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Guitar Strumming Patterns And Rhythms You Need To Know

If you’re learning to play guitar, it’s likely that one of the basic skills you are looking to achieve is the ability to strum along with the songs you know and love. However, as a beginner, it can be the case that your mind is filled with questions:

But, how should I strum THIS piece?

Why doesn’t my strumming sound SMOOTH?

How many strums should I do before changing chords?

Before we look at strumming patterns and how to play them, there's a couple of basic things you need to remember that goes for any strumming pattern.

Loosey goosey, baby!

First up, when you’re strumming chords on your guitar, it’s important to keep a loose, relaxed wrist. You might remember Jack Black on ‘School Of Rock’ instructing his young student to be, “loosey goosey, baby!”

Keeping loose is the key to effective strumming. If you try, without your guitar, relaxedly strumming the air up and down, you’ll probably notice that you do so with natural rhythm.

As you strum the air, if you say the words, “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” whilst going down-up-down-up-down-up-down-up, you’ll be strumming in 4/4 time. Now, pick up your guitar and do the same!

Hold your pick correctly

As well as keeping a loose wrist, the way you hold your pick is important. Ensure that you are holding it between your thumb and forefinger, with the remaining fingers sticking out, like you’re making the ‘OK’ hand gesture.

A lot of people also prefer to use thinner picks for strumming, as they are softer against the strings, but which pick you use is largely down to your personal preference.

Know your strumming pattern notations

There are 3 main ways in which strumming patterns are notated: using symbols, using letters, and using arrows.

Using symbols

Probably the most ‘proper’ way of notating strumming patterns is by using the following symbols:

These are often combined with music notation, and are most commonly seen in books, magazines or other resources that you’ve paid for! Once you know what these symbols mean, they’re easy to follow and can guide you well.

Using letters

Using letters is often the most informative way of transcribing strum patterns.

As well as ‘D’ for down and ‘U’ for up, there are some more elements covered using letters:

Capital D = Loud Downstroke
Lower Case d = Soft Downstroke
Capital U = Loud Upstroke
Lower Case u = Soft Upstroke
B = Bass Note

As you can see, this method also allows for dynamics to be expressed, and the ‘B’ for bass note is a useful feature. Often, songs don’t require all of the strings to be strummed on every down stroke. The bass note - i.e. the first note of your chord - can be played alone sometimes, to give the music more shape.

An example of a strum pattern written in this way is:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 
D   D U  U D U

The 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + written above the letters tells you which beat to play your up or down stroke on. In this example, they’re all loud!

Because we believe that this method is the most effective and easy to read, we will be using it in our strum pattern examples below.

Using arrows

Perhaps the most obvious way of reading strum patterns is using arrows.

Like with the letters method, you often have 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + written above your arrows, so you know which beat to strum on.

Occasionally, people who draw these diagrams might include small arrows, for softer strums, whilst using large arrows for full strums. However, more commonly, all arrows are the same size, like this:

Guitar strumming patterns

So, now we know how to read strum pattern diagrams, we’re ready to start strumming! Here are some great patterns to get you started:

Beginner strumming patterns

‘The folk strum’

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
D   D U  U D U

This strumming pattern, sometimes referred to as the ‘Folk Strum’ is the most commonly used strumming pattern. It mixes down strokes with up strokes and - once you get the hang of it - it flows easy.

When there are two down strokes in a row, your hand will need to come back up again without striking the strings. You might think it’s easier to just go down then up and keep strumming - it sounds the same, right? However, if you do that, it will be harder to maintain a consistent rhythm, and will feel confusing after a few bars.

This strum pattern has been used in lots of songs, and fits with even more. Here are 3 popular songs which use this pattern on the recording:

Greenday - Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)

Van Morrison - Brown Eyed Girl

Outkast - Hey Ya!

Strumming with bass notes

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 
B   D U B   D U

This bouncy pattern is pretty easy to play and has a rewarding danceability to it!

I like to think of it as: “Boom, chinga, boom, chinga,” as the bass notes work as “booms” and the down-ups make a “chinga!” sound.

It fits in really well with country style / folky music, and has been used on the recordings of the following 3 songs:

Johnny Cash - Ring Of Fire

Grateful Dead - Friend Of The Devil

John Denver - Follow Me

The rock strum

1 + 2  + a 3 +  4 + a
d d D d u d d D d u

This indie/rock strum pattern includes accented strums, as you can see by the capital Ds.

When there are lower case Ds, your strums should only hit about 2-3 strings, and when they’re big Ds you can strum all of the strings that are included in your chord.

The accents here are on beats 2 and 4, which is what gives it that rock sound, and you might have noticed there are some extra strums here. After the + following the 2 and after the + following the 4 is an “a.” This is a fast beat between the ones you’re used to counting.

