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Have you ever tried to strum your favorite tunes and got really frustrated because you didn't manage to get it down? You’ve seen how other more experienced guitar players make it look so easy. But it's like you have no idea how it works and it gets pretty frustrating pretty fast.
So how does one actually strum and make it look so easy? The answer is: Rhythm.
It is a solid understanding of rhythm that’s going to get you to strum like a pro.
What is really happening when strumming chords is that you are not really paying attention to how the sequence of the strumming motions are working, not in real time, anyway. What your brain does is figure out how you need to strum according to how the rhythm for the song. The brain has an amazing ability to figure this out in advance for you. The secret then is to not focus on getting the sequence right. The focus is on making sure you have a clear understanding on how the rhythm works and apply that to your strumming.
In order to achieve this, let’s focus on the basic elements of rhythm for beginners: How long notes last and how they tie in with strumming.
In music, notes can have several durations. Assuming we have a rhythm which is 4 beats long, which is true in most cases, then a whole note will last 4 beats, a half-note 2 beats, a quarter note one beat and an eight note will be a half-beat long, more on this in a second.
1. Get a metronome and put it at 80 BPM
2. Tap each beat by clapping and stomping your foot exactly at the same time as the beats produced by the metronome
3. Count the beats as you clap them by going 1,2,3,4
This is how a basic rhythm with only quarter notes sounds.
Now, to apply this to the guitar, do the same thing, but replace the clapping with down-strokes.
Press a chord and for each beat, play a down-stroke and perform all other steps described above.
It will be a bit confusing at first, but you should get the hang of it quickly.
Remember, only play down-strokes, this is very important.
Now, let’s see how eighth notes sound and feel.
1. Get the metronome again at 80 BPM
2. But now you need to imagine that each beat will have a note in between. This means that you will have a note at every beat of the metronome and a note exactly between each beat, even if the metronome does not produce a sound for this in between note.
3. To have a better feel for what I am describing, count the beat like so: 1 AND 2 AND 3 AND 4 AND 1 AND 2 AND ….
Remember to follow the steps described above for clapping.
Now that you have this down, do it with the guitar – this is where everything will come together.
Replace the clapping with strumming as previously and now play downstrokes for all metronome beats ONLY and upstrokes for all notes in between the beats ONLY.
Keep tapping your foot to the metronome beat. What should now happen is that your hand and foot should be in total sync, going up and down together.
This is how an eighth note rhythm sounds and it’s the foundation of everything you’ll be strumming for the rest of your life. Essentially, most rhythms/strumming that you hear are just an eighth note rhythm where you omit some of the notes.
Knowing how to play an eighth note rhythm is your foundation – from here on you will be able to play complex strumming patterns using this foundation.
Based in Zurich Switzerland, Gonçalo Crespo is a professional guitar teacher and musician. He has taught guitar for over 8 years covering a variety of styles but focuses mainly on getting his students to guitar playing success in the most efficient way possible. Founder of Music&Co. guitar music school, Gonçalo also offers tuition for acoustic and electric guitar.
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