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Strumming - How to Strum Like the Pro's

Ok, you’ve got your guitar, you’ve got your books, you know the song, but you’re sick of learning twenty different strumming patterns for every verse of every song you want to learn.

When you see an experienced guitarist strumming away on the acoustic, they look good, sound great and never seem to have the slightest bit of trouble remembering all those different strumming patterns that are presented in every song and verse we try and play. These guys seem to play with a freedom and rhythm that sounds completely natural with virtually no effort at all.

So How do They do it ?

I’m going to teach you a method that is going to change your guitar playing forever and is guaranteed to massively boost any beginner guitarists playing abilities within a few days of practicing the technique, as long as you stick with it.

Any street musician out there will tell you, we haven’t got time to learn all that down, up, down, down, up stuff for every song and verse you play, especially when you’ve got nearly a hundred busking songs to keep up with… so you have to use a combination of technique, style and improvisation to get you through those troublesome songs and awkward strumming patterns.

Here are the two things you need to help accomplish this.

a) Your ears

and b) The technique I call ‘The Miss-It Theory’.

I remember being at Glastonbury festival many years ago, in the days when you could get in under the fence for a fiver and had to hope the guys on the other side of the fence who you passed your gear to wouldn’t do a runner with your stuff. I had recently bought an acoustic guitar and after years of playing thrash metal on my electric, had decided to grab a change of scene and give the acoustic a go. Previously to this, I wouldn’t have touched one with a barge pole.

My previous thrash metal expertise relied on soloing, down picking and thrashing the hell out of the electric with serious distortion and effects as fast as possible. The thought of nicely strumming a a guitar had totally eluded me for years and had simply never before been considered.

Whilst playing the acoustic and being confronted with normal ‘nice’ music of varying degrees, I had been suffering from some serious guitarists block and had got fed up with learning loads of different blocks of strumming patterns for every new song I tackled.

I thought to myself it was time to see exactly how the pro’s do it.

At the time Travis had become extremely popular with their album The Man Who and just about every song they wrote was hitting the charts at no 1.

While standing there amongst the thousands of people chanting ‘Why Does it Always Rain On Me, and Driftwood, I was firmly fixed on Fran Healy the lead singer’s strumming patterns and the way his hands were constantly moving at a pretty fast pace providing the acoustic front piece to the band.

That’s the only thing I could remember as at the time I was pretty much smashed on the usual Glastonbury concoctions and ten pints of hot cinnamon cider.

I took note of that vision of Fran’s strumming action and vowed to try it out when I returned home and recovered from the excesses of the festival.

On returning home and after a couple of days once the Glastonbury haze had worn off, I tried to get to grips with what I had seen Fran doing.

The one thing I noticed was that his strumming hand never seemed to stop moving, and it didn’t matter which song he was playing, his hand always seemed to be moving at a pretty fast rate. Often moving at what seemed a much faster tempo than that of the actual song being played.

What he was doing was implementing a strumming technique that enables the guitarist to hammer out complex patterns and tunes in a way that simplifies the thought process surrounding that particular pattern.

The Miss It Theory

Let’s take an example.

Here in the ‘Miss It Theory Strum Pattern (a)‘, you have a reasonably difficult sequence of chord strokes to remember. There is no way you are going to remember all these separate breaks and strums off the top of your head without sitting there for hours on end memorising them. Now, you can do this if you like, but if this is only the first few bars of a song, then you are going to have a long day ahead of you.

So we use the Street Musician Miss it Theory.

The first thing you need to do is listen to the music. Get the track, tape, song or cd and play that part of the track over and over again. Forget everything else in the music, and concentrate on the actual strum pattern coming through the rest of the tune.

Start to hum along to the strum pattern, concentrating solely on the strongest strokes of the tune. Use whatever sounds or noises you like to achieve this.

It might sound stupid, but you can use da-da’s or na-na’s or whatever you like to mimic the strum.

eg. the ‘Miss It Theory Strum Pattern (a)’ would go something like this…

Miss It Theory Strum Pattern (a) Tab
Guitar Pro File (a)

da.da—-da—-da.da.da.da—da—da—da.da.da etc.

Repeat this to your self over and over again until you’ve got the rhythm and feeling of the pattern memorised.

Once you’ve got it lodged firmly in your head, grab your guitar.

Check out the ‘Miss It Theory (b) Full Strum Pattern’ tab, and start to slowly strum your guitar in a simple alternate pattern at a steady pace.

Miss It Theory (b) Full Strum Pattern Tab
Guitar Pro File (b)

Try and keep the strums light and slow, but make sure you hit the strings on each and every up stroke and down stroke with your plectrum.

As you get used to this alternate strumming pattern, take a quick look at the ‘Miss it Theory (c) Miss Strokes’ tab sheet.

Miss it Theory (c) Miss Strokes Tab
Guitar Pro File (c)

Continue strumming your guitar in a full alternate pattern. Don’t worry about the correct chord strokes or what hits are supposed to go where. In your head, just start to repeat the pattern you memorised a few minutes ago, and begin to verbalise this in words or sounds over your alternate strumming.

As you think, speak or sing the

da.da—-da—-da.da.da.da—da—da—da.da.da

pattern at the same speed that you alternately strum your guitar, your brain will start to strengthen the connections between the sounds you are creating with your voice or mind and the actual physical notes you are creating by strumming your guitar.

Do this for a good few minutes until the mental bond between your thoughts and hands becomes stronger.

By now, you will easily be able to tell which of the notes your hands are strumming do not fit in with your mental pattern and are not needed in your strum sequence.

Start to concentrate on the strokes you need to miss in order to get your guitar strum sounding the same as the pattern in your brain. Lighten the pressure on those miss strokes until you start to miss the strings altogether. You don’t need to be missing them by much, just pull away from the strings a centimetre or two, allowing just enough room to miss the strings on one stroke and be able to hit them again on the return pass.

You are now missing a few select notes out of a simple alternate strumming pattern to create a much more complex pattern consisting of lots of strikes.

Instead of learning hundreds of strum notes, you have simply learned to miss a few.

This may feel a bit weird at first, but once you get used to this method, and learn to use your mind to picture the patterns in your head, and visualise the strokes, you will find that your hands will slowly start to automatically follow the patterns in your brain.

Pretty soon, you won’t even have to think about it. What ever patterns you care to think of, your hands will automatically follow.

Using this method, you can turn just about any pattern, however complex into a series of alternate strokes, and from there, work out what strokes to miss or hit to achieve a particular rhythm without having to painstakingly work out each pattern individually. Once you get used to this method your timing will drastically improve and soon you’ll be able to forget the alternate strumming altogether and hit the strings which ever way you like.

After a bit of practice, you should be able to mimic near enough any pattern you hear within seconds of hearing it.

All that remains then, is that you have a reasonably good feel of the song style and have one or two of the songs main strum patterns down. The chances are, the remaining patterns in the rest of the song will be some form of slight variation from the main chord pattern, an upstroke missed here, a down stroke added there. etc. etc.

What you will also develop over time is a feel of how a song goes, and as you get in your stride, as long as the guy you are trying to copy isn’t some spanish guitar god playing flamenco, you should be able to handle it.

Just try to vary your strumming patterns as much as possible and improvise when ever you can. You’ll soon get the hang of it and be strumming like the pro’s in no time.

Posted 29.10.08
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