how to strum a guitar

IMG_0095 by Kathi Rud, licensed under (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Many beginner guitarists don’t really know how to strum a guitar – not properly anyway. They often ‘fake it till they make it’ but unfortunately that can lead to bad habits.

Check your strumming regularly by ensuring you are not making the following very common mistakes that many guitarists make – especially beginners, but often experienced guitar players too.

I want you to be the absolute best guitarist you can be. To be so you will definitely have to get pretty hot with your strumming if you aren’t already.

Strumming is something that nearly every guitarist will do on a day to day basis – so we better make sure we are pretty good at it!

How To Strum A Guitar – 6 Common Mistakes To Avoid

Film yourself strumming a song on your guitar, and check to see if you are making these common mistakes.

Whether you play acoustic pop, hard rock, prog metal, or laid-back jazz, look out for the following strumming mistakes. If you find you make these mistakes regularly, head to the bottom of this post for a free mini-course on strumming.

Mistake 1) Strumming Purely From The Elbow Or The Wrist

When someone strums with a completely stiff wrist and does all the work from their elbow, I find it usually conjures images of C3P0 from Star Wars.

Imagine if he was strumming a guitar, that’s how it looks when your arm is completely stiff. (What song would he play? Something like Paranoid Android maybe? Haha)

Be relaxed with your strumming arm. Make sure there is some flexibility in the wrist AND the elbow. Remember the old adage:

‘The fretting hand is the brain, and the strumming hand is the soul’.

I love that phrase.

It is so true and so apt. Keep that in mind when strumming.

Having a relaxed elbow and wrist allows for more soul in your guitar playing as well as a more natural sounding strum.

Mistake 2) Not knowing any set strum patterns

Some guitarists just like to ‘wing it’ with their strumming patterns. Instead of being like Top Gun’s ‘Maverick’ and going all out and doing it on the fly, be a little more meticulous like ‘Goose’ and sit down and get prepared.

In my experience, most songs you will hear on the radio will use one of (or a variation) on 8 different strum patterns.

Therefore, you absolutely most definitely want to learn these 8 strum patterns in your sleep and be able to play them at will. This should be your absolute minimum.

Get seamless and natural with all the strum patterns you want to learn.

Be able to play them anywhere, any time, and then you will come across all ‘Maverick’ – being slick and cool, all while your audience think you are just winging it on the spot.

Be prepared to learn the essential strum patterns.

Mistake 3) Strumming the wrong strings

This is a fundamental error and one that can cause your guitar playing to sound sloppy rather than solid.

Strumming the wrong strings most commonly occurs on a D chord where the low E string is strummed. This sounds terrible and really makes a guitarist sound like an amateur.

To avoid strumming the low E string on a D chord, either don’t strum it (well, duh!) by not strumming with such a wide ‘arc’ or bring the thumb of your fretting hand over the fretboard to gently touch the 6th string.

This will kill off the low E note and stop it sounding like a pigeon has just come and dumped all over your D chord.

Instead, it will sound all heavenly, sexy and sweet just like a D chord should.

Mistake 4) Strumming all the strings, all of the time

When you strum every available string within a chord, all the time, it starts to grate on the listener’s ear – a little like a Bowling for Soup Chorus.

With a simple tweak, however, you can go from sounding annoying at worst or dull at best to sounding like a lively, sophisticated and professional sounding guitarist.

Just one small change can yield such big results. What you should be doing more of, is alternating at various points which part of the chord you strum.

You will want to mix up hitting just the bass strings (4,5,6), the treble strings, (1,2,3) and the full chord (all available strings) at different points.

Take a strum pattern you know and start playing about with which strings you hit at which points.

Start off by just playing the first strum or two on the bass strings and then the rest as usual. Later you can start getting more intricate with which parts of the strum pattern you hit on which strings.

Take it steady and integrate this into your playing slowly and very soon even when strumming some basic chords, your strumming will sound more professional than most – including some pros.

