How Do You Know How Many Times to Strum a Chord


One of my best friends is a guitar teacher (and a really good one), his clients are mainly children, and recently he got an interesting question from a new student of his: “how do you know how many times to strum a chord?” this is what my friend Nicolas told his student:

  1. Listen to the song’s rhythm
  2. Count the beats in a bar (The most common rhythm is the 4/4 rhythm) tap your feet to the song to help you count the bars.
  3. Determine if the strumming pattern is based upon whole, quarter, eight or sixteen notes
  4. Strum your instrument based on the strumming patterns note value

I found this an exciting topic that’s why I decided to explore it further and create a comprehensive answer.

For further development, I strongly suggest you learn common strumming patterns, if you learn a few basic patterns you’ll see that playing guitar will be a lot easier and much more fun since these patterns have been used in plenty of songs!

I have created a guide that shows you the most common and weird strumming patterns, click here to download it for free and let’s begin your strumming journey together!

What is a strumming pattern?

Strumming pattern we call the upwards and downwards movements which occurs from our pick hand over a period of time, also these movements should musically fit within the measure of a song. In other words, a strumming pattern is how many times we strum the guitar strings up or down and when.

There is an infinite number of strumming patterns and its impossible for one person to learn them all. One ability that will benefit you is to recognize a strumming pattern by ear.

However, if you’re a beginner and you devote a few hours to learn a few basic patterns, I guarantee it will benefit you in the long term. Stay tuned because later on, we will discuss how to figure out the right strumming pattern when hearing a song.

How to count the beats in a bar

If you want to count the beats in a bar try focusing on the base instruments such as the “bass drum (kick)” or the “bass guitar”, then consider the genre of the song. Typically, in pop, country or rock music, you will hear the accent (strong part) of the kick on beats 1 & 3 and the snare on beats 2 & 4, that amounts to four beats in one bar which is the most common type of beat. For short, we refer to this beat as “the four-four beat” (4/4).

Sometimes instead of the 4/4 beat, songs use a “¾”, “6/8”,” 9/8” or some other type of beat, (strumming patterns are endless) but these are not that common, not at least modern pop music.

How many beats are there in one 4/4 bar song?

  • A 4/4 time has 4 quarter notes per bar (measure). (One-quarter note has one beat.)
  • How many beats are there in a 2/4 bar song?
  • A 2/4 time has 2 quarter notes per bar (measure). (One-quarter note has one beat.)
  • How many beats are there in a 3/4 bar song?
  • A ¾ time has 3 quarter notes per bar (measure). (One-quarter note has one beat.)

A few examples:

“Yesterday” by “The Beatles” is a 4/4 song.

“I can’t feel my face” by “The Weeknd” is a 4/4 song.

“House of the rising sun” performed by “The Animals” is a 6/8 song.

“Gravity” by “John Mayer” is a ¾ song.

Listen to these songs and try to understand the differences between each song rhythm, also pay close attention to the strumming patterns that are being used.

How to determine upon which note values a strumming pattern is based

The easiest way to determining the note values of a strumming pattern is to:

    1. Understand that every piece of music is divided into parts which are called bars or measures;
    2. Every bar in a piece of music has an equal number of beats.
    3. Each song has a time signature attached to it, for example, a 4/4 signature means there are four beats (measures) in one bar.
    4. A strumming pattern must oblige the boundaries imposed by the time signature, but the time signature does not determine the strumming pattern. In other words, a 4/4 time signature can include whole notes, half notes, eighth notes or any kind of note value for that matter.

A few examples:

“Galway Girl” by Ed Sheeran, this song is a 4/4 song, listen to the strumming pattern and compare it to the following two songs

“Should’ve Been Us” by “Tori Kelly” is also a 4/4 song

“Imagine” by “John Lennon” is a 4/4 song

You see that all three songs are based upon the 4/4 time signature, but their strumming patter significantly differs when compared to each other, this is due to the note values used in the strumming pattern.

