How to Strum a Guitar


Click Here for JamoramaBefore we get into too much detail in how to strum a guitar, I should stress that it is important, if you have not done so already, to read the articles ‘Learn Guitar Chords’ and ‘How to Play Guitar Chords’. Once you know how to play chords the next logical step is how to strum a guitar. This basically turns chords into music. 


On first inspection when you see a guitarist who knows how to strum a guitar you may think his art form is simply about brushing the plectrum over the strings whilst he frets the chords and to a certain extent this is the case. But it is the subtlety behind this that makes strumming a guitar a powerful musical instrument. 


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The first decision is should you use a pick or your fingers. Most guitarists will use picks as you have to develop quite a hard skin on your thumb and fingers to be able to strum a guitar although skilled classical guitarists will want to intermix strumming with finger picking. For example, it is the mixture of strumming a guitar and finger picking that gives flamenco its characteristic sound. This cannot be done with a plectrum - you will need to strum with your fingers if you want to mix strumming with finger picking. However, start off with a pick. Picks come in different thicknesses with the thinner ones being easier to use. However, thinner picks tend to be louder in the hitting sound as the pick makes contact with the strings. Having said this, I would recommend you start with a thin one and switch to medium thickness picks once you’ve have learnt the basics. There are two basic ways to hold your pick. The one giving the most control is where you hold it between your thumb and index finger – this is particularly useful if you want to mix in some individual string plucks with the strums. Alternatively you can hold the pick between your thumb and the pads of both your index and middle fingers. This will give a much stronger grip and better for heavy strumming.


Let’s look at some basics of strumming to get you going. First, if you are playing an acoustic guitar you should always make sure you strum directly over the sound hole. However, on an electric guitar a range of different tonality can be experienced by strumming over different parts of the body. Many electric guitars will have multiple pick ups which may give different responses and so you can vary the tone simply by strumming at different positions along the body.


As you strum, make sure that the pick hits and leaves each string cleanly and take care not to brush the strings with your hand as you make the strumming movement. It is important that the strings ‘sing’ clearly. As you develop the art of strumming start of by aiming to make the volume of the down strokes and up strokes the same. Although as you become more advanced you may wish to vary the volume of the up and down strokes to add character to your sound, the natural strength and motion in the arm when you’re strumming will tend to make the down stroke stronger. Therefore until you become skilled in this art, practise trying to get equal volume.


Whilst you’re learning how to strum a guitar take care not to strum too hard as this can produce a poor tone to the strings. Similarly do not be too soft on the strings as this produces a ‘limp’ sound. Strum using the motion of the forearm pivoted at the elbow. Guitarists who strum by pivoting just at the wrist for long periods of time face the risk of repetitive strain injury. Finally get comfortable with the motion - develop a rhythm and pattern in your strumming. If you’re playing a piece of music that requires a ‘gap’ in the strumming keep the motion going- just lift the pick away from the strings as you do so.


Superficially strumming does not seem as impressive as guitar solos, but once you know how to strum a guitar you’ve got the tools you need to turn basic chords into entertaining music. 


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