As a guitar instructor at Long & McQuade, I have taught countless students (beginners to advanced) how to play or improve their chops.
There seems to be a great amount of mystery surrounding guitar strumming patterns. Most players believe that the patterns have to be identical to the recordings. While some songs are defined by these patterns (going way back to Bo Diddley, who had his own signature guitar rhythm style) and will not sound that good without them. These songs are limited in number. Most songs can be strummed with a basic pattern throughout the entire piece. From all my years of teaching, I have found the biggest problem stems from the way most songs are written out. The typical practice of writing the chords over the lyrics does not work very well. Students who practice songs this way constantly find themselves extending or cutting bars short (hence the strumming pattern) to match the lyrics. This will result in all kinds of problems. Different time signatures (the result of elongating or shortening the bar structure) will make it very difficult or impossible for other musicians to follow in a band situation. I have seen this happen many times.
When I teach strumming to students, I write the chord progressions in rhythm slashes according to the time signature of the piece (usually Common Time or 4/4). This results in a correct rhythm chart as the first step in learning the song. Students can then add in the correct phrasing for the lyrics according to these accurate charts. Let’s get started.
The first step is to learn how to read these rhythm charts. This is not all that difficult if you are familiar with standard notation notes and time values. Study the chart at the beginning of this lesson to familiarize yourself with this concept. The first measure of each line is the subdivisions of the beats written in rhythm slashes, while the second measure is the exact equivalent of the rhythm slashes written in the common standard notation form. Note the heads of the rhythm slashes have a different shape (diamond for whole and half notes and a simple slash for anything of smaller value). The stems will look the same as the standard notation notes.
Most medium to fast tempo songs can be played with a mixture of quarter and eight note rhythm slashes. Let’s start with a solid eighth note pattern. Count 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. Strum direction will be down-up, down-up, down-up, down-up. This is the normal approach, but it is not written in stone.
This is the basis of all the other quarter and eighth note strumming patterns. This pattern is usable but not very musical. All of the eighth notes running together like this will sound monotonous, frantic and will not give a clear indication of where the first beat is (a prominent marker indicating the bar structure and chord changes), not to mention that this rhythmic pattern is very hard on the strumming hand with no breaks to provide rest for the hand. However, it has been used numerous times, most often to accent a measure or two.
Quarter and Eighth Note Pattern One
Pattern One is perhaps the most used of the many variations. The first two eighth notes are combined to form a quarter note. The strum direction is down, down-up, down-up, down-up. The count is 1 2 & 3 & 4 &. The technique employed to execute these quarter and eighth note patterns is rooted in the strict Eighth Note pattern. In order to achieve consistent, rock-solid strumming patterns, keep your strumming hand moving in this strict Eighth Note pattern, but miss the strings on some of the strums. In this case, the hand comes up after the first downstroke and misses the strings to form the quarter note. Doing this will make sure that the quarter note at the beginning (on the first beat) gets its full value as opposed to being rushed and out of time with the rest of the pattern. This pattern also gives a clear indication as to where the start of the bar (the first beat) is.
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Quarter and Eighth Note Pattern Two
Pattern Two combines the four eighth notes from beats 1 and 2 to form two quarter notes. This pattern works well with faster tempo songs and gives a country/folk sound, especially when the second beat, the quarter note is accented (played louder than the rest of the strums). It should be obvious from just these two examples that many combinations of the quarter and eighth note patterns are available. Once again, keep your strumming hand moving in the strict eighth note pattern and miss the upstroke on the and (&) of the first and second beat.
Quarter and Eighth Note Pattern Three
This pattern combines the four eighth notes on beats 1 and 3 to form the quarter notes. I have used this pattern in "Runaway Train" from the band Soul Asylum for years. When played at a faster tempo, the pattern takes on a galloping Reggae sound. It is really noticeable when it is played with a swing feel. Miss the strings on the upstroke on the first and third beats to keep the rhythm rock solid.
Quarter and Eighth Note Pattern Four
Number four is a well-used pattern and works wonderfully for many songs, "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" come to mind. Number four is exactly the same as number one with a huge difference: the ‘tie’ between the and of the second beat and first half of the third beat. Miss the strings on the first half of the third beat (the tied note) and play the strings on the second half with an upstroke. This results in two upstrokes being played one after another. As long as your strumming hand is maintaining the strict down-up eighth note movement, this should work very well. In my experience, I have seen students fall into this with no problem while others have struggled. If you find this difficult, keep at it and remember to keep your hand flowing in a smooth movement. The way this pattern is counted (as all of these patterns) is the way they sound. In this case . . . one, two and, and four and. Stroke direction . . . down, down-up, up down-up.