When a lot of people first learn to play guitar, they spend a good deal of time working on the hand that changes chords but very little time on the hand that strums. Generally the result is quick chord changes but only one or two strumming patterns which the player tries to fit into every song.
Developing strumming patterns that fit with the groove is really understanding about three things – musical listening skills, eighth and sixteenth notes and finally when your hand should go up and down.
Firstly – eighth and sixteenth notes. Most songs that you play along to will have a groove that follows either an eighth or sixteenth note pattern. What that means is within a bar of music, or typically a count of four your hand will move up and down a maximum of either eight or sixteen times depending on the feel for the song. Most mid tempo songs use sixteenth note patterns. Eighths are used for either slow songs with gentle grooves or really fast songs where its simply not possible to strum sixteen times in a bar.
To understand this let’s take a song like How Great is Our God and examine how to get the right pattern. We start choosing the pattern by listening predominantly to what the drummer is doing. Listen to the main kick drum and snare drum pattern and try and count along to the beats in the bar.
Next try to get your strumming arm moving at a sixteenth note pattern to see if it fits that groove. So, for every beat your arm needs to go down, up, down, up. In a four beat bar your hand will move a total of sixteen times hence sixteenth notes. Now its difficult to count that way so the way we do this in music is say “1 e & a, 2 e & a, 3 e & a, 4 e & a” (The e sounds like the e in tree and the a sounds as in abba). This rolls off the tongue pretty easily helps us to define which of those sixteenth we want to strum on and which we leave out.
So, although your arm will move sixteen times, you won’t actually strum the strings sixteen times. Below is the strumming pattern for How Great is Our God. The kick drum is on the one, the three and the three& with the snare played on the two and the four – these are where you play your down strums but if you just strum that your pattern will sound a little bit empty. The extra upstrums just provide a sense of momentum and are normally found by listening to the extra accents in the groove found by the rhythm of the high hats or the accents or ‘pushes’ in the rhythm of the vocal line.
Two key things. One – ALWAYS keep your hand moving so that the downs and ups naturally fall into place. If you stop moving it will mess your downs and ups around. Two – once you’ve found a strumming pattern that fits, don’t go changing it randomly, as it forms part of the rhythm section and if you are playing with anyone else they need to fit what they are doing with your rhythm to form a tight groove.
So the beauty of a pattern is determined as much by the spaces you create as well as the actual strumming. If you played all the down and upstrums it would be all noise.
Notice: You will naturally start with a downstrum and so every number you play will be a down strum, e has to be an up strum as you hand returns, & is always down and a is up. For eighth notes you could 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & – down up down up down up down up and you fit your strumming pattern with what you can hear in the groove.
If this is all a bit confusing on paper, you can download the Musicademy online video songlearner lesson for How Great is our God from our website which make things much clearer.
In fact, Musicademy’s worship guitar Song Learner DVDs and online lessons are a really good example of all of this – Each song contains a unique strumming pattern and many people will need to see it practically demonstrated rather than understand simply by reading an article. Try starting with the lessons I could sing of your love forever, Beautiful One, Let Everything That Has Breath. We’ve created some free handouts to go with each lesson which show the strumming pattern as well as the chords.