I’ve always been a rhythm guitarist.
I first learned how to strum a guitar the right way. As I progressed, I learned scales and began to play solos, as well as learning some fingerpicking.
But I always seemed to gravitate back to rhythm guitar.
For a while, I thought it wasn’t the “cool” type of guitar. Everyone wanted to be playing wild solos!
Whether you want to be an amazing rhythm guitarist or a superb shredder, it’s essential to get the basics of strumming right.
Why Is Strumming Important, Anyway?
You may be wondering why I’m even talking about strumming. Isn’t it something that all guitarists just do?
Well… Yes and no.
Strumming is all about keeping the pace and rhythm of the song. Every guitarist strums at some point, but not all of them know how to do it well.
Next to playing an out-of-tune guitar, strumming the wrong pattern is the quickest way to sound like a terrible guitarist!
Proper strumming technique is essential to keep a song flowing, and it’s something many guitarists skip over in the beginning and have to correct later.
But there are some rules you should follow in order to make your strumming sound natural.
How to Strum a Guitar Easily and Smoothly
Regardless of whether you’re using a pick, when you’re learning how to strum a guitar, these 5 steps are the first things you must know!
Just knowing is not enough, though. You need to put these tips into practice if you want your strumming to feel natural.
So grab your guitar, and your pick (if you’re playing with one). You’re welcome to try these techniques out as you read them, so you’re building great habits right from the start.
Let’s get right into the 5 most important things to do when you’re learning to strum.
One of the biggest mistakes new strummers make is that they tense their whole arm up and then try to strum.
This is a recipe for injury (yes, you can get guitar injuries!), and it also makes your strumming sound harsh and a little forced.
Make a conscious effort to relax the muscles from your shoulder down, so every part of your arm (shoulder, elbow, and wrist) is loose and flexible. Shake and stretch your arm out a bit if you have to.
There’s no such thing as a wrist that’s too flexible! The motion should be the same as if you were flicking water off the end of your fingers.
For a great visual on two different but effective strumming styles, check out the video below of one of my favorite bands!
It’s noticeable how relaxed the lead singer’s arm is. The other guitarist has a less pronounced strumming style, but he’s still flexible from the elbow down.
Hold Your Fingers / Pick “Naturally”
Whether you’re playing with or without a pick, you need to feel comfortable and natural.
It may take some experimenting on your part to find the most comfortable way for you.
Some guitarists prefer a softer grip on a pick, while others use a vice-grip. Some use one finger to strum, while others mimic holding a pick.
Don’t think you need to do it a certain way because other guitarists do. There’s no right way or wrong way – only a right or wrong way for you.
Take a couple of minutes now to try out a few approaches and see what feels the best to you. You can keep trying new techniques as your playing style evolves.
Count to Four
Not every strumming pattern will be a one-two-three-four kind of rhythm. Some get more complicated.
But if you can get in the habit of counting while you’re playing, it becomes much easier to strum naturally.
This is because in most modern music, there are four beats in one bar. This basically means that every song is created in little groups of four beats at a time.
Every strumming pattern is based off of these four beats!
Here’s a great explanation of how to implement it in your playing.
Practice With Your Strumming Hand Only
If you’re a beginner guitarist, it can be hard to get your chords right and your strumming pattern right at the same time!
For this reason, I recommend working on your strumming separately. Use your fretting hand to simply mute the strings by resting lightly against them.
Then, you can put all your focus on your strumming hand and getting those patterns right without worrying about chords.
Once those patterns settle into your muscle memory, you can start playing both hands together.
Use a Click Track or Metronome
If you’re not sure what a metronome is, it’s a nifty device that emits a clicking or beeping noise at regular intervals to keep time.
This goes hand in hand with counting to four! A metronome will help you to keep your counting at a consistent pace.
It’s an invaluable tool for a musician, and it’s kind of like playing along with a drummer. You can set the pace you want, and simply play along, keeping up with the timing.
These days, you can buy a metronome or just download a metronome app.
This video does a great job explaining how to get started playing with a metronome.
With or Without a Pick?
The answer to this question is totally up to you!
Personally, I like the sound of a thin pick on an acoustic guitar. But in terms of practicality, I like playing without a pick so that I can switch easily to fingerpicking if I want to.
Neither is better than the other.
In fact, I actually recommend learning both, so that no matter where you find a guitar, you can pick it up and play, whether or not you have a pick!
How to Strum a Guitar with a Pick
The first thing I’d like to suggest here is to mess around and find a pick that suits you. Typically, a thinner pick is best for acoustic guitars, while a slightly thicker one works better for electrics.
But this also depends on the hand holding the pick!
Check out my article about guitar picks for a rundown on size, material, and thickness.
Here are my top tips for strumming with a pick:
Hold It The Right Way
As a guitarist who loses a lot of picks while I’m playing, I can tell you how important your pick grip is!
It shouldn’t feel uncomfortable or like it’s in the way. The pick should feel like an extension of your fingers.
