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How to strum chords with a pick

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This tutorial will teach you how to strum chords with a pick so that you manage to use the pick and play nice strumming patterns.

Basics required for this lesson : How to hold the pick,
Practice this lesson : None

This tutorial aims at teaching you how to strum chords with a pick, and it is a continuation of the tutorial on how to hold a pick. As a matter of fact, being able to hold the pick is one thing, but when you start strumming all the strings, it usually sounds very bad. You will learn how to relax your wrist and make a movement that will not end up sounding like a mess. In the first part, I will show you the correct movement you need to make. Then in the second part, you will see how to practice so you can get there. And finally, for those who need a little more help, I will give you some lifesaving tips.

The movement to make

In this first part, let's explain the movement you need to make in order to strum chords without making a horrible sound. However, this movement requires practice until you control it, so don't expect to get it overnight, just by reading this lesson. First, I'll explain what the appropriate movement is, and in the second part I will tell you how to practice it. Then it will be up to you to work on that! Remember that, as for many movements, the explanation will be much clearer if you watch the video (in French.. for now).

The pick

I won't go over how to hold the pick again, as this has already been dealt with in the tutorial on the pick, so if you haven’t read it yet, go check it out. I'll just give you a quick reminder on the methaphor I made, which should help you learn this technique: strumming chords with a pick is like riding a bike. At first, it is not natural, you can't do it at all. The body doesn't know how to find its balance between staying on the seat and cycling at the same time. The only solution is to practice time and again until it "clicks", until your arms "feels" the movement it needs to do. Then, gradually, it will become more natural, like riding a bike.

The movement

Wrist flexibilty

The key to the movement lies in the flexibility of the wrist. The movement you are going to make should come from the wrist. Sometimes you will move your arm at the same time, especially once you are comfortable, but the origin of the movement comes from the wrist, and not from the elbow or the forearm. To start working on this movement, you should therefore force ourselves not to move the forearm at all, so that only your wrist moves. The tough part is that you have to focus on the strumming patterns, on the notes being accurate and on the way you hold your pick, all while remaining flexible. If your wrist is not flexible, you will not get a nice sound.

Another very important factor is that the strokes must be sharp. You must try strumming all the strings at the same time. This doesn't mean that you have to play hard or that you need to be contracted. You must manage to remain flexible but sharp. Your job is to relax your wrist without making it get all soft and inaccurate.

The basic position

But there's more to it. Since your goal is always to have a nice sound come out of your guitar, you need to try strumming all strings evenly. In order to do so, the initial position of your hand should be "in the middle" of the strings, so that it can reach both high and low strings, by just moving the wrist. If you start with your hand too high, you will be able to strum very few, if any, of the high strings, and vice versa if you put your hand too low. The basic position is located on the strings, not above or below, but more or less in the middle. Starting from there, you can slightly raise your wrist slightly to get ready for a downstroke, or slightly lower it to get ready for an upstroke.

Do not raise your hand too much

You must also try keeping your hand always roughly at the same distance from the board (talking about the guitar board, not the surfboard). The movement you make will then be parallel to the guitar board. Otherwise, you wouldn't strum all the strings the same way, some would sound much louder than others, and this is not what we want to do for now. Make sure your wrist is pretty close to your guitar, if not you'll have a hard time. The back of your hand must be in line with your forearm. If you raise your wrist and create an angle there, you'll have a hard time making this movement appropriately.

A symmetrical movement

Guitar strumming patterns will have downstrokes (from top to bottom) and upstrokes (from the bottom up to the top). Both movements should be symmetrical. You need to make sure that what the pick movement made in one way is identical to the movement in the other way. Be very careful on upstrokes, as they are much more difficult to control than downstrokes. Many beginners easily master downstrokes, with a very flexible wrist, but totally fail on upstrokes.

Let’s incline the pick

The only thing that changes between the two movements is the way you hold the pick. If you've ever played with it a little, you may have noticed that the pick needs to be slightly inclined. If you hold it straight, you'll have a very strong, very clear stroke, which does not sound very musical. In order to play a downstroke, you must slightly incline your pick, with the tip of it slightly up towards us. The problem is that if you keep this position to play an upstroke, you'll pull the strings out. So, for an upstroke, you need to incline the pick in the opposite direction, with the tip of the it poinitng down, in a way that's symmetrical (once again) to the downstroke.

Summary

Let's sum up this movement:

  • begin with placing your hand in the middle of the strings
  • we raise your wrist a little bit so that it is above the strings
  • slightly incline the pick
  • lower your wrist to play a downstroke (while staying flexible and parralel to the board)
  • slightly incline the pick in the opposite way
  • raise your wrist again to play the upstroke

That's it. This is obviously a simplified description, as music has so many nuances, but it is the basic movement you need to master in order to develop this technique. Of course, now you know what to do, but you still don't know how to work on it, so let's deal with this in the second part of this tutorial.

