Reading strumming patterns for guitar can be a bit daunting at first. Once you get the hang of it, you will be fine. Stick with it as it is a very useful skill to learn. When reading a strum pattern use your eyes to guide you but make sure you follow your ears. After all music is meant to be listened to so it must sound right.
That being said, when you are fairly new to guitar it can be almost impossible to correctly work out the strumming patterns that many guitarists use. One of the best ways is to learn certain popular strumming patterns and learn lots of songs that use these patterns. Some songs have subtle variations of certain patterns and you will get to know these over time. If you are not sure how to read rhythms, this article will show you. Then, you can learn 3 of the most popular strumming patterns used by guitarists the world over.
How to read guitar strumming patterns
Ok, here we go.
There are 4 beats per bar in most music in the western world. This is called 4/4 time. We simply have 4 evenly spaced out beats per bar. When you put the radio on, most of what you will hear will be in 4/4 time.
The four beats are represented by numbers as shown in the diagram below. These are called quarter notes and there are 4 per bar. Quarter notes occur in music on the downbeat, or where you would simply tap your foot.
If you are strumming your guitar and you played all quarter notes you would strum 4 down strums.
The word ‘AND’ in between is how you break down each beat into smaller sections. These are called eighth notes and there are 8 per bar. Eighth notes are twice as fast as quarter notes.
You are simply filling in those spaces in between the numbers. There are still 4 beats in the measure BUT now we have added more music in the gaps.
To count eighth notes we add he word “and” in between the numbers. Count four nice and evenly: 1, 2, 3, 4.
Now add an “and” in between each number you count – keeping the counted numbers you spoke in the exact same “place”: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…You are filling in the spaces don’t forget. You now have 8 counts. The 4 numbers, plus the four “and”s.
If you are strumming your guitar and you played all eighth notes you would strum 8 strums which would consist of 4 down and 4 up.
To play sixteenth notes, you will play 16 notes per bar. These sound pretty fast.
To count sixteenth notes, you use the vowels ‘e’ and ‘a’. Again these fill in the spaces, just like ‘and’ does for eighth notes: 1 e and a 2 e and a 4 e and a 4 e and a.
If you are strumming your guitar and you played all sixteenth notes you would strum 16 strums which would consist of 8 down and 8 up in a continous motion.
One of the best exercises you can do to improve your rhythm guitar skills is to take a metronome, set it to a tempo of about 80 bpm, and play ONE NOTE repetitively while leaving the metronome running for as many bars as necessary with just quarter notes. Then do the same for just eighth notes, and then the same for just sixteenth notes.
Keep trying one note length until you are completely comfortable playing in perfect time with the metronome. This alone will dramatically improve your rhythm skills and give you a much better understanding of rhythm as a whole.
Once you are confident doing this, you can try one bar each of quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes, and then when comfortable just one beat of each.
It will be difficult at first and may take you a few days or weeks to be able to do this comfortably but stick with it. Practice it just for a few minutes each day and I guarantee you will be improving your rhythm skills dramatically.
Many students who have come to me for lessons have played for years and can’t do this. They often have good understanding of chords and melodies but struggle with this.
This exercise is one of the first things I teach them and their playing almost immediately sees a big improvement. I guarantee if you do this you will be getting a head start on most guitarists out there.
Get in the groove
I recommend counting out loud and just get to thinking in “time”. Listen to the radio or your favourite songs and count to the beat: 1, 2, 3, 4 (quarter notes). Then keep counting the beat and add the “ands” (eighth notes). The, whilst keeping count add the “e and a” (sixteenth notes).
There are lots of different types of rhythm out there in western music such the ones stated above plus other different types such as dotted rhythm and triplets, but these are a bit more advanced. If you want to be a good guitarist, you will definitely need to have a good understanding of quarter, eighth and sixteenth as an absolute minimum especilly before you think about more advanced rhythms.
Quarter note = 1 whole beat – There are 4 x quarter notes per bar.
Eighth note = 1/2 of a beat – There are 8 x eighth notes per bar.
Sixteenth note = 1/4 of a beat – There are 16 x sixteenth notes per bar.
Keep your arm moving?
When practicing strumming you should keep your arm moving even when you don’t intend to strum the chord. i.e…The rhythm comes from keeping your hand moving consistently, but not making contact with the strings at certain points. Don’t forget, keep your hand moving in the down up motion, but only make contact with the strings on the counts shown above – where the D’s and U’s are.
- D = Downstrum
- U = Upstrum
- v = Accent
- Numbers = quarter notes
- AND = eighth notes
- ‘e’ and ‘a’= sixteenth notes
Hopefully all this makes sense. It’s a huge subject and one you simply must be comfortable with to be the best guitarist possible.
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