Why Focus on Strumming?
I don’t think there’s a single guitarist that doesn’t strum sometimes. It’s very common for guitarists to learn the CAGED chords, and some simple strumming patterns, as the first thing they ever do with the instrument! Strumming just means holding a chord and moving a pick or fingers across the strings, right? It’s a very simple idea.
But you might be doing something wrong!
Everyone can improve; it doesn’t mean you’re bad if a tip helps you! I look for hints and tips constantly myself, and I have a trio up my sleeve for any strummers reading this. I’ve decided to cover more than one aspect of strumming, in the hope that at least one will help you. Even if you’re already very experienced!
The First Problem
In the hopes of being useful to even the more experienced players, here’s one that creeps up over time and isn’t about having learned wrong, or having bad technique. It’s tension. It’s very easy to start gripping the pick a bit harder; it’s easy to stiffen up over time and start breathing too hard. All of this affects your overall level of tension and will stop you from playing expressively, and effortlessly.
How do you fight tension, though? Do you just force yourself to relax? I normally find making an effort to relax makes me tense up! So, I have some extremely simple tricks you can try. Practice holding a pick, or strumming with nails as lightly as possible – only increase grip if the pick is going to fall out of your hand, and only strum harder with nails if the sound’s too quiet. The idea here is to reset what your normal grip, or strum, strength is. If it’s gotten too tense over time, this will bring it back to a more comfortable level that still works.
The other trick is to part you lips and let your jaw go loose when you play. Sounds crazy, right? Just trust me and give it a shot. When you strain to open a jar, you grind your teeth – it’s like a lever for tension. Just like it can be caused by tension, it can cause tension. Make sure your jaw’s loose if it isn’t already when you play.
The Second Problem
Rushing is a big deal, it’s the difference between a tight performance and a mess. When you strum, what you’re really doing is playing up to 6 (more on an extended range guitar that has extra strings) notes very, very quickly. It sounds like they’re played at the same time, but really you have to hit strings one at a time no matter how fast you strum. This can create an issue, or two, if you aren’t thoughtful abut your playing.
So you’ve got a beat; a pulse. You’re strumming and you come to the end of a bar, the next bar is a different chord. The temptation is to strum early so that the strum is part-way through on the beat, rather than starting on the beat. Sometimes it is what you want, of course, but a great deal of music needs the separation between bars to be very crisp and clear. Going early can help fluff up a chord change and give you more time, but that’s useless if it hurts the music!
My suggestion here is a strange one, but it has proven results. Find a metronome, a physical one or one of many free online metronomes, and set it to a comfortable pace to strum a simple pattern. Now, instead of trying to hit the beat on time, wait until slightly after the beat and then begin your strum. Work on playing after the beat. Then speed it up to a more brisk tempo, around a speed that’s fast for you. Slowly bring the start of the strum back so that it happens on the beat or only just after. What this does is preventing you from blurring bars and beats together by rushing to strum before a beat. It trains you to be slightly late if you aren’t spot on, rather than slightly earlier.
The Third Problem
Your chord changes aren’t clean.
OK, so maybe they’re pretty clean… But they could be cleaner! Players normally get better at changing between chords over time, as they play songs including those transitions. The problem is, though, that this is fairly inefficient practice for changing chords. If you’re playing a song where the same chord is played for two bars at a time, you only practice a change every eight beats!
What I propose for everyone to try is, no matter what chords the song involves, take each change within the song and practice it on its own. Set a metronome going or tap your foot, and just switch between two chord – one beat each. For example: G, D, G, D, G, D… One after the other. That’s four times the efficiency in practicing changes than if you played a bar of each!
Depending on where you are with your playing, some of these tips will be more helpful than others. I think there’s definitely a little bit for everyone here, so make sure to check all three problems and see what the solutions can do for you!