How to practice this

Let’s be clear

Let me begin this second part stating something obvious which you may not enjoy so much: in order to learn how to make the appropriate movement, it is necessary to practice over and over again. As I said in the first part, it's like riding a bike. In the beginning, you don’t really get it, it sounds horrible, you don’t understand why, but as you practice you eventually get there. After a while, it clicks and you manage to make the movement appropriately from time to time and then more often, until you finally master it.

Don't feel overwhelmed, it's normal if you don't manage to make it in 10 or 20 minutes, and it may require several days of practice until you get it, but if you keep on trying, you will eventually succeed.

Let’s start out slowly

However, in order to avoid getting you sick of this,  let's deal with it slowly, little by little. Just like when you want to ride a bike, you don’t start out on a 90° slope during rush hour.

Downstrokes

First, let's focus on downstrokes. We will start practicing downstrokes only before adding upstrokes.

The left hand

Since the challenge is on the right hand, you may be wondering what your left hand is going to do during this whole time. There are two options: whether you play an E minor chord, which I'm sure you know, or you mute the strings, which means that you just touch the strings, without pressing on them, so that you have a dry, punchy sound.

In some cases, it is better to play a chord, in others it is best to mute the strings. I will specify what to do as we move forward in this tutorial.

First exercise: everything downwards

Let's work on this exercise with an E minor chord and let's just play downstrokes, regularly. Let's do a loop, without stopping, and let's focus on the right hand. Then pay attention and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the movement really coming from the wrist?

  • Is the pick being held correctly?

  • Is the hand staying at an even distance from the board?

  • Is the movement flexible?

  • Are the strings being strummed in a uniform way?

Basically, you are asking yourself all the questions you know to answer if the movement corresponds to what has been described in the first part.

The number of strings

Let's mention just one thing: it is very difficult to strum all strings when you don't fully control the movement yet. So, it doesn't matter, this is not the most important aspect, and you'll get that more easily once your wrist is flexible. As long as the strings are strummed evenly, it's not a big deal if you are only strumming four or five of them.

Use a mirror

Here's a little trick that may help you out and spare you some neck pain: practice in front of a mirror. You will have a different perspective on your movement and you may be able to better identify wrongddoings that you could not see before.

Make your wrist flexible

The key, as it's been said earlier, is to have a flexible wrist. So, spend a lot of time on this exercise to make it more flexible, as this is your first goal. Until you have gained a little flexibility, it doesn't make much sense for you to go any further.

Play some nice sharp strokes

You should pay attention to one important aspect: your strokes must be sharp and very precise. Playing with flexibility does not mean playing with a soft wrist. You want to avoid having the pick "dragging" on the strings. Strokes must be instantaneous, as if you were trying to strum all strings at the same time.

In order to check on that, do the same exercise, but on muted strings this time. When playing a chord, the strings resonate and it's hard to hear the stroke on them. When muting the strings, there's no resonance and only pick striking the strings is heard. So this is perfect for checking on that.

Second exercise : upstrokes

Now that you are beginning to master downstrokes (little by little), it is time to move on to upstrokes. But beware, they are much harder to master and will require much more practice.

Mix upward and downward strokes

To make things easier, let's not begin immediately with upstrokes. Let's stick to loops of downstrokes and, from time to time, add an upstroke between two downstrokes.
Just play one upstroke, no matter if you succeed or fail, and then keep playing downstrokes and don’t stop. Allow yourself some time between each upstroke attempt so that you can focus again, get ready and try again.

Keep on practicing, play a series of downstrokes and only include an upstroke from time to time. Your first upstrokes will probably be terrible, like your first downstrokes were, but if you keep on trying, they will improve.

Add some more

Once you start playing upstrokes successfully, add some more. Play them more and more often or try playing several upstrokes in a row. Always keep them within a series of downstrokes, as the goal is really to play a sequence from the beginning.

Gradually, you will end up playing them well enough to alternate downstrokes and upstrokes without failing too much. You will have mastered a great deal of the right-hand movement and all you'll have to do is practice a little more to make it perfect and natural.

Third exercise : upstrokes only

It has already been said, and you've probably noticed that upstrokes are much more difficult to achieve than downstrokes. So let's now work exclusively on playing upstrokes.

Play downstrokes in the air

What's challenging when playing a series of upstrokes is that it's hard to get the hand back in place, since the downstroke - which normally gets your hand back into place - is no longer here.

