The guitar is not only a melodic instrument but a percussive, rhythmic one. Learning the strum patterns for a song is as simple as learning the rhythmic qualities of the song, then translating them to the guitar. Easier said than done though, right?
A student must learn basic strumming patterns or strum rhythms in order to adapt them into their everyday playing. This can be done with various exercises, but it is usually better for a person to learn how to play the guitar to use real song examples as their exercises.
Before we launch into our beginner strumming patterns, you will first need a basic understanding of rhythm and strumming notation. This is hardly a master class in music theory, but it will help you out immensely as you learn to play guitar on your own.
First is the concept of time in music. Time is determined by the speed at which a song or exercise is set to, then divided out into measures. The number of beats in a measure is determined by a time signature. The 4/4 (read: four-four) time signature is the most popular. There are 4 beats per measure and a “beat” is defined by a quarter note
In each measure, time is subdivided into whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and so on.
For our purposes here, we will only explore up to the eighth note subdivision and in 4/4 time.
Whole notes: 1 beat per measure. In other words, strum and count to “four” counting the strum as “one”
Half notes: 2 beats per measure. Strum on the first and third beats. This is where our strumming exercises will begin below.
Quarter notes: 4 beats per measure. Strum each beat – “1-2-3-4”
Eighth notes: 8 beats per measure. Counted “1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&”
Eighth notes will typically alternate between up and downstrokes of the pick, but can often be done with all down strums. Upstrokes will be notated with a “V” symbol.
Whenever you are working on your rhythm, it is vital that you practice with a metronome. Timing doesn’t exist without something steady determining the speed. Don’t be afraid to slow way down if you are having trouble keeping up.
Let’s now take a look at seven basic strumming patterns and song examples to accompany them.
IMPORTANT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU START: The symbols below the chords and above the slashes are the direction of the strum. The two vertical lines with the horizontal beam on top indicate a down-strum, and the “V” shape represents an up-strum.
Strum Pattern #1 – “Free Bird”
With all down strums, strum on beats “1” and “3” of the four-beat measure. A great song example using this is the beginning of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. The “D/F#” in this example, as you will hear in the song, is really just one note – the 2nd fret of the 6th string.
Strum Pattern #2 – “Another Time”
After half notes, we move to quarter notes. These are also done with all down strums but now there is a strum on all four beats of the measure. The song example here is “Another Time” by Femme Vanille. As stated before, don’t be afraid to play along with a slow metronome if you can’t keep up with the song at first.
The way the rhythm and chord structure plays out here is two strums with A, the next two strums with Em, followed by a full count of four with the D chord.
Strum Pattern #3 – “Tequila Sunrise“
Eighth notes are next on our list. The trick here is to be able to maintain consistency with your strum. Stay relaxed and let the pick brush over the top of the strings, being careful not to “dig” the strings with the pick.
Depending on speed and style, eighth notes can be strummed with all downstrokes, but usually, we start to incorporate the upstroke and alternate up and down. The time between strums needs to be consistent, not staggered or shuffled like a blues rhythm (that will be for another time).
A great example of an eighth note strum is the classic “Tequilla Sunrise” by The Eagles. There is no need to sound like a robot or a human metronome when working on this. Some strums will be louder, some softer, and some strums will miss the strings altogether – that’s perfectly OK!
Strum Pattern #4 – “Wagon Wheel“
The next set of rhythms will be eighth-note / quarter-note combinations that are quite popular in guitar music.
As you start progressing through songs and their strumming patterns, you will realize there is variation in the strumming of the performance. Try to focus on the song as a whole and the rhythm being created by all the instruments, not just the guitar.
With these next three strumming patterns and song examples, soak in the whole picture and try to fit your strumming into the overall groove that is being established.
Strum Pattern #5 – “Radioactive“
This example introduces the dotted quarter note. The second quarter note strum has a dot next to it. The dot on a dotted note adds 50% of the note’s time value. In this case, a quarter note is equal to one beat. The dot adds 50% which is a half-beat or 1/8th note. So the second beat in this example is held for the value of both the 2nd 1/4 note and the first 1/8th note of the third beat. One would count this rhythm as “1-2-(3)-&-4-&”.
Strum Pattern #6 – “Name”
Don’t let the alternate tuning and the movement of the last four measures scare you on this one. The idea with “Name” is to try and maintain consistency and tempo. The verses of the song are played at a half-time feel so the strumming is deceptively quick at first, but it’s pretty easy to get the hang of it once you establish the groove.
Strum Pattern #7 – “Who Knew”
This strumming pattern introduces the idea of syncopation which is the accentuation of the offbeat, or “up” strum. Here, we have two “&s” played back to back. In between those two “&s”, you will still strum, but miss the strings. It’s important to keep the hand swinging as you play (like a pendulum) even when you don’t hit the strings.
This last strumming pattern is probably the most used strum rhythm in the history of the instrument. You will hear this same rhythm on countless songs and for whatever reason, it seems to be everyone’s default strum. You may even hear this rhythm when it’s not actually being used. It just seems to work with everything.
Just be careful not to overdo it with this one. It is very easy to have this become the only strum pattern in your arsenal. Try to mix it up as often as you can to keep things fresh.
And remember – practice with that metronome!
Song Chart List:
Links below have full tabs (often noting the bpm) to play the entire song. At the end is a Spotify playlist that you can play along to which I highly recommend when you are ready,
Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Another Time – Femme Vanille
Tequila Sunrise – The Eagles
Wagon Wheel – Old Crow Medicine Show
Radioactive – Imagine Dragons
Name – The Goo Goo Dolls
Who Knew – P!nk
Spotify List of All The Songs Above
Recommended Further Reading
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