Usually, our very first steps on the guitar, (after you’ve learned how to tune it and hold a pick correctly of course) are going to be in the world of chords. This is great, you can’t really play or write music without a few chords under your belt and it’s a good way to make some pleasant sounds on the instrument pretty quickly.
But chords that are just strummed once sound pretty boring, which is why we use strumming patterns. Strumming a chord to a particular pattern injects it with life, energy, and groove. It’s really an essential part of helping the mood of the music translate to the listener.
So today we’ve put together the quintessential strumming pattern guide that will both teach you how to strum correctly, and instill you with all of the most common patterns we as guitarists utilize.
If you pair these with a bit of basic chord knowledge you’re going to be well on your way to musical competency!
- A quick primer on strumming technique
- Counting musical rhythm and how to read strumming patterns
- The Essential guitar strumming patterns
- Continued learning
- Final thoughts on Essential Strumming Patterns
A quick primer on strumming technique
One of the big giveaways that someone is a beginner is that their arm, wrist, and hand are locked up like it’s a solid steel bar when trying to strum. Not only does this unnecessary tension put strain on your elbow and writs, but it also doesn’t sound that great!
So what’s the solution?
Keep it loose! Of course, this is easier said than done if you’re not used to it, but my old guitar teacher gave me a great analogy on how loose your wrist should be when strumming.
“Think of it like you’ve just washed your hands and are flicking the excess water from them”
There’s a bit of movement from the elbow, some rotation of the wrist, and absolutely no tensing of the forearm muscles.
Practice that a little bit and you’ll have a smooth, natural, and tension-free strumming technique in no time!
Holding the pick correctly
I’m a firm believer that there is no singular correct way to hold a pick, it’s actually one of the things that can help to define a musician’s personality. Think about Marty Friedman, or Mattias Eklundh, their unique ways of holding the pick plays massively into their style and personality.
But with that being said, one piece of advice that I think is universal is, don’t death grip the pick! While you do need to hold it tight enough to where it’s not going to fling out and hit an audience member in the face, it also needs that bit of give so it will glide over the strings naturally and sound more organic.
If you find your strumming has this kind of robotic and unpleasant attack to it, take a look at how you’re holding the pick and consider adjusting your technique to be a little looser.
Counting musical rhythm and how to read strumming patterns
For the majority of the music we deal with, particularly as a newer player, we count in groups of 4:
1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, etc.
This can also be called 4/4.
We can also double the speed of this by adding an & in between every ‘downbeat’, which we call the upbeat or backbeat:
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &, 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
For these strumming patterns, we will be using a combination of down-strums and up-strums on these various beats of the musical bar.
We identify a downstroke or an upstroke using these cymbals:
So for example here is a really simple quarter note strumming pattern that uses a downstroke on each beat of the beat using a simple E major chord:
And here is the same pattern but we’re going to turn it into an eighth note strumming pattern by adding an upstroke in between every downstroke:
Of course, these patterns aren’t exactly earth-shatteringly interesting. So let’s start to cover some that are a little more musical!
A quick note on percussive mutes
One of the techniques that’s utilized on many strumming patterns is that of the percussive mute. It’s essentially where instead of strumming a chord ‘open’, where we let everything ring out loudly and proudly, we instead dampen the sound heavily with our palm as we strike the chord which creates this percussive sounding ‘chik’.
This technique is really powerful when it comes to adding rhythm and groove to a strumming pattern as it essentially acts like a snare drum.
The Essential guitar strumming patterns
Introducing the upstroke:
So we’re assuming you’ve also got to grips with the simple ‘down on each beat’ and the ‘alternate’ strumming patterns.
This is the first one where we start to get a little more musical and interesting with things.
While we are still going to be playing a downstrum on each downbeat of the bar (the 1, 2, 3, and 4), now we’re going to add upstrokes in between the 3 and 4, and again between the 4 and the 1 count of the next bar.
If you say this out loud it will make a lot more sense Down-Down-Downupdownup.
This is a really useful and versatile strumming pattern that’s applicable to a myriad of genres, particularly when you start to be creative with the dynamics (how hard you are strumming). Which can make it go from a strong and lively strumming pattern you’d see used on a pop or alternative rock song, all the way to a ballad if you play those last 4 strums very quietly.
The ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ strumming pattern
While this pattern is not exactly unique to the popular Train song ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ it is one of the most notable uses of it.
Once again we’re playing a downstrum on each beat of the bear, but on the &’s of beats 2, 3, and 4 we’re adding in upstrokes.
This is a really good strumming pattern to practice ‘swinging’ your notes on. In music, we use the term ‘swing’ to describe a slight delaying of a note to give it a bit more of a groovy and rhythmic feel.
‘Hey, Soul Sister’ is a great example of how a subtle bit of swing added to a rhythm can really up its energy and life.
Essentially what we are doing is taking the rhythmic groups of 2, so the 2&, the 3&, and the 4& and are introducing the tiniest bit of a pause between them. So instead of feeling like a straight DUDUDU pattern, we get more of a DU-DU-DU where the grouping of twos are slightly staggered.
The most important thing to remember about swinging notes is that it’s not a science (no matter what theory buffs try to tell you) and is primarily driven by feeling.
The best way to practice this is to just put the song on and play along to it so you can really feel that swing.
Of course, you don’t have to swing this pattern either, in which case we call it a ‘straight’ pattern instead of a ‘swung’ pattern.
Skipping a beat
The thing that makes this strumming pattern unique is that on the & of 2 we need to quickly silence the guitar to create a rest before finishing off the pattern.
The musical term we use for this is playing ‘staccato’, which basically means to choke the note almost immediately after you’ve played it.
So we’re playing DUDU, making sure to quickly choke or mute the note after that second up.