Mistake 5) ‘Harp Strumming’

This is common with beginners and occurs when you drag the pick over the strings in a way that creates the sound of a harp. Technically, you are arpeggiating the chord when doing this and it can sometimes sound cool – just like at the end of a song or in a dream-like sequence of a movie.

You do not want your strumming to sound like a harp any other time though. You want a crisp, fluid strum through the strings where you hear the sound of the strings ALL at the same time.

Use your index fingernail for down strums and the skin side of the index finger for up strums will help if you are a fingerstyle strummer.

If you use a pick and ‘harp strumming’ is a problem, grab one that is no thicker than 0.46. Thinner picks are easier to push fluidly through the strings.

Mistake 6) Pausing the strumming arm

Pausing when you strum is the number 1 cardinal sin of strumming. Doing it won’t send you to hell, but it will make your strumming sound like hell.

Music is all about rhythm. That little pause you may or may not do at the top or the bottom of a strum when playing a strum pattern will destroy all your rhythm.

Sometimes the pause is due to poor rhythm skills, sometimes a lack of confidence with your own strumming abilities and sometimes because of slow chord changes.

Keep your arm nice and flowing and breezy. If you are relaxed with your strumming arm, you will find this easier to do.

There are times with more advanced strumming that pausing the strumming arm can be done, but for any basic eighth note strums, you must keep your arm moving.

When learning a new strum pattern it is common for students to play the strum pattern through, pause at the end of the bar, then start again.

This is okay for a short period as it allows you to hear how one full bar of the strum should sound. Don’t let that become a habit though.

Keep your arm moving and your strumming will sound instantly better, more rhythmic and be more natural.

Make a video of yourself strumming, (film it now, just a 2-3 minute video will do!) and see if you make any of these mistakes.

If you make the above mistakes frequently, do not worry, knowing is the first step.

Once you are aware of what you are doing wrong, it’s easier to fix. If you want to improve your strumming skills quickly and in the proper way then join my free strumming mini course.


January 9, 2016 Reply

Paranoid Android is a song. Not an album. The album is called OK Computer.

January 9, 2016 Reply

Ooops, I meant something `like` Paranoid Android not `off` it. OK Computer is a classic. Thanks for highlighting.

The Most Painful Guitar Playing Mistakes And How To Avoid Them (Part 1) – Guitar Domination
January 9, 2016 Reply

[…] may notice mistakes with your strumming, with your chord changes, posture, timing, etc. There are a lot of variables that will be […]

January 19, 2016 Reply

Good article. But how do I strum strings 6,5,4,3 while muting strings 1 & 2. For ex 1231xx, or 1331xx

January 19, 2016 Reply

Thanks. It`s a feel thing. Don`t try to mute the strings you don`t want to strum. Instead, just avoid strumming them.

For example, when trying to hit strings 6,5,4 only, aim to stop the strum just about at the point you hit string 4. Don`t stress if you catch an extra string or two here or there. This method isn`t an exact science but an art that gets mastered over time with some thoughtful practice.

Good luck

May 14, 2016 Reply

Maybe better not to say “aim to stop” as we don’t want to stop strumming at all, rather change the angle of attack so that the pick/fingers come away from the strings before they hit the treble ones. If you hit slightly, that probably won’t matter.

May 14, 2016

I probably should have elaborated a bit as that`s a better way of saying it, Dee. Thanks for the comment

Q and A – Five Minutes With Singer Songwriter Harry Harris – Guitar Domination
February 17, 2016 Reply

[…] on your right hand more and try not to move your entire arm when you’re strumming. Work from the […]

November 7, 2018 Reply

Following the link to the strumming course takes me to a signup page which then redirects me to a 404.

Dan Thorpe
November 7, 2018 Reply

Thanks for that, Paul. If you try it now, the link will now work. 🙂 Thanks. Dan

How to Hold a Guitar
October 18, 2021 Reply

[…] beautiful quote says: “The fretting hand is the brain, and the strumming hand is the soul.” It must be kept […]

Add Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.