As one progresses in their journey of learning how to play guitar, it becomes evident that this instrument is about much more than learning chords. The guitar can have a very commanding percussive presence that requires an understanding of and a knack for rhythm.
A student learning guitar can get very far without learning how to read sheet music. In fact, learning the “little black dots” is entirely optional. However, what I believe is essential to guitar playing is understanding how rhythm works, and that may require learning the basics of how to read the rhythmic portion of sheet music.
As discussed in “7 Best Beginner Strumming Patterns”, it helps to understand time value and how it is written out – whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes. Once those basic qualities are learned and applied, a guitar student can begin to shape their rhythmic skills with additional techniques and concepts.
Moving forward, we will discuss accents, basic muting techniques, a new time signature, combining picking with strumming, the shuffle, and basic syncopation which is the accenting of the off-beat or up-strum.
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 – “Glycerine”
A classic 90s song by the band Bush is an example of one of the most common rhythms in guitar music; it is certainly the most common accent pattern that is used in popular music.
Accents add a pulse to what you are playing and create a more dynamic quality. In this example, we are using all eighth notes and all down-strums. Three of the eight beats are accented which are notated with a “>” symbol. To accent a beat, simply play that beat a little louder than the rest.
This accented pattern goes like this: 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&
Another way to count it is “1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2”.
With this example, it’s best to try starting with a single chord and a metronome. Once the pulse is attained, then try the song example using power chords. Once you feel comfortable with the power chords, try the full versions of the chords: E, A, Bsus, and C#m7 and alternating up- and down-strums.
Strum Pattern #2: Palm Muted Accent
Okay, so this is the same rhythm, but with an added technique. Palm-muting allows a guitar player to exaggerate the rhythm. As there is no shortage of songs with this particular rhythmic pattern, there are many different ways to utilize it. “Use Somebody” by Kings Of Leon illustrates this perfectly.
Again, using power chords, try this rhythm with some controlled muting. The muting is done by using the outside of your palm on the pinky side. Drape the side of the palm over the strings as close to the bridge as you can. In fact, part of your hand should be making contact with the bridge. Palm-muting is notated by a “P.M.” above the chords.
When palm muting, having the hand too far forward will mute the strings altogether, and we don’t want that in this case. We just want the strings dampened. To accent a beat, simply lift the palm of the strings when you strum, only to bring the palm back down to the bridge to mute the next beat.
If you want to play along with the song further than the verses, you can open up the strumming on the choruses with the full version of the chords, alternating big down- and up-strums without any palm muting.
Strum Pattern #3 – The Shuffle
Who doesn’t like the blues? The shuffle rhythm is an integral part of blues music, thus it is an essential rhythm for genres like rock and country. The shuffle is a basic introduction to a polyrhythm known as a “triplet” which will be discussed when we dive into advanced rhythmic concepts.
This rhythm uses all eighth notes, but there is a bit of timing difference that makes it feel almost lazy. A triplet measure in 4/4 time is counted as 1-2-3 2-2-3 3-2-3 4-2-3 or “trip-a-let, trip-a-let…” The shuffle eliminates the “2” beat of the triplet set.
Since it’s not practical to write or read shuffle notation using triplets sans the middle beat, everything is written in eighth notes but with a special note at the beginning of the song indicating the eighth notes are played as a triplet rhythm consisting of the first and third note of the triplet. You can see that note at the top left.
That’s a bit of a long explanation of the shuffle rhythm, especially considering how recognizable and easy to play it is. However, in order to progress as a player, it is very helpful to know exactly what it is you are playing.
Strum Pattern #4 – 6/8 Time
Other than 4/4, another popular time signature is 6/8. This is six beats per measure with an eighth note being counted as one beat. In 4/4, eighth notes were only half of a beat and received the count of “&”. In 6/8, the count is simply 1-2-3-4-5-6.
There are various ways to play 6/8, but the most common is to accent the first and fourth beats: 1-2-3-4-5-6.
Using all down-strums and a metronome, practice this sauntering rhythm with a slow tempo and really try to get that pulse with the accents.
A song by Travis Tritt should give you a good idea of what it feels like to play in 6/8.
Strum Pattern #5 – 6/8 With a 16th Note
In 6/8, the 16th notes are half of a beat and receive the count of “&” and get an up-strum. This adds more of a percussive element to the time signature and is a very popular way to play it. You may have already found yourself playing it this way a couple of times by accident when you were practicing the Travis Tritt tune. It is a very natural way to strum in this time signature.
Switching gears to a more alternative genre, “Sidewalks” by Story Of The Year will serve as our example. The count for this will go 1 – 2-&-3 4 – 5-&-6, strumming down – down-up-down, down – down-up-down.
Occasionally (typically on the last chord of the sequence), the strumming pattern will change on the last three beats to accent the 4 – 5 – 6 with big down strums. This is a great way to add a “turnaround” to your rhythm to help keep things interesting.
Strum Pattern #6 – Pick / Strum
Things begin to get interesting when combining picking and strumming. This tends to be a more advanced concept and can get very complicated. A good way to start is to simply split your rhythm into picking the bass note of a chord, followed by strumming the rest of the chord.
I often use an instrumental version of the classic rock song “Sweet Home Alabama” to illustrate this. This is a great starting point when a student wants to learn more complicated flat-picking rhythms.
For each chord, the bass note of each chord is picked with a down-stroke twice, followed by a quarter note strum: pick-pick – strum or 1-& – 2 – 3-& – 4. The strum serves as the natural accent since a strum tends to be louder than a pick.
On the “D” chord, pick the fourth string twice then strum; on “C”, pick the fifth string then strum; then on the “G”, pick the sixth string then strum.
Strum Pattern #7 – Syncopation
The term syncopation refers to a rhythm that accents off-beats. This translates often into a pattern where the eighth notes are accented which means accenting up-strums.
Accenting an up-strum while maintaining consistency in timing can be tricky at first. It’s awkward because you are having to change the velocity at which you strum several times in one measure which can feel weird to your strumming arm.
It’s easy to fall into an unintended shuffle when doing this, so pay close attention that the down-strum that follows your up-strums doesn’t get lazy. When it gets lazy, gravity takes over and the down strum ends up being too fast which results in what sounds like a shuffle. To avoid this in this case, just pay real close attention when practicing with your metronome and a single chord.
This is also a very common rhythm, so it’s worth it to spend a lot of time getting this one right.
Hopefully, you find these exercises useful in your journey. Remember to practice with a metronome often and be very aware of how you are strumming. If you spend time being really intentional, then you get to a point where you really don’t have to pay attention anymore and just let the rhythms happen as second nature.
Spotify List of All The Songs Above
Recommended Further Reading
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