In contemporary guitar pedagogy, the rhythm hand (the right hand in right-handed individuals) is often overlooked. The initial stages of guitar tuition frequently stress learning open chord shapes as the primary curriculum. Little attention is paid to when and how to attack these voicings. It is my experience, therefore, that many of my students who have attempted self-teaching or learned from an unqualified instructor usually struggle to play chords in time or employ a consistent, clean rhythm pattern. This is a major detriment towards their guitar playing, as music is foremost about being in step with oneself and other musicians. Those who struggle with rhythm will rarely make it out of their bedrooms with their instrument.
In order to groove with other musicians, it is imperative to have a great deal of rhythm patterns at one’s disposal. Yet before we even begin to build our rhythmic toolbox, it is vital to have a method for approaching and learning each one. Students with an intrinsically strong sense of rhythm or a previous musical background can many times pick them up by ear or by mimicking their instructor. However, even the most gifted of pupils will hit a wall where the limits of their talent will not allow them to progress without a disciplined approach. Less rhythmically experienced students, conversely, will immediately benefit from developing a strategy for learning new strum patterns. Therefore, the method outlined below will be beneficial to all students regardless of their present level of progress.
Write down the strum pattern.
This might seem like a tedious or remedial step, but rhythmic inaccuracies can commonly be caused by a simple lack of familiarity with the pattern. Hence, a visual reference will alleviate this trouble. Start by writing down the eighth notes of the time signature like so:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
Now write out the attacks of the pattern above each beat on which they fall. One might look like this:
B D U B D U
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
Notice we have different types of attacks. D and U stand for downstroke and upstroke respectively. B means pluck the bass note of the chord. An M means a left hand mute and an X means right hand mute. How to accomplish these attacks will be laid out elsewhere on this site.
2. Set a metronome and say the pattern aloud.
I mean to call special attention to this instruction. Above all other points in this method, verbalizing the pattern is the most necessary and ignored. The areas of the brain which are responsible for language and rhythm overlap and, ergo, by first internalizing a rhythm pattern through speech, we can better employ it physically. Or, as is more commonly stated, “if you can say it, you can play it”.
For the rhythm outlined above, one would say “bass, down up, bass, down up.” The words “bass” and “down’” would fall on the clicks of the metronome as you will notice they are positioned above the numbers. The “up” attacks will be spoken between clicks as they fall on the “ands” or upbeats. For an M, one can say “mute” and for an “X” one can make a “tsk” sound with their tongue and teeth as though they are offended by something a person said.
3. While continuing to speak the strum pattern, begin employing it on a static chord.
Any chord is fine, though I recommend a voicing that utilizes all six strings so that one does not have to avoid any strings in their strumming motion. The mission here is to transfer the pattern from our lingual center to our muscle memory. It is as impractical to consciously read any rhythm stroke by stroke as it is to read a word letter by letter. Rhythms must be internalized into our memory so they we can apply them unconsciously. This frees our conscious mind to focus on other matters, such as singing lyrics or looking ahead for chord changes.
A regular error in this section of the method is to have the rhythm of hands match our words, but not the directions or instructions. We might do a downstroke while we say “up” or a downstroke when we say “bass.” It is the intention of this section to iron out these wrinkles. If you find yourself making this mistake, stop and repeat the pattern aloud by itself a few times before re-applying the strumming hand.
4. Practice the strum pattern by itself.
Once we have established a strong connection between our mouth and arm, it is time to remove the training wheels and practice the strum pattern on its own. Pay careful attention at this juncture that you do not lose the appropriate execution of the attacks. If you find your arm traveling in the wrong direction or apply downstrokes in the place of bass attacks, return to step three until the problem is fixed.
This stage should be repeated until it takes no concentration to execute the strum pattern properly. Our aim is to build this pattern into our muscle memory so our attention can be given to other musical factors. Try speaking aloud or holding a conversation as you strum. If you find yourself unable to put together complete sentences without losing concentration or dropping beats as you speak, continue practicing until you can do both seamlessly.
5. Apply the strum pattern to a tune.
No musical technique is worthwhile in a vacuum; anything you learn needs to be placed in the context of a musical piece or it is worthless and will be forgotten. You are probably learning this rhythm pattern with a tune you want to play in mind, so finding a context in which to apply it should be easy. If you don’t already have one, now is the time to find it. Choose something without a challenging chord progression or voicing as our chief concern is applying our strum pattern.
As you work on the tune, emphasize switching the chord in time without stopping the strumming. If your pattern ends on an upstroke, you’ll need to replace it with a muted strum in order to make your switch in rhythm. Don’t worry; this a very common practice used by professionals.
After you’ve completed these five steps, the strum pattern should be yours. Once you begin to recognize it in songs, it will eliminate this whole process and you can just play the tune! Over time you may forget a pattern, but it will be easier to re-acclimate yourself the second time around. Each tune you apply it to will also deepen you mastery of the pattern. Having a good ten patterns you can pull out at any time is crucial to the rhythm chops of any guitarist. Try applying this method to as many patterns as you can until you feel comfortable approaching most tunes.