Rhythm can be a tricky thing for beginner guitar students. Some people have a natural internal sense of rhythm; others struggle to stay on beat. For those who are naturals at rhythm, determining strum patterns can be a simple task. However, those who fight with the down beat can also learn how to pair a strum pattern with a song. The following steps provide a starting point for your strumming:
1. Define the time signature. The time signature determines how you count the beat of a song. The most common time signature is four-four (also called common time). 80% of songs you will ever play will be written in this time signature. How do you know? If the drummer would count “1-2-3-4!” to start the song, it’s in four-four. Try counting the beat of the song. Does it sound right when you count “1-2-3-4” and repeat? Then the song is in four-four. This time signature has a very straight, “wooden” feel to it.
There are two other time signatures that pop up on occasion. Six-eight counts the beat with “1-2-3, 4-5-6” or “1-and-a, 2-and-a”. This time signature has a swing feel with an emphasis on beat one and a lesser emphasis on beat four. A really great example of six-eight time is “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals.
Three-four is a time signature that is closely related to six-eight, but it counts the beat “1-2-3” with a strong emphasis on beat one. Three-four is called “waltz time” because… well, waltzes are in three-four! “Amazing Grace” is a famous song written in three-four (though most people try to make it fit four-four).
2. Start simple. Once you have defined the time signature, begin strumming along with simple down strokes. Don’t feel the need to jump into a complicated strum pattern. Strum along, make your chord changes in the right spots and listen to the song. It’s important in this step to simply get a feel for the song.
3. Listen for the rhythmic character of the song. Now that you’re playing along and the song is comfortable for you, pay attention to the drum line and the meter of the lyrics. These are two very important elements that give the song its rhythmic character. For example, the drum line of “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash sounds like the clatter of a freight train, “boom-chika-boom-chika”. Your strum pattern should share this character.
When listening for the meter of the lyrics, pay attention to the ebb and flow of syllables. Does the singer draw out words in certain spots and move more quickly through others? Maybe you should use a flowly strum pattern with a combination of longer and shorter strokes. Does he/she blast through syllables like a machine gun with a short, staccato attack? Perhaps a quick pattern with only eighth notes would fit best. The vocal phrasing of the song should help you determine if you need a longer strum pattern that take a whole measure or a shorter pattern that repeats itself within the measure.
4. Strum along. Now that you have settled on a strum pattern, strum along with the original recording. Does it fit? If not, keep trying. Sometimes you will struggle to match a strum pattern exactly to the recording. As long as the time signature is right and you maintain the rhythmic character of the song, you can “fake it” with a strum pattern that is less than exact.
5. Notate it. This step is not mandatory but it is quite helpful. If you take the time to listen to you write your strum pattern in standard notation, you will better develop your understanding of rhythm which can, in turn, help solidify your internal rhythm.
Solid rhythm is foundational to being a good guitarist. Have fun learning to make up strum patterns!