Strumming on the guitar

Alex Partington, Guitar Tuition

Strumming on the guitar for beginners.

When strumming on the guitar there is quite a lot going on that you have to consider.  When teaching, I advise to strengthen the left hand first by practicing the chord shapes with a strumming pattern that’s easy to understand.

An efficient way to practice the open chords is by preparing the left hand to play on beat one of each bar which gives enough time to manoeuvre the left hand into position. Some chords are easier to change to and from whilst others are naturally more challenging. But there’s always a way to make it make sense. 

I would encourage you to think of chords as shapes a bit like a game of chess. What shapes do you see and how can you change the chord with out moving away from the strings?

How do I hold a plectrum?

Normally, you hold a plectrum between the thumb and index finger with the tip of the pick facing towards the strings.

There’s holding the pick flat against the string which is perfect for normal strumming techniques and then there’s holding the pick at a 45 degree angle to the string. This allows you to play single string riffs faster as well as being able to play pinched harmonics. You can learn more about harmonics on guitar here.

beginner strumming

How not to change chords when strumming

Overtime, I have witnessed a lot of new students changing chords by lifting the fingers away from the fretboard and then placing their fingers down on the correct notes / frets. 

This method delays the chord change’s reliability and effects the confidence of being able to change in time between count four and count one of the next bar.

Eventually you’ll want to hold down the chord and let the notes ring for the duration of four counts. This involves keeping the pressure down on the fret board.

Practicing strumming with a metronome

The slower the bpm (beats per minute) the harder this will be to achieve because you have to maintain the pressure for a longer duration. 

You do however have a bit more time to think about the changes ahead. Guitar playing is all about thinking ahead rather than what you’re doing in the moment. 

To start with, you’ll probably want to lift off the pressure (whilst still touching the strings) from the chord in the left hand earlier than beat four simply to have a break and to get used to preparing the left hand for the next chord.

Try not to lift the fingers away from the fretboard but do try manoeuvring into positions by brushing across the strings. 

When practicing as a beginner guitarist

It’s worth spending quite a bit of time at the beginning of your guitar journey trying to keep the pressure down for the entire four beats. There’s also no harm in going at a slow pace such as 40 – 60 bpm. 

Once you can comfortably change between chords at these slow speeds changing chords at a faster tempo is actually quite a bit easier once you’re used to it. But only if you’ve practiced it correctly at a slow speed first.

Encourage the left hand not to leave the strings even when changing chords. This is because at faster speeds changing chords like this won’t work. 

You might even be able to change the chords at a reasonable speed such as 100bpm but eventually you’ll find that you’ll have to slow the motions down again to practice changing chords more efficiently if you want to be able to strum faster. It might only be 20bpm slower but worth the effort.

Coordinating the right and left hand

If you’re struggling to coordinate the right and left hand whilst strumming another tip is to strum on the correct beat anyway and then the left hand will learn to catch up. 

There may be ‘errors’ whilst changing the chords e.g. you’re moving your fingers away from the fret board a bit too much, but as long as you’re aware of what it is you need to do you can practice the way you change your chords rather than practicing the tune that it is you’re working on. 

If you’re experiencing fret buzz whilst playing some of the chords the chances are that you’re placing the fingers in the middle of the fret rather than just behind the metal. 

Note placement on the fretboard

Assuming you’re looking at the guitar’s neck whilst holding the guitar you want to play most of the notes to the right of that fret at any given time. This way you’ll then achieve a clearer sounding note, rather than if you were to place the note in the middle of the fret or to the left

One reason you’ll be forgiven for placing the note down in the middle of the fret is that a lot of chord and scale diagrams indicate that you should because that’s where they’ve visually represented the dots for you.

I hope now that you’re armed with this new knowledge you’ll now enjoy cleaner notes every time whether you’re strumming or playing your favourite riff. 

Thumb position for the left hand

strumming for beginners

It’s worth mentioning that whilst playing chords there are a lot of different hand positions that alter from chord to chord. After a time you probably won’t even realise how many hand positions there are for each chord. You can also play chords across the entire fretboard too. 

For instance, the thumb of the left hand should most of the time be in a thumbs up position half way on the fretboard. With the middle knuckle of the thumb pushed in. 

The thumb’s position and angle will move depending on what chord or technique it is you’re doing at the time. But as a general rule half way along the neck of the guitar is where the support for the front of the hand will come from

Another tip is to push the wrist of the left hand forward preparing you for the barre chord later on in your guitar playing. This technique will eventually allow you to place down barre chords that cover anything from 2 strings to 6 string chords. 

Another top tip.

Check whether or not you’re using the fingertips of the fingers and not the finger pad when playing single notes or chord shapes. To use the finger tips, make sure you’re pushing the knuckles of the finger tips out. Although uncomfortable to start with this transfers the needed strength from thumb to finger tips. 

The finger pads are used for when playing notes that are on the same fret and across two or more strings.

Right Hand strumming techniques.

That’s quite a lot of information about the left hand’s technique when learning to strum. It might be worth re reading some of this information once you’ve had a go. But with that in mind lets talk about the right hand. 

There isn’t as much to say about the right hand’s strumming technique when compared with the left hand fretting technique. But there are a few pointers worth mentioning for you to consider. 

Strumming should be the first thing that guitarists should learn and perhaps you did, you might now be revisiting as you’ve gotten so good at another style and perhaps you’d like a few pointers for the right hand. 

Let us talk about what kind of plectrum to use. I’ve seen quite a few videos that suggest to use a skinny plectrum for strumming and a harder plectrum for alternative picking. Honestly I can’t believe some of the videos out there but it really does come down to what you prefer. 

I quickly encourage the use of the thicker plectrum as it helps the learner to avoid the rattling from the pick as you strum across the guitar strings. Because skinny plectrums are usually flimsy it’s easy to forget that you’re actually holding one after a while. 

Avoiding plectrum rattle whilst strumming

beginner strumming

Avoiding the rattle of the plectrum when strumming by gripping between the thumb and index finger firmly enough, usually solves the ‘plectrum rattle’. You also want a fluid motion from the wrist and not the elbow.

Another technique, is when strumming a D major chord with an up stroke you’ll want practice resting the pick against string 5 on before strumming the down stroke again. 

Eventually you’ll be able to create (what I like to call) a ‘J’ movement so that you won’t need to rest against string 5. 

You’ll naturally curl the plectrum from between the strings so that you no longer need to rest on the string above, allowing you to prepare for the down stroke. A good way to practice this technique is to choose a chord that uses all six strings  without worrying about the string above.

You can also practice any strumming pattern without worrying about the chords by muting the strings with the left hand. You can strum all strings but it’s perhaps better to strum the strings that you would need as if you were playing that tune. 


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