Here’s one way to approach it:
- Bend your index finger and place your thumb on the side of the first joint, just below your fingernail, in a T-shape or cross shape.
- Slide your pick in between those two fingers, with the point facing the same way as your index finger is pointing.
- Adjust your fingers as needed so that a small bit of the tip of the pick is sticking out.
Once you’ve got it in your grip, run it slowly down your strings, from top to bottom. Feel how it strikes the strings, and grip it tighter or looser if necessary.
Loosen Your Wrist
Once you’ve got a good grip on your pick, practice strumming down across the strings.
You don’t want to get stuck on the strings and sound clunky. You also don’t want to miss strings on the way down!
But strumming downwards isn’t the only way to do it. To be a good strummer, you’ll need to know how to incorporate upstrokes too.
If you play an upstroke by itself, it almost seems backwards. You’re playing up towards the ceiling, and it can feel weird.
But when you mix and match the ups in between downstrokes, it sounds amazing.
Just as the pick is angled slightly upwards when you’re playing a downstroke, you need to slightly turn your wrist so the pick is angled downwards when you’re coming back up.
That way, the pick doesn’t “catch” on the strings.
Keep an Extra Pick Close By
When you’re learning, chances are you’ll drop your pick pretty often. It’s normal! I still do it, even 20+ years later.
To avoid having to stop completely, keep an extra pick close by, like in your pocket or on a nearby table. A pick holder can also help.
Key points to remember when playing with a pick:
- Work out how to hold it comfortably.
- Tighten or loosen your grip as you go.
- Keep your wrist flexible.
- Keep extra picks handy.
This video gives a great round-up of how to strum a guitar with a pick.
How to Strum a Guitar Without a Pick
Sometimes when you don’t have a pick on hand, you still can’t pass up the chance to pick up that guitar and play!
That’s why it’s a great idea to learn how to strum a guitar with your fingers.
Yes, in the beginning it may hurt a little. But you’ll soon get used to it, just as your fretting fingers did.
Playing with your fingers also offers a slightly softer / warmer sound than a pick does. Knowing how to play both makes you more versatile as a guitarist!
Here’s how to strum without a pick:
Choose Your Finger
What finger do you strum a guitar with?
This is yet another question that has no definitive answer! Do what feels best to you.
If you aren’t sure, here are some thoughts on each finger.
Strumming with Your Thumb
For me, strumming with the thumb is kind of awkward, and feels unnatural.
But some people like it.
On the downstroke, you’ll most likely hit the strings with the more fleshy part of your thumb, resulting in a slightly dull sound. On the way up, you’ll get a sharper sound as your nail hits the strings.
It’s not the first choice for most guitarists, but if it works for you, go for it!
If you’re using just your index finger, you’ll need to make sure your other fingers are tucked away to prevent them from hitting the strings.
Many guitarists who use this style tend to keep quite a stiff arm, and move just their finger.
It works well for softer, quieter playing, but may be uncomfortable for full-on strumming.
This is by far the most common “pickless” style.
Place your fingers in the thumb-on-first-joint position like you’re holding a pick, and strum as if you have the little bit of plastic in your hand.
Your index finger’s nail will hit the strings as you go down, and your thumbnail will hit them as you come back up. This gives quite a bright all-round sound.
You might have to keep an eye on the length of your fingernails as well–if they get too long, they can start catching on the strings.
Strumming can take a toll on your fingers in the beginning, especially if you hit the strings hard. Your fretting hand is already taking a beating, so try to take it easy on the other one!
Start softly when strumming. Make sure you’re hitting all the strings with your fingers, and that everything sounds natural.
Even if you aren’t holding a pick, it can be easy to tense up and begin to play with a stiff arm. You’ll need to be conscious of this as you’re playing!
Do a “stiffness check” every few minutes. If you feel you’re starting to lock up and your wrist and elbow are no longer flexible, take a moment to stretch or shake them out and get them moving again.
Key points to remember when stumming without a pick:
- Choose which finger(s) to use
- Start soft
- Stay Relaxed
Here’s a great tutorial on how to strum with your fingers.
A Few More Strumming Tips
If you need some more tips and tricks to learn how to strum a guitar evenly or smoothly, here are some extra bits of info (and some reminders)!
- Aim to hit all 6 strings on the downstroke (or 5, depending on your chord), and 3 or 4 on the upstroke.
- Hit the string with your nail or a pick for a brighter sound, and the flesh for a duller, softer sound.
- Don’t forget to count, and strum along to the numbers.
- Start slow and make sure you hit the right strings.
- Build up speed as you go.
- Look after your fingers!
I hope you sat with your instrument and learned how to strum a guitar as you read through this article!
Once you get started, you may find that your fingers gravitate naturally towards a certain style.
If you play every day, it won’t be long until your muscle memory kicks in and the strumming motion becomes a natural movement.
The most important thing is to just keep practicing! The more you do it, the easier it will become.
But don’t neglect the skill of strumming. Learn how to do it properly now – you’ll be grateful you did later.
Thanks for reading!