So imagine that downstrokes are still here but play them in the air, without strumming them. Try making the same movement as the one you did in the second exercise, but without touching the strings on the downward stroke. This way, your hand will correctly get back in place to play the upstroke, and the exercise will not be much harder than the previous one.

Listen to your guitar

For all these exercises, there is a very important element that is worth mentioning: the sound that comes out of your guitar. Strumming the chords with a pick has one single, unique goal: making a beautiful sound. It doesn't matter if your hand performs a beautiful choreography or not, what matters is the sound that it creates.

So, for all these exercises, pay close attention to the sound that comes out of your guitar. Listen carefully to what's happenning, do not hesitate to record yourself so you can listen to it with even more perspective, and try improving this sound and find the movements that give you the best sound.

What is a beautiful sound?

Obviously, these exercises are very limited musically but you can still get something out of it. The sound that comes out of your guitar must be uniform, the strings must be strummed hard enough but not in a brutal way. Every stroke must have the same volume and all the strings should come out well, without any stroke standing out from the others.

It isn’t easy!

It has been said already, but let me repeat it: mastering playing with the pick on the right hand is not easy at all. It takes a lot of hard work and practice to reach a good level. All the exercises shown in this second part will help you, but if you are having a hard time, let's go through a few tips in the third part.

A few tips

Watch out, the tips listed here are not meant to replace the practice detailed in the second part but they will rather give you a little boost. These tips alone will be useless. It's not compulsory for you to follow these tips either, as you may be able to reach your goal without needing them. In addition, these are quite "experimental" tricks that do not necessarily work for everyone. But do not hesitate to try them anyway, it doesn't hurt.

Relax

Here's one important thing, which may seem obvious to some of you, but it's still worth mentioning: relax! You want a smooth movement from your wrist and if you are not relaxed, this is a bad start. Relax your right wrist, stretch it out a little, shake it in all directions, basically relieve yourself of any tension you may have in your arm.

Relax mentally as well: do not get stressed out about practicing and don't worry if you don’t succeed, just be cool. There is nothing worse than pressuring yourself when you are practicing an instrument.

Play with accents

Accents are a tool for interpretation which can be used o improve your wrist flexibility.

The exercise

In order to do so, let's play with muted strings on the left hand. On the right hand, let's play downstrokes only (it is very difficult to do accents on upstrokes so forget about that for now), and play a much harder stroke once every four strokes. The goal is to make that stroke really stand out in terms of volume, that's why you have to strike it harder, but you could also strike the others less hard.

The result

Usually, by doing so, the accentuated stroke will be very different from the other strokes: the movement will have a greater range and it will also be sharper. This movement is precisely what you are shooting for. Then, try to repeat the same movement but not as hard.

Careful not to get tensed

This tip carries the risk of making you contract your arm when you play the accent. However, you want to do the complete opposite of that. Stay very relaxed, even when you play the accent.

Do it without the guitar

Actually strumming the strings is precisely one of the challenging things about strumming the strings with a pick. It keeps you focused on aiming at the strings, not missing them nor pulling on them, and while you're busy with this, you don't focus on the rest.

Try to make the exact same movement without the guitar or rather without strumming the strings. Then, you will have nothing to aim at and you'll be able to concentrate on everything else: flexibility, gesture, holding the pick, etc...

Yet, don't put the guitar away, keep it on you, and strum just a few centimeters away from the strings. If you put the guitar away, your arm position will change and you will no longer be making the same movement.
If you don't manage to make the movement without strumming the strings, you'll have a harder time making it when aiming at the strings.

Let gravity do its job

Here's a final tip that I find quite funny, though it doesn't give amazing results. The idea is simple: place your hand as if you were going to play a downstroke, and let it fall. Completely release your wrist and let gravity do its job. Chances are that the stroke will be horrible, you may not hit the strings and you may even drop the pick, but at least your wrist will be flexible.

It sounds silly but it is not that easy to do. It makes you switch from a "contracted" position with your hand in the air, to a relaxed position where you allow your hand to fall. At the end of this movement, your hand should be "hangging" from your arm and not be controlled at all. If you are able to do that, you will get much better at making smooth movements later on.

Unfortunately, this tip does not apply to upstrokes but it still helps for increasing your flexibility.

Persevere

Now let's wrap up this tutorial, and let me repeat it once more: you need to practice a lot. Don't give up after a few tries, just keep on trying, and soon you will get there. You'll only succeed a little bit at first, but then it will happen more and more until the movement finally becomes natural and under control. Good luck!

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A painter paints pictures on canvas. Musicians paint their pictures on silence.
(Leopold Stokowski)