It is normal that those who are learning how to play guitar usually have a hard time struggling with their fret hand, and as soon as they get bored of trying chord combinations or a scale, they find relief by strumming the strings. Brushing them with their fingers and listening to the sounds they´re able to make with the instruments, is part of the freedom the guitar allows when playing it.
However, it too requires a technique and the patience to master it. Here are some tips to help you start strumming your guitar like a pro in no time.
The first thing that worries beginners is whether they should use a pick. It cannot be established if playing with a pick is better than playing with your bare hands. There have been debates on this raging for decades.
We recommend playing first with a pick, as it is easier and less painful than grinding your hands against the strings the very first day. However, if you´ve decided to go with your fingers or if you do not have a pick handy, you can start strumming with your thumb and index finger and start developing calluses.
Many great players never use a pick in their lives.
For holding the pick correctly, extend your straight hand in front of you like if you were respectfully greeting someone important. Curl your index finger so it now points directly towards you. Place the pick and your thumb right on top the finger, the tip of the thumb touching the index knuckle, and the tip of the pick pointing towards your fret hand side.
Hold it steadily, but only let the tip stick out of your fingers so it won´t slip out when you´re playing. This is the basic way to hold a pick, but you will maybe change it slightly with time as you experiment. Do not squeeze the pick too hard, just hold it tightly enough so it won´t go off flying when you´re strumming.
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You should be holding the guitar correctly as well. It should be right against your chest and stomach, and its waist or indentation on the leg that is farthest from the headstock. Your bicep should rest on the side of the guitar, holding it against your leg, and tilting the guitar slightly upwards. Your strumming hand must be able to reach the sound hole, and your elbow should point to the upper corner of the guitar body.
Now the key to a good strumming is in the wrist. You should also try to remain relaxed while you´re playing. Most beginners strum only from their elbows, while their wrists remain stiff, and this is a bad sign. A good strumming should show more wrist movement than elbow movement. A good analogy that would describe how the arm should move is to imagine you are holding a burning stick and you´re trying to put the fire out by shaking it.
The correct place to strum the strings is almost anywhere between the neck and the bridge. However, the sound obtained varies greatly. When you strum close to the sound hole and neck, you obtain a fuller and bass-y sound, while strumming close to the bridge gives a brittle and harsher sound. You are free to find the right spot that gives the sound you desire.
You should first learn how to do uniform down strokes. Pick an easy chord, and try to get a clean sound with no muted nor buzzy strings. Now start stroking downwards in uniform beats. Each stroke should sound as one big chord, and not a collection of consecutive notes. Keep stroking downwards keeping a slow tempo, maybe one stroke per second. Once you get a defined uniform sound, you can start changing the chord every four beats. Try not to lose your tempo as you change chords.
After a while, you should try the same exercise but with upstrokes. Do not forget to listen for buzzy or muted strings. If you hear one, adjust your fret fingers accordingly without stopping you strumming hand.
Lastly, you can combine downward and upward strokes. Always start downwards and then go up. First do one stroke per second, alternating down and up movement (Down/up/down/up/down/up/down/up). Once you get used to it, then do it in half the time, doing one down stroke every second.
Stroking can be done in many interesting ways too. For example, you can keep your up-down wrist movement, but just skip some of the strokes. This adds rhythm to what you´re playing. For example, skip the first two up strokes, and then the third down stroke. The result should be: Down-down/up-up/down/up. Your hand is still going up and down every beat, you just “miss” the strings. This is the base for one of the most used guitar rhythms in Rock and Roll history, and it sounds very cool.
One other way to add variety to your sound is to mute the strings while you strum. Place the side of your strumming hand on top of the strings right next to the bridge. Do not push the strings, but make sure that your hand touches all of them. Now start strumming trying to keep your hand in place. This is called a palm mute, and it adds a percussive sound to your strumming. You can also use your fretting hand to mute the strings by releasing the pressure on the strings while doing a chord, or covering the fret board with all your fingers.