How to play beautiful strumming patterns
Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None
This tutorial is aimed at beginners who already know how to play strumming patterns, and it teaches how to go beyond a simple down-up stroke. You will learn how to really interpret strumming patterns but before that, the first part will include a side discussion about interpretation. The second part will get to the heart of the matter and will teach you how to target different groups of strings and the third part will deal with the basics of dynamics.
Brief disclaimer before starting this tutorial: it is intended for those who already know how to play strumming patterns. So this tutorial will teach you how to embellish them and to make them more lively, but it won't teach you how to play them. So if you have problems with strumming patterns and your right hand, it may be a little early to dive into this tutorial.
Here's an example
There's nothing like a good example to dive into this tutorial. But this requires that you watch the video at about 0'30 seconds. The goal is to hear the difference between dumb-playing a strumming pattern without interpretation, without intention, and then the same strumming pattern being played in a more musical way.
In general, the difference between the two examples, as well as between a rather bad strumming pattern and a beautiful one, lies in what is called interpretation. It does not change the strumming pattern itself, the upstrokes and downstrokes do not change. Other factors come into action to make a strumming pattern sound better.
Let's practice the following two main elements:
- groups of strings: let's not always play all the strings of a given chord, let's vary the strings to aim at in order to make the strokes sound different. This will be detailed in the second part.
- dynamics: this is about varying how loud you play, with what is called nuances and accents. All of this will be detailed in the third part.
Why should you want to interpret?
But before diving into all this work, it is interesting to ask yourself why you should be doing all this? Why deal with interpretation and add all these challenges? This first part deals with this issue and this is probably the most important point of this entire tutorial.
The purpose of music
When someone plays the guitar or music in general, in a way, the purpose is to convey something. Tell a story, make listeners feel something, convey some emotions. Music is a language just like any other one, and you ought to learn how to use it properly if you do not want to sound like a robot.
You are the musician
If you are trying to learn the guitar, then you must learn how to control everything and become an interpreter. YOU are the one playing the guitar, and no one else. It's up to YOU to interpret the music, put YOUR emotions, and not just read music as an idiot or read tabs mechanically. Computers are much more talented than us at reading scores perfectly but only humans are able to interpret, humanize music, and make it really interesting
Obviously there will be situations where we seek to copy someone else's interpretation: either because you're in a cover band or because you particularly enjoyed an interpretation that you have heard or simply for the purpose of teaching. But such situations are still limited and in most cases, you are the one in charge of what you do.
And now concretely
If you're new to playing the guitar, all of this may scare you a little and you probably wonder if it really is necessary to be thinking about that as you are just beginning. After all, not everyone feels like having the soul of an artist with a thousand emotions to convey. But the need for interpretation does not stop there because several very specific factors will influence the way a song should be played. For instance:
- The environment that you’re in: you're not going to play a song the same way if you're in a local bar with five of your friends as if you were paying in a stadium in front of an audience 70,000 people.
- The people who are accompanying you: if you are alone with your guitar, you will not play the same way as when you are accompanied by a guitarist, a drummer, a bassist, a keyboard player and a whole brass band. In the first case, you will have to give everything; whereas in the second case, you will play more discretely in order to leave room for others.
- Your state of mind: there are days when you may be in a rather quiet mood; other days, you may be filled with rage and a desire to break everything. This will obviously impact the way you play, and you can choose any quiet song and play it very aggressively (or vice versa) if you feel like it. You choose the way you want to play.
Not to be misunderstood with arranging
Here's an important point to stress after this long explanation: Do not mix interpretating and arranging. Interpretating a song is playing it and to interpreting it in different ways without modifying the chords or the rhythm. An arrangement is more of a complex work whereby the original song is modified as the rhythm or tempo is changed, or even the chords, to bring a little jazzy vibe or bluesy rock to it. This isn’t much more difficult and it may be related to interpretation but let's not discuss that today.
