June 28, 2011

I’m Bringing Groovy Back

Strumming is at the heart of all guitar playing.

So we have to learn to play our chords and make ’em groovy – it’s that simple.

Or is it?

In my experience, there seems to be two types of guitarists: the type who learn to strum with almost zero coaching, and the type who require some strum coaching for quite a long time before nailing it on their own.

If you find yourself in the first group, I congratulate you on being a natural born groovemeister. You are in the top 5% or so and can go to the head of the class. Unfortunately for the rest of us mere mortals, strumming needs to be coached. And coached. And sometimes coached some more.

And lest you think this post is designed for only the guitar newbies, let me assure you that I’ve witnessed many an “intermediate” guitarist whose strumming technique was nightmarish, and that’s being kind.

Here are three essential tips guaranteed to crank up any guitarist’s strumming technique!

1 – Follow the Golden Rule of Strumming

What is the Golden Rule of Strumming?

Never stop your hand. Never, ever.

Strumming is a continuous series of down-up movements, with the operative word being continuous. If you stop your hand, you will have a very difficult time getting back into the strumming groove.

Discipline yourself to keep that hand moving. It’s easy when we’re asked to play continuous notes; it becomes more challenging when the pattern “misses” a strum.

For example, when we are asked to strum up twice in a row, we must purposefully “miss” the downstrum in between the two upstrums. This is the critical element in the classic syncopated pattern, which misses the downstrum on beat three:

To be clear, “missing the downstrum” on beat 3 means that you DO strum down, but you miss the strings. Unfortunately most guitarists will fight this and actually stop their hand in the “up” position, after which much chaos usually ensues.

Keep your hand moving.

2 – Tap Your Foot

It amazes me how many inexperienced players fail to tap their foot when they play. Yet, I’d wager that most pro players you see are moving some part of their body to the beat of the song, to stay engaged on a deep rhythmic level.

And that is the key: if you don’t tap your foot or bob your head or something, you tend to disconnect from the groove of the song. Grooviness depends on that deep rhythmic connection.

Rhythm takes place on multiple levels simultaneously. The bottom level rhythm, the pulse of the song, is usually executed as quarter notes that are tapped with the foot.

If you don’t establish a strong pulse with your foot, you’re going to have a hard time developing a solid rhythm with your strum. The strum is responsible for the primary subdivision of the beat – 8th notes or 16th notes.

Practice the following exercises until you can do them in your sleep:

    1 – Tap quarter notes (1, 2, 3, 4) with your foot. Play quarter notes (1, 2, 3, 4) with all downstrums.
    2 – Tap quarter notes. Play 8th-notes (1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and) with down/up strums.
    3 – Tap quarter notes. Play 16th-notes (1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a) with down/up strums.
    4 – Tap quarter notes. Mix up your 8th- and 16th-notes.

3 – Strum Like “Flicking Water”

It’s very difficult to generate strumming speed with a stiff wrist, so practice moving your hand as if you had just finished washing it and were flicking the excess water off of it.

This lesson will explain this important concept in more depth: “Flicking Water”

Final Thoughts

The goal here is to put your strumming squarely in the Land of Groove. Make sure to practice my three essential strumming tips and together we can bring groovy back!

QUESTION: How would you rate your strumming ability? Leave me a comment below!


  1. […] time to get groovy once again! In our last installment, I’m Bringing Groovy Back, we talked about the three essential elements to making your strumming as groovy-licious as […]

  2. Gary Lacey says:

    Those are excellent tips for rhythm guitar playing. I’m going to try and do those exercises on a regular basis.

  3. jim says:

    Thanks, Gary – glad you liked the lesson! Obviously there’s a LOT more that goes into great rhythm playing, but these are essential elements that need to be locked in first. To take it a step further, check out the “Gettin’ Groovy, Part 2” post – hope you enjoy it. Cheers, jb

  4. Prawit says:

    This is an excellent approach!
    I agree with the continuous strumming technique and I used to be a strict follower of it.
    But I’ve adopted a new approach. I’ve found some complex strumming requires a conservation of motion in the hand, so to compensate, I imagine the continuous movement . Sometimes this results in me moving other body parts, such as head nods, foot taps, elbow swings etc. It’s most effective when I can simply imagine the movement without transferring it to any other body parts. That underlying pulse has to ultimately be felt somewhere to get good groove. 😉

    • jim says:

      Thanks Wit! I’m completely on board with what you’re saying, and I do it myself – but “imagining” the continuous movement is definitely a more advanced concept. I think a student has to progress through actually moving continuously, which is difficult enough, before they can imagine it (which I’m sure you’d probably agree with). And I also tell my students to move some part of their body – doesn’t have to be a foot tap – just do something to connect with that foundation pulse. Although initially they find it to be a coordination issue to play a rhythm that may “contradict” the foot-tapped pulse, ultimately they start to realize that it’s virtually impossible to have great time, rhythm and groove without connecting their hands to that underlying pulse. Good stuff!

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

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