I’ve taught this strumming lesson to hundreds of students, and I also have a blog post on my website where thousands more have learned to strum. By the end of it, you’ll know how to play what I call the folk strum pattern, which can be used to play tons of songs, not just folk songs.

Here are four tips to remember as we go through the seven exercises in this lesson.

Keep Moving - Your arm should be moving in a constant down-up-down-up rhythm, whether or not you’re actually striking the strings on that particular pass.
Strum from the elbow - Your wrist should be relaxed, but not moving very much. Most of the strumming motion comes from flexing your elbow.
Keep the pick perpendicular to the strings - Often beginners will tilt the pick up on downstrokes and down on upstrokes so that the pick doesn’t get “caught” on the strings. The problem is, all that tilting is impossible once you start strumming more quickly, and can produce an uneven sound. It’s better to just learn to grip the pick lightly, even if it rotates in your hand or ends up on the floor once in a while.
Strum with a wide arc - Beginners tend to just barely pass over the strings as they strum. This can cause the strumming to sound choppy, where you can hear individual strings being struck. Instead, you want to hear all the strings being struck almost simultaneously, in a burst of sound. Strumming in a wide arc will increase the speed that your pick passes over the strings. It’s also harder to aim properly when you do this, but you’ll get it!

Ex. 1

Let’s practice these guidelines by strumming all downstrokes, one strum per beat. But before we start, let’s take a look at how I write strum patterns:

D   D   D   D
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

The lower line is the beats (the numbers) of the measure with the upbeats (the plus signs) in between. The upper line shows when you strum–D’s are downstrums, and U’s are upstrums. As you strum, you can count along by saying “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and.” Move your arm down on the numbers and up on the “and’s”. In this first exercise, strum the strings on all downstrokes. When you get to the end of the measure, start over immediately.

Let’s do this eight times together. Focus on keeping your arm moving, strumming from the elbow, keeping the pick perpendicular to the strings, and strumming in a wide arc. Here we go.

Ex. 2

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Now let’s try all down and upstrokes, eight times together.

Ex. 3

Next I want you to practice using your arm as a metronome, keeping it moving up and down even when you’re not strumming.

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

If this were really a guitar part in a song played by an experience guitarist, he or she probably wouldn’t be moving their arm that much–it does look a bit silly–but they would almost certainly be doing something with their body to keep in rhythm: Tapping their foot, bobbing their head, doing the Elvis knee-jerk, whatever. When you see musicians on stage doing this, it’s not just because they’re digging the music--that’s what you do to stay in rhythm. You should find your own favorite way of keeping the beat with your body--if you don’t have one already--but for now, just keep that arm swinging.

Ex. 4

Now you’re strumming twice per measure. Keep that arm moving!

D       D
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Ex. 5

OK, here’s the first part of the folk strum pattern. Can’t you
feel the excitement mounting?

D   D U
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Here I’m going to depart from counting the beats. As strum patterns get more complex, I find it’s easier to say the “down’s” and “up’s” as you’re strumming them. I also say “rest” on the beats you don’t strum--I find it helps remind you to move your arm.

Ex. 6

Ok, brace yourself, now we’re entering the Death Zone of this lesson. This pattern is the most syncopated one so far. Syncopated music stresses upbeats, the “and’s”, and this pattern has two strums on upbeats in a row. Syncopated music is hard to play, but without it, George Clinton would have been a tuba player in a polka band.

D   D U   U
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Ex. 7

Here it is, the holy grail of beginning strumming, the Folk Strum Pattern.

D   D U   U D U
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

The other patterns in these exercises were merely warm-ups. The Folk Strum Pattern, on the other hand, is used in a ton of songs, so keep working on it until you can play it in your sleep.

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