Then the other unique thing is that we have to come back on the & of the 3 with an upstroke. Up until now, we haven’t started a rhythmic grouping with an upstroke so this might feel a little unusual at first, but give it some practice and it’ll start to feel natural pretty quickly.
A great song to reference and help you get an idea of this sounds when played in music is P.J Harvey’s ‘This Mess We’re In’ where it will repeat this strumming pattern for 3 bars of music, then the fourth bar is just straight alternate strumming.
The 1-2-3 grouping
This is a really important strumming pattern to get down as it’s actually one of the most common ones you’ll see used in everything from pop music to soft ballads. It’s easily transferable across genres and tempos so is well worth spending some time mastering!
If you’re already familiar with the last strumming pattern which introduced us to the idea of choking the note to create a rest, of course, you don’t have to choke the notes, you can simply let the note ring out making it a quarter note instead of an 8th note followed by an 8th note rest.
This is the more common application for this strumming pattern.
We’ll be playing a quarter note downstrum on the 1 which is left to ring out, using that time reset your hand to its original position so you’re ready to come back in with a second downstrum on the 2, followed by an upstroke on the & of two.
Now much in the same way we ‘reset’ our hand to get ready to strum in the same direction, we do it once again but in the opposite direction. So you want to bring your hand down and underneath the strings ready for another upstroke on the & of 3, which you then finish off with a downstroke and then an upstroke to complete the pattern.
One of the most notable uses of this pattern is from Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’ where it plays the primary driving role of the song. But honestly, this one’s so common that once you’ve learned it you’ll start to hear it everywhere!
Multiple bar strumming pattern
We want to give you an idea of how deep this rabbit hole goes. Up until now every strumming pattern we have shown has taken place in a single bar of music, which just repeats over and over.
It’s important to understand that we can actually have a unique strumming pattern for each bar of music, which allows for an almost infinite number of strumming pattern combinations.
But let’s not get too overwhelmed and start off with a very easy example. This pattern in particular was most famously used in Tom Petty’s song ‘Free Fallin’.
On the first bar, we just have a nice, strong, and confident downstrum on the 1 and & of 2. Then we can relax for the rest of the bar. When the next bar comes in we play a downstrum on the 1 and & of one which then rings out until the final downstrum on the & of 2.
It’s actually one of the easier ones to play from a technique perspective. It’s more about introducing you to the concept of utilizing different strumming patterns over multiple bars.
So we mentioned a little at the beginning about how you can use your hand to essentially strike the strings in a muted way to create a click sound.
This pattern is taken from the Stealer’s song ‘Struck In the Middle’. You’ll really get a sense of how coming in with the upstrokes on the &’s adds a ton of groove and momentum to the pattern.
If you are confident enough to mute the chord after the & of 1 just using your left hand, some people like to do a pretend or ‘ghost’ strum on the downbeat to kind of simulate the action of a straight alternate strummed pattern which can make it easier to keep in time.
But of course, you’re not actually striking the chord, just moving your arm to help yourself stay in time with the music.
Not only is this pattern pretty common in and of itself, this technique of both percussive mutes and using some ‘ghost strums’ to help you keep in time is extremely powerful and well worth your time practicing!
The ‘Live Forever’ strumming pattern
So Oasis doesn’t own this strumming pattern or anything, but it’s certainly the song I most associate with this particular pattern.
You’ll probably notice that we have 2 new letters introduced into the bar, the ‘e’ and ‘a’. Much in the same we turned a 1 2 3 4 quarter note pattern into an eight note pattern by introducing the &, making it 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &.
We can take this a step further by turning the eighth note pattern into a sixteenth note pattern by giving 4 notes to each beat of the bar which you can think of as 1 e & a, 2 e & a, 3 e & a, 4 e & a.
If you’re thinking ‘I bet it’s pretty difficult to really come in on those e’s and a’s, you’re completely correct. Even during sixteenth-note patterns, we will generally only start a rhythmic grouping either on the downbeat or the upbeat (the &). But you’ll notice in this pattern we use the ‘a’ before coming onto the 3.
You have to trust me when I say this isn’t as difficult as it looks, if you listen to the acoustic 1994 acoustic performance of Live Forever you’ll see how clear and easy this one is to follow.
This is because judging exactly when the e’s and a’s are is extremely difficult so we generally use them as filler notes to just make the pattern a bit more interesting.
So here we’ll be playing a downstrum on the 1, & of 1 and 2 followed by a break. Then we have a group of 4 which as we mentioned starts with an upstroke on the ‘a’ of 2, once again this will feel very intuitive after a bit of practice so don’t sweat it too much. Then we have a downstrum on the 4, and a down up on the & a of 4 to lead us back around again.
Of course, what we have shared today is just a primer on strumming patterns, but it introduces you to all the essential techniques where no matter what song you’re faced with in the future if you’ve taken the time to learn these patterns you’re going to have a huge start when it comes to learning other songs.
When you next hear a song on the radio, try to get in the habit of mentally figuring out the strumming pattern. Figure out what notes of the bar the strums are landing on and whether you think they are downstrokes or upstrokes. This all helps to exercise your knowledge and mental understanding of which patterns create which feeling and grooves.
This will serve you well when it comes to transcribing music in the future, or even in your own songwriting when you have to pick a strumming pattern that best represents the idea or mood you are trying to create.
Final thoughts on Essential Strumming Patterns
We hope the patterns and technical insight have helped get you started on your strumming journey. We encourage you to play with and alter these patterns, as well as seek out new ones to learn from other popular artists.
This all serves to go into your guitar vocabulary book, which the more you can fill it up with interesting and cool strumming patterns the better equipped you’ll be as a musician to handle any song that comes your way!