It will be easiest if you count aloud:

1 + 2 + a 3 + 4 + a, or you might prefer to simply say: Coffee, strawberry, coffee, strawberry. The rhythm of these words will give you the rhythm of your strumming pattern.

Here are 3 songs you can listen to to hear the strum pattern in use, and then play along to:

Eagle Eye Cherry - Save Tonight

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Dani California

Oasis - D’You Know What I Mean?

Advanced strumming patterns

The beginner strum patterns are great, but you might want to enhance your palette after a while!

Some more advanced strumming patterns, which can really help you to take your playing to the next level, are:

The ‘gallop’

1 + a  2 + a 3 + a  4 + a
D DU D DU D DU D DU

If you’re into heavy metal, you’ll have heard quite a lot of ‘galloping’ in some of your favourite songs.

The often super-fast pattern of DDU DDU DDU DDU sounds like a horse galloping, and can give some real energy to the music.

Remember to keep your wrist loose here, otherwise your arm might fall off!

Here are some famous uses of the galloping rhythm:

Iron Maiden - Run To The Hills

Europe - The Final Countdown

Heart - Barracuda

Swinging in 3

Everything until this point has a) been in 4/4 time, b) used a pretty straight rhythm.

As you get more and more advanced on the guitar, it would make sense that you are also becoming increasingly musical. Playing with a swing is something you can do to exercise those musical muscles.

1 + 2 +  3 + 
B   D U D U (swing feel)

Although it looks straight like the other charts, your 1 + 2 + 3 + here actually means: 1..+ 2..+ 3..+ 4..+. You stretch every other beat.

If you need to hear this, there are 3 examples below which you can play along to using the swinging pattern in 3/4.

Cary Brothers - Blue Eyes

Diana Jones - My Remembrance Of You

Sarah McLachlan - Angel

Switching syncopation

Our trickiest strum pattern here is this one, where the syncopated strums switch positions!

1 + 2 +  a 3 e + 4 + a
  D   D D U   U D D D U

It’s best to tackle this in two halves when you’re learning it.

So,

1 + 2 +  a 
D   D D U 

Tea, strawberry. These words will give you the rhythm. This is straightforward enough: tea, strawberry. Play it a few times.

Now you’re ready for:

3 e + 4 + a
  U D D D U

Here we see an ‘e’: something we’ve not seen before. When there were ‘a’s included, we used the word “Strawberry” to help us to find the rhythm. Now we need a different word: chocolate.

So, we have: Tea, strawberry, chocolate… only there’s a catch!

There is no strum on beat 3, so our ‘choc’ is silent. We play: Tea, strawberry, (choc)olate.

Try that a few times, ensuring to miss out the ‘choc’ from chocolate, and then add the 4+a on the end, which will be a strawberry.

You can learn this strum pattern using the words: tea, strawberry, (choc)olate, strawberry.

If you’d rather have a listen, you can hear it in the three songs below:

MGMT - Time To Pretend

Rolling Stones - Shine A Light

U2 - One

Final thoughts

Strumming patterns are an essential part of everybody’s learning journey on the guitar, and having a few solid ones up your sleeve can really transform you from a nervous beginner into a confident player.

There are three main ways of reading strumming patterns, but the most informative and immediately graspable is using letters  D, U and sometimes B for a bass note, underneath numbers showing the beats of the bar.

There are also a few ‘main’ strumming patterns out there.

The first one: the folk strum, goes with an enormous amount of songs so we’d recommend that you make nailing that your priority. Then, if you like a bit of country, go for the second one, which involves some bass notes, giving you even more good technique.

If rock and indie is more your thing, you might want to skip the country style on and dive straight to our 3rd example, which also includes accents and will develop your awareness of dynamics.

The more advanced ones we shared were a little more technically demanding. The heavy metal gallop is often played with great speed, so it might mean that you need to build up some stamina.

The swinging strumming pattern, in 3/4 is a different style completely, but gaining a mastery of both swinging your beats and playing in time signatures different to 4/4 are great skills to have. And it sounds really cool!

The last one is the most tricky, with all of the syncopation it involves. We recommend listening to the songs, and trying to clap the strumming pattern before you strum it on your guitar. You will get it, and when you do, you won’t want to stop playing it!

If any of the strum patterns feel like a struggle to start with, you can always break them down. 4 beats in a bar can just as easily be 2 + 2 beats in a bar. Remember to relax, your wrist as well as your mind, and enjoy the music.

Have fun!

Roz is a music teacher and our go-to person for anything music theory! When she’s not teaching or writing for Zing, Roz writes and plays in alternative/ psyche /art rock band The Roz Bruce Infusion.

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