My students typically fall under 2 categories:

  1. Complete beginners looking to learn enough to be able to play their favorite songs on guitar
  2. Advanced students looking to play and improvise kick-ass solos

This post is dedicated to those who fall under category (1), largely in relation to their biggest pain point - "How do I strum to a song, and actually sound good?"

The difficulty was in trying to break down how I have progressed in terms of strumming, and then convey it to students. After going deep in thought, and through multiple iterations, I came to the following insights:

Insight 1: Its less about memorizing movements (i.e. Down-up-down-up patterns), but more of connecting muscle memory with your grasp of musical timing.

Ever realise that as strumming patterns get more and more complicated, you fumble more and more? This is your brain trying to register the next step (up / down), and then you trying to keep up with the beat. THIS IS NOT HOW MUSIC WORKS. Further, you will not be able to form strumming patterns yourself with this methodology, and will only be confined to the DUDU exercises you have done thus far.

Nonetheless, I agree that a basic introduction to the down-up-down-up movements are essential to get your strumming muscle memory to a certain degree of proficiency.

TLDR to insight 1: Stop once you get comfortable with basic DUDU movements. But what's next?

Insight 2: Get comfortable with timing

Why are seasoned guitarists able to come up with strumming patterns on the fly? This is largely because they identify with the beat of the song, and strum accordingly. This takes some practice, but can be done anywhere, and with minimal effort.

Step 1:

  • Every time you play a song, identify with the beat, and count the rhythm in your head. As a simple introduction, most songs have beats that are in 4/4 patterns. Essentially (and I am oversimplifying this), there are 4 beats to each bar of the song.

Step 2:

  • Identify which parts of the beats are accented. You would hear most songs being accented with the drum snare at the beats 1 and 3 (let's call this the downbeat for now)

Step 3:

  • Connect your guitar playing with the beat you identified. This means to play a downstroke at the start of each downbeat you hear (if the downbeat is accented), and an upstroke if an upbeat is accented.
  • A very clear example would be the song "Hey There Delilah", which has the guitar accenting each bar at beats 2 and 4 (the upbeat).
  • Get comfortable with these 3 steps first, this will be your first foray connecting what you hear rhythmically, with what you can play physically on the guitar (mind-muscle connection).

Insight 3: The essence of strumming is not in the upstrokes and downstrokes, but being able to vary the length of each strum

What do I mean by this? Check out the song "Sugar by Maroon 5". If I break it down to more than its down/upstroke components, the strumming looks something like this, in each of the 4 beats

Beat1: Down, Up

Beat2: Pause (its like a short slap on the guitar)

Beat 3 AND 4: Down

As you can see, the strums for beat 1 is a lot shorter (it has 2 strums in that 1 beat), and for beat 3 and 4, its along longer (1 downstroke covering both beats).

Vary the length of each strum across each beat to create a compelling strumming pattern. This is what you need to master for strumming. I understand its a long post, and if you could only have 1 takeaway, this would be it.

How do I practice for Insight 3? Once you have gotten a grasp of Insight 1 and 2, visualize the strums you would need to cover each beat of the song. Would there be multiple strums in a single beat (strum quicker and shorter)? And are there beats where each note sustains longer?

Once visualised, try it out, multiple iterations would get you there.

This post by itself would not get your strumming to mastery, but I hope this is helpful in providing a framework to get your strumming to the level of proficiency you desire.