I hope this whole first part has made you aware of the importance of interpretation. I also hope that it will give you motivation to interpret your songs and explore your personal universe. And finally, I hope you have a blast playing songs your way, regardless of what others may think.
Groups of strings
The guitar is an instrument that has an interesting feature. For a lot of theoretical reasons that I will not detail here, when you have to play a chord in a strumming pattern, you don't have to strum all of the strings that included in such chord. You can totally strum only a few strings or even just a single one. Therefore, the goal will be to target certain groups of strings and to vary on these groups, in order to create a musical pattern.
Those of you who know a bit of theory may probaby think "OK, but if I don't play all of the strings, is it still the same chord?". In most cases, it will. In other cases, it won't be the same chord. Either way, let's not think about it. If you need to play a chord in E minor, press your E minor chord on the left hand and strum the strings you choose.
"Groups" of strings
Now let’s be clear: I'm talking about "groups" of strings. We will not try to aim for a specific number of strings. On the one hand, it is extremely difficult to be precise about strings, especially in fast strumming patterns; on the other hand, it is unnecessary, in most cases. Let's just aim at "bass strings" or "high strings", without trying to count the exact number of strings. So everything that's explained below can be handled quite freely, according to the context.
Remember that the purpose of all of this is to embellish the sound that comes out of your guitar. Pay close attention to what you play, listen to how it all sounds to see if you like it or not. The goal is for you to have your ear associate a particular sound with a particular movement, in order to develop some automation as well as your sense for interpretation. Thereafter, the day you want this particular sound, you will instinctively know the move you need to make to get it.
Different movements to learn
The bass strings
One of the first movements for a beginner to master is strumming only the bass strings. Once again, the exact number of strings doesn't matter, depending on the situation it may involve one string, two strings, three strings or more.
What's good about this movement is that it will stress the bass strings, which are a little "lost" within the chord when all strings are played togehter. These bass strings are actually the most important notes of the chord and they allow to really let the listener know what chord is being played. It works great when starting a bar.
In order to sucessfully play this specific movement, there are two solutions:
- you can play a down stroke as usual but "stop" after two or three strings;
- or you can make a "diagonal" move , in which you will move away from the guitar.
As for all movements on the guitar, it requires practice. Practice for a long time on a single chord playing downstrokes that only strum the bass strings. Upstrokes are hardly ever perform on bass strings, mostly because it is not easy but also because it is rarely useful. So there really is no need to practice upstrokes on this.
The high strings
This group of strings will give us a very light, airborne sound, which is the opposite of how bass strings sound. This will be very useful for strumming patterns with a lot of fast-paced upstrokes and downstrokes, as it will help play something that's audible and not be overwhelmed by bass notes.
You can strike the high strings in two directions: downwards and upwards. While you're at it, you may notice that it is very difficult to strum all strings upwards and that most of your upstrokes will actually just hit the high strings.
In order to play upstroke correctly, you need to make the opposite movement of what you did on bas strings: the strumming movement is somewhat more restricted than usual, and you can gradually move away from the guitar to avoid hitting the bass strings. Downstrokes are not much complicated, you just need to start from a position that is a little further than usual in order to avoid hitting the bass strings.
This movement comes in handy when you want to show some muscle. You will get a very full sound with lots of bass, which will often help stress certain parts of the song.
There's not much to say about this movement, you can do it either downwards or upwards (although, as it was said earlier, upstrokes are a little harder), you just have to make sure that your movement that is parallel to the guitar board in order to be strumming all strings.
The middle strings
Here's an interesting movement but we rarely come across it in music. It is very seldom used for a simple reason: chords require low-pitch and high-pitch notes to sound. If you just strum in the middle, chords often sound out of tune. However, you can do that if we you are actually looking for that particular sound.
Furthermore, this is not very easy to achieve (and especially when it comes to make it fit into a strumming pattern), which further restricts its scope of use. In order to do this,you just need to make the same upstrokes-downstrokes as usual, but with much less wide movements, and starting from the middle strings. As if you were playing on a mini guitar.
