The Quick-and-Dirty Method to Learning Basic Strum Patterns by Ear

The Quick-and-Dirty Method to Learning Basic Strum Patterns by Ear 

After months of learning the guitar and having songs spoon fed to them, students tend to become curious and try to learn songs on their own.  Typically they will find a simple song with chords they recognize, but become befuddled by a new and unfamiliar strum pattern.  Sometimes students will simply substitute a strum pattern with which they are more comfortable for the unfamiliar pattern, while other times they’ll simply throw their hands in the air in surrender.  However, once a player possesses a basic facility with strumming and is comfortable with both down and upstrokes, learning strum patterns by ear is fairly simple and intuitive.  I’ll break it down in a few easy steps so you can begin figuring out strum patterns on your own.

1. Tapping Out the Rhythm

For your first attempt at strum pattern transcription, select a song where the guitar can be clearly heard above the other instruments.  If the song has only guitar and vocals or begins with the guitar alone, even better. It also helps to slow the tempo of the recording down to a manageable speed on Youtube or using a slow down app.  Looping a short section may also be helpful.

Strum patterns are fairly repetitive, so as you are listening to the song, try to zero in on the recurring rhythmic idea the guitar is performing.  Once you feel you have the pattern down, begin tapping out the rhythm with your finger tips on your leg or a nearby object.  Listen to what you are tapping and make sure it lines up.  Continue to do this until you have the pattern down so well and accurately that you can tap it when the music isn’t playing.

Let’s use “Mr. Jones” by The Counting Crows as an example.  Listen to the strum pattern on the intro and try to tap out the rhythm.  It will help if you slow the track down a bit (very easy to do on Youtube) and loop the section.

Counting Crows - Mr. Jones (Official Music Video)
Counting Crows – Mr. Jones (Official Music Video)

2.  Verbalize the Pattern

Once you are tapping the pattern reliably and easily, begin to articulate it verbally with simple “dums” and “das.”  Don’t think too much about which syllable any given attack should be; this should be manageable intuitively.  Continue to do this until you can repeat the pattern accurately and reliably.  As the verbalized pattern becomes comfortable, stop tapping the pattern with your hand and only speak it aloud.  Pay attention to the accent pattern; “dums” will be accented strums while “das” will be unaccented.  On “Mr. Jones” this will sound something like “Dum da Dum-da, da Dum da Dum-da, da.

3.  Strum the Pattern on Your Guitar

Before applying the strum pattern directly to the guitar, let your hand flow back and forth over the strings in a mimed strumming pattern while you continue to articulate the strum pattern.  Notice with which strums the pattern you are articulating lines up.  Also take note of how the tempo, feel and time signature work with an alternating up and down strumming motion and whether you need to switch to an all-downstroke pattern or another time signature.

Once you feel confident pantomiming and speaking the strum pattern, start applying it to the strings using whichever chord begins the song section you are transcribing (for Mr. Jones it is A minor) while still articulating the pattern verbally.  This will likely require a few attempts, but should also be manageable intuitively.  The key is to allow your strumming hand to flow up and down freely, only applying the pick to the strings to strum when it matches the verbalized pattern.  As you begin to reliably produce the desired strum pattern with your arm, start to fade out the verbalized pattern.

4. Transcribe the Pattern

Once you can strum the pattern comfortably, take the added step of writing it down for future study.  This will help both when you return to the song during a future practice session as well as in recognizing similar patterns more readily.  Pay attention to what direction each strum you apply to the guitar is traveling,  writing down a “D” for each downstroke and a “U” for each upstroke.  Leave a bit of commensurate space for each strum that deliberately misses the strings.  If you wish to be more detailed, you can use lowercase letters for unaccented strum and uppercase letters for accented strums.

For Mr. Jones, the pattern should look like:

D     D      D  U     U

1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  

This method will suffice for most basic strum patterns.  As become a more talented rhythm player and more experienced listener, you will begin to pick out subtleties like bass notes and muted strings (the “+” of 4 in Mr. Jones is actually a muted strum).  I recommend practicing this method on ten or more songs to get it down, whether you go on to learn the whole piece or not.