Groove Like It's 1990

Steel Groove: 90's Style Acoustic Rock Rhythm
by David Isaacs

A good groove hits you in the gut and makes your body move. It’s a visceral thing, felt as much as heard. Your foot starts tapping, your hands drum on the steering wheel, and next thing you know you’re dancing in your car sitting at a stoplight.


Your acoustic guitar is actually a groove machine... if you know how to use it! Lots of songs open with a single rhythm guitar laying down the groove, to set the tone for the song and draw the listener in. So this weekend we’re going to take a look at three definitive acoustic guitar intros in a 90’s rock style, using simple chord shapes and strong, driving rhythms.

As you might imagine, your strumming hand is the key. But the first thing to get clear on is that your goal here is more than just memorizing a strum pattern. When you really master the concept, you realize that every rhythm actually comes from the same movement: swinging the hand back and forth. The difference is in when you choose to hit the strings, and how much force you put into each pick stroke.

As an exercise, start off with a simple A chord and set up a slow, steady beat: one, two, three, four, strumming all down strokes. Tap your foot or nod your head to keep time. Now as you continue to keep the beat, divide each one mentally into fours and swing the hand lightly back and forth to play sixteenth notes. It may help to speak these syllables out loud:

1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a

The trick to this is to keep the wrist loose. The hand should actually rotate slightly with each strum, so that the tip of the pick forms an arc. Instead of moving the arm up and down, twist the forearm almost like you’re turning a doorknob (but don’t move as much). This can be tricky at first, and you might feel like you’re going to drop the pick. But as you experiment you’ll find that using the whole arm is too loud and too clunky. It’s a blunt instrument, and we need more precision. Focusing on the wrist lets you move smoothly, and makes the subdivisions of each beat easier to articulate.

Now let’s try some variations. You’ve established the down-up-down-up of the repeated sixteenth notes.

Strum 1

Notice how the back-and-forth of the hand matches the pairs of 16th notes. So every down stroke is on the beat, and every upstroke is on the upbeat. Here’s what happens when we change up the rhythm.

Strum 2

Now we have an eighth note followed by two sixteenths, or a longer note and two shorter ones. To stick with the pattern we’ve established, the hand keeps moving but only strikes the strings on the first, third, and fourth subdivisions of the beat. This would sound like one ( e ) - and – a.

When the rhythm accentuates the offbeats, we get repeated upstrokes.

Strum 3

Now we’re striking the first, second, and fourth subdivisions. This would be one – e – ( & ) – a. See how the pattern becomes down - up - (swing ) – up.

Now let's take it one step further.

Strum 4

This is getting closer to our real musical examples. To play the rests, swing the hand but don’t strike the strings, and notice the series of upstrokes:

one – e – ( & ) – a - (two) – e - ( & ) - a - three.

So basically, the hand moves consistently back and forth in groups of four, striking the strings when there’s a note and missing the strings when there’s a rest.

Take a look at exercise 1, in the style of Jane’s Addiction.

Exercise 1

We’re using simple open position G and A chords, but play the A as a one-finger barre across the second fret so you can reach the D triad embellishment at the fourth beat of bar one. Continue to hold the barre and add the middle finger on the second string, third fret, while the ring finger lands on the fourth string, fourth fret. Lift the two fingers immediately off to return to A with the next upstroke.

Before we get to that, through, notice the two sixteenth rests in beat two. The hand keeps moving, but we’re only bringing out the first and fourth of the four sixteenth notes in the beat. Following our strumming rule, here’s the strum for the first two beats:

Down – (up) - down- up - Down - (up - down) – up

Beat three starts with a rest, so again we’ll miss with this down stroke and play the second half of the bar like this:

(Down) – up - (down) – up – Down – up

It can be tricky to break things down this far, but listen to the slow example and it should be a little clearer.

But wait, you might be saying. I’m listening to the example and I hear more strums than that. This is correct, and leads us to possibly the most important factor, the dynamics, or how hard you play each strum. You can strike the strings lightly on the in-between beats to add percussion without accenting a note. So in fact, your pick might be hitting the strings all the time, but so lightly on the in-betweens that we don’t really hear the chord but just the sound of the pick hitting the strings. Think of it as a drummer’s light stroke on a closed hi-hat. Let’s call these “ghost strums” because they’re barely there, but they add a lot of movement to the rhythm.

You may find that it’s easier to just skip the strings entirely on the in-betweens while you master the strum technique. The most important thing is to hear and feel the accented rhythm first, then add the ghost strums to fill in the gaps. Listen closely to the examples and you’ll hear this in action.

We have a very similar rhythm in example 2, in the style of Jack Johnson:

Exercise 2

The pattern is very close to example 1, with just a slight variation. In this one, though, we’re using barre chords exclusively. We ise a 5th position D minor (A shape, 5th string root), 5th position F (C shape, 5th string root), and a 6th position Bb (E shape, 6th string root). The advantage to barre chords is that we can release the pressure in the fretting hand to add muted-string percussion as well as ghost strums. We had a little bit of this in example 1, but it’s a little more challenging with open chords. You can mute the strings when fingering an open chord by flattening the fingers out just a little to stop the strings from ringing. Try adding this element last, after you’ve mastered the ghost strums. Example 2 uses both ghost strums and muted strings. You'll need to listen closely to the example to hear the difference.

Example 3 is a bit more challenging but a lot of fun to play, in the style of Dave Matthews:

Exercise 3

Note the absence of chord symbols, because there are added notes in each chord that make the sounds a little more ambiguous. But we start off with the same flat-finger A chord we used in example 1 to play the opening, using the ring finger to play the pull-off at the second beat. But then we immediately release the chord, plant the ring finger back on the third string, and glide on up to the 9th fret. Strum the fretted note and the open B and E strings as a three-note chord.

Bar 2 works off the same A shape, using the middle finger to play the bass note G on the 3rd fret before planting the index finger barre. Note the eighth rest at the second beat which gives us a moment to move the index finger to the second string to play the half-step bend up and back down before finishing the descending scale.

This one is quite a bit more challenging because it moves around more, but the concept is the same. Constant strumming motion, sometimes striking the strings strongly, sometimes lightly, and sometimes not at all.

None of these are terribly challenging, though, and best of all the strum concept is something you’ll use consistently to play intricate rhythm parts. Master this technique and you’ll be able to groove as hard as any drummer. It’s a great feeling when you can get a room full of people dancing with just your guitar. You might not master the big concept in a weekend, but the parts themselves should fall under your fingers pretty naturally. This is the best kind of weekend exercise, specific patterns that sound like real songs but also teach a bigger concept you’ll continue to use again and again! Now off to the woodshed, and we’ll see you next week for another edition of Weekend Warrior by JamPlay!

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Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joining us for another edition of Weekend Warrior with our guest author David Isaacs!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Liepe

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.

David Isaacs is a JamPlay instructor and frequest guest author for the Weekend Warrior series.

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