Strumming, indeed rhythm guitar as a whole, is an important discipline that every guitarist should master. As fun as it is to play fiery solos, the guitar is also an integral part of the rhythm section and the ability to play chords fluently is a must. After all, guitarists in most styles spend the majority of their time playing rhythm.
There are key styles that use strumming as a key aspect and certain players that are particularly good at it. Funk guitar relies heavily on 16th note strumming, fusing chords with ghost notes and syncopation for a sophisticated and exciting sound.
It is also an integral part of acoustic or folk guitar, forms the backbone of many rock ballads, and is used as a “bed” over which other instruments are placed when recording.
So strumming is important both harmonically and percussively. Great rhythm players include Nile Rodgers, Jimmy Nolen (James Brown), Bruce Welch (Shadows), David Williams (Michael Jackson), Pete Townshend, Malcolm Young and John Frusciante to name a few.
There are a few things to keep in mind when strumming. First of all, it is important what type of pick to use or whether to use one at all. Although a heavy pick (e.g. 1mm or more) is perfect for accurate and articulated plucking of single notes, the “give” in a lighter pick (e.g. 0.060mm) is better for strumming because it is makes things a little easier to play and adds a bright, percussive “shimmer” to the sound.
Other players don’t use a pick at all, preferring the side of their thumb or the back of their fingernails. It’s important to experiment with all options, as you may find that different genres or styles prefer different approaches.
Another thing to consider is the physical aspect of strumming. Good strummers tend to play from the wrist and keep it nice and loose to get a fluid and even touch. There is some movement from the elbow, of course, but most of the movement comes from the wrist.
Of course, every player has their own approach, so spend some time analyzing your favorite artists or bands to see how they approach their rhythm guitar technique.
This month we have four samples and one study piece for you, each focusing on a different style of music. Use them to try different picks, or don’t use a pick at all and make sure most of the action comes from your wrist and you’re not just dragging your arm up and down.
Get the tone
Amp Settings: Gain 3, Bass 4, Middle 5, Treble 6, Reverb 4
The settings above form the basis for the clean tones you will hear in the examples. When adding overdrive, make sure you don’t oversaturate things, but rather let the clarity of the notes come through. Too much echo will also confuse things, so use just enough reverb to keep things sweet. And remember that an acoustic guitar is also suitable for these pieces.
Examples in four different styles
Our first example is a tribute to Pete Townshend, a great rhythm guitarist. The most important thing is to keep the hitting hand in a steady up and down motion. Since this is a 16th note pattern, the downbeats – the “one” and the “and” should be on downbeats, while the “e” and “a” should be on upbeats. This technique helps with flow and timing and makes it easier to lock into the groove. Why not try it acoustically?
Here’s a funky one in the style of Nile Rodgers or Cory Wong. Approach this example the same as Ex1. Keep your wrist loose and make an even up and down motion. There are some ghost notes here that can be added to the groove. To do this, raise your fret hand slightly so that it’s still in contact with the strings but not pressing all the way down on the fretboard.
This folksy idea is borrowed from Bob Dylan and a little bit from Mumford & Sons. It’s based on a G major chord but with moving bass notes. This style can be challenging at first, going from a precise single bass note to a strummed chord. Also, we’re in 6/8 time, so remember to think in 3s or 6s and count ‘1, 2 & 3 &, 4, 5 & 6 &’.
This one is a lot rockier, reminiscent of players like AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, whose rhythm guitar playing is as solid as it is legendary. This example differs from the others because it is played entirely with cuts. This approach is used to get a consistent sound and attack for each chord. However, you can also experiment with upward movements. The most important thing is that you connect with the bass and drums and don’t push yourself.
[Bars 1-8] Here you’ll find suspended chords and 16th note scrapes in a rock style akin to Pete Townshend’s. It’s important to use a combination of serve and serve and keep your wrist loose to encourage fluidity.
The most challenging part is hitting the D/F# chord quickly on bars 2 and 6. To help with this, I played the D/F# chord with my index finger on the 2nd fret, second finger on the 3rd fret of the second string and the third finger on the 4th fret of the fourth string.
[Bars 9-17] This section is based on a repeating sixteenth note pattern with a series of ascending chords. The A major chord with a C sharp in the bass (major third interval) supports the ascending chord progression.
Again, keep your wrist loose and aim for even up and down bows as noted on the score. Not only is it important to have the timing snap strongly, but also to keep the dynamics even, as the goal is not to have certain chords or strums louder than others.