A few examples
To sum this up, there are three distinct movements (let me discard the middle strings) that you can combine together to create different strumming patterns, different sounds, different atmospheres. I will now show you a few examples but do not hesitate to watch the video (second part, starting from 7:10) in order to decipher the movements well and, mostly, hear how it sounds.
Take this rhythm pattern as an example:
This is a very simple rhythm pattern, which boils down to a succession of "down down down down-up” strokes. You may just be fine with playing it striking all strings at the same time but it will end up sounding pretty flat.
Let's slightly change the strumming pattern there to give it some depth. The first variation is simple and effective:
- play first downstroke on the bass strings
- play all other strokes of the bar on the high strings
Let's play a second variation, very close to the previous one:
- play first and third downstrokes on the bass strings
- play all other strokes on the high strings
This variation is therefore the same as above but with a twist on the third downstroke.
- play first downstroke on the bass strings
- play third downstroke on all strings
- play all other strokes on the high strings
Once again, here is the only difference from the previous variation: the third downstroke is played on all strings.
When should these be used?
You can immediately guess that the possibilities are huge. For a single strumming pattern, a dozen more or less interesting variations can be played . You probably wonder "How can I figure out which ones I should play?”
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to that. It will mainly depend on the context, on the song you are playing , on the way that YOU want to play the song.
Some classic movement combinations can be found quite often, but since there are so many of them, this will be dealt with in a future tutorial.
Try and experiment things
Meanwhile, if you want to work a little bit on all of these possibilities, try and experiment things! Play an E minor chord, with four downstrokes and try all possible combinations with all groups of strings. Then, add in some upstrokes and just practice playing all of the possible groups of strings for hours.
On the one hand, it allows you to work on your technical skills and master the different strokes and the different sequences; on the other hand, it allows you to find interesting combinations or strumming patterns that you will love and which you will reuse later.
What about the other chords?
In the video, I played an E minor on every example for a simple reason: this chord has the distinction of using all six strings of the guitar. Now, how does that go with other chords? Take, for example, a D major chord, which contains only four strings.
So, if you want to aim at the bass strings, you have to go for the bass string of the chord that you are playing. And the problem with "small" chords such as D major is that you'll soon end up strumming the same strings, whether you go for the bass strings or the high strings, given that there are such few strings available.
But that's okay, it is part of the limitations you have to deal with. The fewer strings there are in a chord, the fewer possibilities you'll have. Therefore, start by practicing on six-string chords (E minor, G major, etc...), and then move on to five-string chords (A minor, C major, etc...) until you reach the famous D major.
In this third part, let's discuss another essential element of interpretation: dynamics. As a matter of fact, everything that's explained below not only applies to strumming patterns but also to music in general: arpeggios, solos, etc...
What is it?
As it was briefly explained in the first part, dynamics consist in playing more or less loud to make the music sound a little more lively. It will sometimes have to do with the groups of strings that are aimed at, as obviously if you play all strings, it will sound louder than if you only play a few high strings. But it is not a requirement, dynamics can be used independently from the groups of strings.
Let's develop this in two distinct ways:
Let's only see the basics of these two elements because a lot could be said about all of this. Get familiar with what is explained here for now, and you will see the more complex things in other tutorials later on.
What is it about?
Let's begin with accents, but first of all, what is it about? It simply consists in playing a stroke louder than the others, to make it stand out in a strumming pattern. You can see an example in the video, Part III, 1:15.
The goal is to have a different level between "strong" strokes and "soft" strokes. This means that if you play a song at a low volume, your accent will not necessarily be loud; it will just to stand out from the other strokes. On the contrary, if you play a strumming pattern with strong strokes, you will need to play the accent even harder.
How to play them
There is not much to say about the technique used to successfully play accents, you just need to strum stronger. Most accents will be found on the downstrokes since they generally fall on the beat and one tends to prefer to accentuate the beat. Nevertheless, accents may be played on upstrokes but this is rare.
