A great strumming technique is an absolute requirement for any even semi-serious guitarist. Your strumming is responsible for your rhythm and timekeeping, articulation, volume, dynamics, clarity, and so much more. While your fretting hand is battling stretches and quick changes, your strumming arm can be overlooked. But it’s equally important. Get your strumming right, and you’re halfway there! Here are 5 absolute essentials of Guitar strumming:
1) Don’t Stop Moving!
Watch a Guitarist strumming on TV or on YouTube, with the audio muted. You should see the Guitarist’s strumming arm in constant motion - Down/UP/Down/Up/Down/UP. It’s unlikely (although it does happen) that the song’s strumming is that constant down-up-down-up pattern. What’s happening is the Guitarist is moving their strumming arm in that constant motion to keep solid timing and smooth strumming. On every beat, his or her arm is passing the strings downwards, then coming up to the top again on every offbeat. The strumming pattern is formed of the occasions or beats on which you choose to make contact with the strings. But don’t stop moving!
2) Find The Right Pick And Keep Hold Of It!
There are 2 elements to this point. Firstly, make sure you’re using a pick that feels comfortable for strumming. Everyone has their preferences, and if you don’t know yours yet then it’s time to set about finding out. I personally prefer a thinner pick for a an Acoustic strumming part than I do for an Electric Guitar solo, as it feels like it passes the strings with less friction. It’s important that you can get by with any pick, of course, but work out what feels good for you and play to your strengths. Secondly, ensure your grip on the pick is OK. People often report the pick slipping out of their hand when playing and presume that’s from holding it too loosely. It could be, but it could equally be from holding it too tightly - So your thumb and finger end up sort of squeezing the pick out of their grip. Try to find a balanced, even grip to keep hold of your pick!
3) Up-strum Issues
Sometimes, especially in the earlier stages, it can feel like your Up-strums are clunky, causing friction and sounding strained. Strumming upwards at first is a bit of a counter-intuitive motion, your hand returning back on itself and meeting the thinnest, tightest strings first - It can all feel a bit awkward. The secret here is largely a matter of psychology and perspective - Approach your up-strums with the air of brushing past the strings, aiming to breeze up to the top in one smooth motion. Approaching with a tentative, fearful attitude makes you reduce your strumming action, and lose your flow as soon as you make contact with that first, high e string. It’s all in the mind! (And the arm).
4) Hit The Right Strings
Nothing sets an improver apart from a beginner like strumming only the desired strings of a chord. For example, when playing all the Major/minor/7th forms of open D chord, make sure you’re only strumming from the D string onwards, avoiding the E and A strings with your strum. Those two aren’t supposed to be in these D chords, and will make them sound a bit muddy and dissonant. Other examples would be chords like C, and A minor. Open chords which require you to start your strum from the A string, and not include the low E string. So be sure to learn which chords require certain strings to be omitted, and target your strumming arm to play only what’s required and get a nice clean clear sound.
Deliberately, forcibly relaxing does, admittedly, sound like a bit of a contradiction. But what it really means is to check and ensure that you’re playing with a relaxed technique. Even in a performance or examination setting, you may be as nervous and anxious as can be, but you can still enforce an even grip, loose wrist, relaxed strumming with a wide arc, and even playing. A really nice exercise to learn to feel the difference between a tense, tight strumming technique and a relaxed, loose one is this: First imagine you’re gripping a hammer and using it a bang a nail into the wall. Actually make this motion with your hand now, as if you’re really doing it. Can you feel the tension in your wrist, and the tightness of your grip on the imaginary hammer? As I do this now, I can feel the tension right down my forearm to my elbow and even up towards my shoulder. To experience how relaxed strumming should feel, now imagine you’re holding a feather, which is wet, and you have to shake it dry. See the difference? Ideally, when you’re playing, you will feel relaxed. But if you don’t, make sure your strumming arm does!