Strumming patterns are one of the most challenging aspects of learning how to play guitar. As a guitarist starting out, it’s easy to focus mainly on your fretting hand. I mean, of course, you want to play the right notes! That’s obviously important. But that’s only half the battle. Playing the right notes at the right time is equally important.
Time is rhythm. You can play the right chords all day long, but if you don’t play them at the right time, the music simply won’t feel right. It’s crucial to develop a solid strumming hand. Without it, your playing will be missing its heartbeat.
The strumming hand is responsible for driving the song. When playing chords, you’re playing rhythm guitar. Alongside bass and drums, you are part of the rhythm section. And while playing solo, your strumming hand becomes even more important.
3 Concepts to Know
To keep this explanation simple, we will be using songs in 4/4 time (also referred to as common time because it’s the most popular time signature). This means there are 4 quarter notes in each measure. How many quarters in a dollar? You get it…
A measure (or bar) is a unit of time with a specific number of beats. In 4/4, we have 4 beats.
Down Strums and Up Strums
A down strum is exactly what it sounds like. You take your pick (or fingers) and strum down starting on the low strings. An up strum is the opposite. You take your pick (or fingers) and strum up from the high strings. For the following examples all down strums will be on the beats 1, 2, 3, or 4. Up strums will be on the “ands” between the beats.
So let’s break it down.
Below is the first strumming pattern I give my students. It’s as simple as it gets. Four down strums on 1, 2, 3, 4. Once you reach the end, switch chords. This is used as an intermediary pattern to help get comfortable with transitions. Since this is really used to work on chord changing, I don’t ask students to use a metronome. If you’re just starting out, this is SUPER useful. You might practice this with a chord progression of G / Em / D / C.
Metronome did you say? YUP! If you haven’t already, download a metronome app to your phone. This is one of the best tools to improve your strumming. Any metronome will do. The free one I use is called “Pro Metronome.” It does everything you need!
For the following patterns, you do not need to play all the chords in the song to practice the pattern. This is important. Pick one chord to practice with – whatever chord you feel the most comfortable playing. Playing just one chord allows you to focus on what’s happening with your strumming hand. Count out loud, “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.” The arrows indicate down strums and up strums.
Below is the strumming pattern for “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. This pattern is versatile, useful, and extremely popular. It’s important to add this pattern to your strumming arsenal. The song is played at a tempo of 151 BPM (beats per minute). I suggest dropping the BPM to 50 to begin practicing the pattern. Increase BPM as you get comfortable.
Below is the strumming pattern I use for “Smile Like You Mean It” by The Killers. This pattern is even easier than the previous one. Besides the “and” of 1, you’re strumming down and up consistently. I like to use this with the chord progression of G / Am / Em / Em. But again, just use one chord until you’re comfortable with the pattern. The BPM for this song is 125. I suggest dropping the BPM to 60 and working your way up!
Although strumming patterns can be tricky and aggravating, at the end of the day, it’s all a series of up strums and down strums. If you slow down and take your time (heh), they will become second nature. Don’t neglect your strumming hand. It will do wonders for your playing!