in small but nonetheless important strums into your playing can help add an extra bit of smoothness to your strum patterns. A simple "down-up" strum pattern between chords can be the icing on the cake in terms of polishing up your rhythms.

For example, using the strum pattern D GUDUD GUDUD, insert a "down-up" strum pattern or "snap strum" (see previous installments in this series for more on this) right before you switch to the next chord in the series. This snap strum must be inserted quickly and in time with the rhythm.

Now your strum pattern looks like this: D GUDUD GUDUD D-U, where the final D-U is the "snap strum." Since the snap must be assimilated smoothly into the mix and without breaking time, it's important that the snap strum is precise and brushes over the strings quickly.

One way to go about this is to play less strings in the transition strum. So, as you do your down-up strums, you can focus on the highest three or even two strings of the guitar. Try this process a few times. Focus on smooth transition strumming as well as making sure that you're able to keep the integrity of the time signature in tact as you add your transition strums.

Incorporation and Synthesis

Obviously, developing a technique like ghost strumming is useless unless you can begin to incorporate it into your playing. There are a number of small ways to tweak your playing so that this will be an easier process for you. Here's a list of fine tuning skills:

1. Strum Hand Proximity - We've discussed the importance of keeping your hand close to the strings as you strum, and this comes into play here as well. Using the race car technique (see previous installments of this series for more on this) can be very helpful in this process due to the fact that you're forced to keep your strum hand compact and in close contact with the strings of your guitar. But even if you don't use the race car, it's still helpful to keep your strum hand close to the strings so that making small changes in your strum, like ghost strumming, is easier to do quickly and without too much effort. Other techniques are also facilitated by maintaining this closeness.

2. Chord Hand Proximity - Keeping the chord hand close to the strings is also paramount, especially in terms of making smooth chord changes. Remember that your two hands should be working in tandem with one another. Consequently, maintaining close contact with the fretboard helps you make smoother chord changes, which will, in turn, allow the strum hand to do its job more efficiently. This facet of rhythm guitar also comes into play when conceptualizing finger placement during quick chord changes.

For example, leaving your pinky at or near the area that it will be needed for the following chord helps you form the chord more quickly than if it were tucked underneath the neck, or sticking up in the air. Making small changes like keeping fingers in close contact with the fretboard can make all the difference in the world when it comes to improving overall rhythmic efficiency.

3. Guitar Angle - We've discussed this topic before, but it becomes even more important when fine tuning your strum technique. The slightest change of even an inch or two can really effect the way your strum hand (as well as your chord hand) comes into contact with the strings. Finding the most comfortable angle between the guitar and your body can really make all the difference in the world, especially as you get more and more accustomed to a specific guitar. Try and move the body of the guitar ever-so-slightly by adjusting the bottom bout of the body gradually as it sits on your leg. Then, strum some chords and adjust it again. Over time you will notice that even the smallest differential in distance on your leg can make huge changes in how comfortable you feel when strumming your instrument.

4. Stick and Move - This is an expression often associated with boxing but it applies here as well. Most of us tend to get the pick caught on the strings or “crash" into them especially when we're just getting started playing. Over time, you will undoubtedly see the need to develop a more fluid approach to strumming that allows you to move with ease and smoothness over the top of the strings. This is particularly important when you start to add in techniques like ghost strumming that demand more smoothness and speed.

So how do you do it? Facets of this technique have been covered in previous installments of this series, but for the sake of brevity, we'll talk about them briefly here as well. First of all, how you hold your pick (if you use one) is incredibly important. Remember that the pick is the last thing between your hand, body, you and the guitar. As a result, the manner that you hold the pick as well as the grasp you have on it affects your ability to glide quickly and efficiently. A loose grasp, almost to the point of dropping it, produces a smoother sound and allows you to move more quickly.

The thickness and quality of the pick itself are also extremely important to your overall sound. Make sure and experiment with different picks. For strumming, I usually prefer thinner picks with some sort of raised surface to hold onto like Jim Dunlop picks. Again, the type and variety of pick is a matter of personal preference, so you'll need to try a few before you find the one for you.

Your angle of attack is important here as well. Holding the pick perpendicular to the strings produces a louder, brighter tone. Slicing the pick into the strings at an angle produces a darker, softer sound. Since less surface area of the pick is contacting the strings, the pick travels across them with ease. Something that works well for me is to allow as much of the pick surface as possible to be exposed. In other words, when holding the pick I don't cover it entirely with my thumb and first finger but rather leave some space so that the strings come into contact with the flat surface of the pick and not just the edge on my up-strums. This gives me a softer sound and allows me to move more quickly, because the pick is not creating as much friction with the strings. It can be helpful to experiment with different angles and different manners of holding the pick until you find one that really works for you. Then, over time you'll notice that you automatically hold the pick in that same fashion.

5. Arm Placement - Your physical orientation in relation to the body of the guitar plays a large role as well when it comes to fine tuning your strum technique. This is why it's important to find a guitar that fits your body and your frame. A guitar that is too small forces your arm to drape way over the body. A guitar that is too large leaves your arm hanging over the top. If your arm can't move freely and pivot from the elbow, it can take much more strength and effort to strum properly. As a result, your playing can be adversely effected and you may even develop physical problems. Playing a guitar that is the proper size is important to the development of smooth strum technique as well as to maintaining the health of your arms and wrists over the long haul.

6. Stand or Sit - This is undoubtedly a subjective issue. Some are just more comfortable playing while seated and vice versa. Ultimately, you will need to decide which works best for you. There are benefits to each. Playing while seated conserves energy and allows you to focus any and all of your strength into strumming and playing guitar.

Playing while standing, on the other hand, can help you maintain a certain level of adrenalin, which can fill your performances with energy and passion. Many also attest to the notion that it's easier and more effective to sing while standing. So, if you are a singer-songwriter, then standing may be for you. Ultimately, these are issues to be determined by the individual and will manifest themselves in your playing as you experiment with each.

Speed Training

As we fine tune our form and technique we will undoubtedly find ourselves playing faster and faster and with more precision. In addition, there are exercises that will help this process along.

Simple repetition has been a much help for me. To begin with, pick a group of chords that are familiar to you. Playing easy patterns at first is important so that you can focus specifically on your strumming and not on chord changes. Now, just put yourself in a hypnotic sort of state and just strum the chords. Focus on the various elements mentioned above and experiment with each of them until you find the right combination for you. Next, introduce your ghost strums. Make sure that you're playing in time and producing smooth sounding strums. Slowly speed up while still maintaining the integrity of each of your strums. If you find that the quality of your playing is diminishing while you speed up, then you need to slow down and practice at a slower speed. Then, once again slowly speed up. The key here is to make sure you are not sacrificing quality for quantity. After all, it's better to play slowly and with grace and beauty, than fast and sloppily. Keep in mind that maintaining your focus while strumming will ultimately help you become a more precise and faster strummer.

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