How to practice
In order for you to practice, play an easy chord (an E minor does the trick), if possible choose a chord that uses all six strings of the guitar, play it over a simple strumming pattern and try stressing some strokes.
If you want to start with the easiest method ever, play four downstrokes as a strumming pattern and stress the first stroke of each measure. You can then try stressing beat 1 and beat 3, then try stressing beat 2, etc... Feel free to explore all of the accent patterns that may cross your mind to practice, and play them all at different tempos.
Listen to your guitar!
As mentioned previously, the accent should stand out from other strokes. Make sure you listen with great attention to the sound that comes out of your guitar when you work on accents, and try to create a real difference between accented strokes and non-accented strokes. If you have trouble listening to yourself when you play, record yourself. This way, you will be much more objective and you will listen with increased attention.
When should you use them?
It's great to know how to play accents but you should also know when to play them. Unfortunately, like everything related to interpretation, there is no simple answer to this: depending on the style, the song and how you feel like, accents may not always be located on the same strokes. There are no obligations.
Yet, you will come across two major accent patterns:
- accents on beats 1 and 3
- accents on beats 2 and 4
There are tons of variations on all of that but these two accent patterns will be found in most styles and they go well with almost any song.
You should know that when it comes to nuances, there is a lot of vocabulary out there to express everything. Tons of words to learn, most of them being in Italian just to make things easier, so it can be quite long and complicated to learn it all properly. Today, let's just go over the terminology of simple nuances and how to use them.
What is it?
In order to play nuances, you need to vary the dynamics of the notes, just like when you play accents. But the main difference lies in the fact that nuances apply to a group of notes - as in an entire song - while accents only apply to a single stroke.
Here are the two main nuances to know, which you are surely familiar with already:
the forte (pronounced "forté") , which means play loud.
the piano: it is the opposite, when you do not play loud.
In both cases, this does not prevent you from creating variations and accents; it's just a volume "level" around which you can move around a little. And since this is about interpretation, there are different "levels" of forte or piano; a forte may be played really loud or a little less loud. There are even terms for the level hierarchy: pianissimo, mezzo piano, fortissimo, mezzo forte, etc
How to practice
As this was the case with accents, there is no particular approach to this technique and you just have to play very loud or not so loud . But it is still more complicated than it seems: you really have to get used to playing with a consistent volume, to master the movement from your right hand so that everything is played forte or piano, while having room to maneuver and make changes.
You must try to get used to playing any nuance. Too often, beginners simply play forte all the time or piano all the time, without balancing or applying changes.
Choose a strumming pattern, a chord progression, and then play these in a loop, attempting to play them at a different volume each time. If you are unable to do more than two or three volume changes, you will have to practice Master them so that you are able to play them with the nuance you want whenever you need to.
When to use them?
Here, it is worse than it was for accents as there are even fewer rules. There are no classic nuance patterns, any song can be played with any nuance. The main element that will guide you is the atmosphere in which you are playing: if you're in a dim place, by a fireplace in front of 10 people, you are probably not going to play as loud as you would if you were in the middle of a bar full of 200 drinking patrons.
Crescendo and Decrescendo
Let's carry on nuances and mention what crescendo and decrescendo are. These two concepts are identical, they are simply opposed to one another, and they are very simple to understand:
- crescendo is when you play louder
- decrescendo is when you play softer
It often serves as a transition between the piano and forte or between the forte and the piano, in order to avoid any sudden changes.
How to practice
The crescendo and decrescendo are not easy to master. As usual, let's practice on a simple grid to play in a loop, all while increasing and decreasing the volume. Be very careful to keep everything consistent, you want a gradual increase and a gradual decrease, without "skipping" steps. Imagine that when you are playing, someone is turning the volume up or down on the amp, in a soft way, without turning the knob all the way up or down in one sudden action.
Once you use all these elements, accents, nuances, crescendo, etc. ... you'll have tons of possibilities to interprete your songs and make them a unique version every time you pick up your guitar. Once you master all these techniques, you will be able to adapt yourself to all situations and contexts and this will make you a better guitarist.