Also, remember that it’s common to use a combination of different note values in a strumming pattern, for example, eight notes combined with quarter and sixteen notes.

If you try to strum along with a beat that isn’t a 4/4 one, follow the same process we talked about above the only difference is that now, we have to measure the beat differently.

How do you know when to strum up or down?

Firstly listen carefully to the song, this advice might seem redundant, but it’s the best way to know how to strum effectively.

Regardless of the strumming pattern a good rule of thumb is: you should maintain a steady up-down rhythm when playing your instrument your first priority should always be staying in metre, (a fancy word for saying you should stay in time).

Look at a couple of YouTube videos and look for different song performances, if you do you’ll notice that a downstroke has a different sound quality compared to an upstroke, if you pay close attention to the subtle sound differences you will be able to recognize by ear when to strum up or down.

How do you know which strumming pattern to use?

Knowing which strumming pattern to use depends, of course upon the song. Yes, you can practice different strumming styles and develop muscle memory, but when you are trying to learn a new song you’re not going to think “I should play this down, up, down, down, up, down” that’s not how music works! But I can show you one neat little trick 😉

If you want to determine which strumming pattern to use when learning a new song try to mute all the strings with your fret hand (just touch all of the strings lightly in the middle of the neck so none of them can ring out) and try to play the song’s pattern with your pick hand, we do this to pick up the rhythm, use your ears and you will notice when it sounds right.

What strings to strum when playing a chord?

“The A major chord”

Knowing which string to strum comes with experience but here is a general guideline:

When playing open chords such as: A major, A minor D major, D minor, C major, C minor, you should strum all strings except the sixth string (lower E)

When playing the following open chords: E major, E minor, G major, G minor, you should strum all strings.

Next, we have 5 string bar chords and six-string bar chords. Five-string bar chords are all bar chords that are being played using the A minor, A major, C major positioning.

Example:

If to play a C-minor five-string bar chord:

  1. Play an open A minor chord without using your index finger.
  2. Slide your fingers up to the fourth fret.
  3. Now on the third fret add your index finger across all strings. Our purpose here is to fret (play) all remaining strings with our index finger EXCEPT the lower E string.

The same rules and technique also apply for the A major and C major positioning.

Six bar chords are all bar chords that use the E major, E minor, finger positioning somewhere on the guitar neck.

For to play a G-major six-string bar chord:

“The G major chord”

    1. Play an E major chord without using your index finger.
    2. Slide your fingers up to the fourth fret.
    3. Now on the third fret add your index finger across all strings. Our purpose here is to fret (play) all remaining strings with our index finger INCLUDING the lower E string.

    How to count quarter or eight notes

    Being able to count the beat of a song is very important; We will now focus on quarter and eight notes.

    Remember when we talked about counting the beat of a song? One trick we used was tapping our feet while listening to the song, take for example “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. Go put the song on, then tap your feet on the kick drum. Did you do it?… Great, you just tapped quarter notes!

    How to count quarter notes:

    • Most songs are in 4/4 time. Therefore you count: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 those would usually be quarter notes.

    Let’s now move on to eight notes.

    How to count eight notes:

    • If you want to count eight notes simple add an “and” in-between each number

    So instead of 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 we would have 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4.

    This is how to hold a guitar pick

    Hold the pick between your thumb and index finger, the pick should be held in a way, so it comes out of the side of your thumb finger while also holding it with the tip of your index finger.

    When strumming, remember not to hold the pick too firmly in your hand, instead, incorporate a loose grip that has a fair amount of balance when hitting the strings. Look at the included pictures for a visual representation.

    Conclusion

    Knowing how many times to strum a chord requires practice and ear training, theory can help, but eventually, you must be able to just “hear what the song needs” and if you practice daily, I’m certain you’ll get there!

    If you want a jumpstart, download my free strumming pattern guide that shows you the most common and weird strumming patterns, click here to download it for free and let’s begin your strumming journey together!

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