Skill building is an important part of becoming a proficient strummer. Therefore, take a moment or two and review the first two installments of this article series so that you will be comfortable with the concepts discussed therein. Make sure and practice all of the exercises so that you will be able to simply immerse yourself in the exercises contained in this, the third installment of the strum mastery series.
There are numerous techniques and manners of creating various strums as well as ways to approach the strings of the guitar to alter and effect the sound you are able to achieve. We'll discuss several of them as well as exercises which can help you to become a more skillful and diversified player. Keeping an open mind about novel ways of conceptualizing the guitar and the fingerboard can help you to improve upon your skills as a rhythm guitar player.
This is a technique that I discuss at length in my beginning guitar series located in the Phase 1 section of the JamPlay site. But if you're not familiar with those lessons, the snap strum is simply a way of referring to an up and down strum played as one single deft motion. In other words, picture a huge rubber band around your shoulder and holding your arm in place. When you do a down stroke on the strings of the guitar, the rubber band brings it back up quickly and in a “snap” motion. That is the essence of the snap strum and I will refer to this variety of strum with a – between the strum indicators such as down-up. We'll be using this variety of strum frequently in the exercises to come.
Striking the Tonic
This technique simply involves striking the tonic of the chord (frequently the lowest note) and then strumming the chord immediately after it. This can be a great way to enhance the bass note of the chord, especially if you're playing solo or without the assistance of a bassist. Try to strum a simple chord like an A for example:
In this example, you would pluck the A-string open as this is the lowest note, and the tonic of this chord. Then you would strum the remaining strings of the chord. Try a strum like this: pluck (the bass note) down-up-down (snap strum). Repeat the pattern over and over again placing the pick (if you use one) on or around the A-string.
Recall the concept presented in the first installment of this article series concerning the idea of strum spheres. You will be creating a strum sphere containing the five highest strings in this exercise, A D G B and E, and using the A-string as your point of origin. Your strum sphere should not go beyond the five strings mentioned above and should be played smoothly.
Use the A-string as your jumping-off point to help you to find and locate a specific spot on the fingerboard from which to create a precise and clean-sounding strum. You should be plucking the A-string cleanly and getting a sound that is clear and not muted. This exercise is a great way to gain more control over your strum hand. Now let's try the same thing but with two chords. Let's use the D and G chords:
Now we're going to play these two chords with the same strum pattern as above but changing which strings are being plucked from chord to chord, as well as the boundaries of our strum sphere. Starting with the D chord, pluck the open D-string and then strum down-up-down just as we did before. Then do the same thing on the G chord but pluck the low E-string instead (a G note) , and then strum.
Your strum sphere will change drastically from a small one containing the strings D G B and E to the larger sphere on the G chord containing all six strings. Play the strum pattern moving back and forth between the two chords and remembering to change your point of origin. In other words, the string you pluck as well as your strum sphere should change from chord to chord and you should be able to accurately pluck the appropriate string as well as change the parameters of your sphere in relation to your chord change. This technique is a great way to become more accurate and precise in your strumming as well as introduce some style as well.
This is a valuable technique that can and should be used with any number of chords. Try to pick different groups and sequences of chords so that you will be able to make string and sphere adjustments on the fly.
Splitting your Strings in Two
I'm not suggesting that you literally break your strings, that seems to happen all by itself anyway. This technique is simply based on the notion that although you may have six strings on your guitar, you can treat them as if they were two separate sets of three strings. Why on earth would you do this you might be asking? Well, I'll tell you why! Techniques like striking the tonic as well as others that we will discuss in the near future can sometimes be simpler if the fretboard is divided into two sections: one group containing E A and D, and the other containing G B and E.
When we first start playing the guitar, most of us tend to simply strum everything in sight in an attempt to just make something, anything happen. We figure that if we're making some sound come out of the darn thing then we're probably on the right track, right? But the more you develop your skills the more you will likely see the benefits of developing precision in your strums. Breaking the strings in two can help with this process by forcing you to shrink your strum spheres down.
Let's take the E minor chord and use it as an example:
Using the strum down down-up-down play only the lowest three strings, E A and D for the first measure and the three highest strings, G B and E for the second. You should focus on creating a strum sphere that is just big enough to play only the three strings indicated at the time. Make sure that you are creating smooth strums and avoiding muting strings as well. Did you notice that dividing your strings in this fashion is almost like playing two different chords, even though you're simply changing the way that you approach the strings.
Now let's try this technique again with a barre chord, in this case the B minor chord.
Using the same strum as we used above, try breaking the strings with the barre chord making sure to keep the two sets separate and distinct. This may be a little tougher for some in lieu of the fact that you may need to shorten your strum or make an adjustment for the fact that you are really only needing to strum two strings in the lower set, A and D, making your strum sphere very small. This difficulty can be overcome by simply muting the low E string, allowing you to play it as you might normally play it, only without it ringing out.
Muting the low E can be achieved by extending your first finger up past the A string onto the E but without exerting too much pressure. This technique is important in other applications as well and should be practiced in order to master it. You could also simply play the fretted low E string (F#) since the B minor chord includes F# in its construction. Just make sure if you take this route that you are still maintaining good contact with the other strings in the chord and avoiding muting.
Now let's try this technique with two chords, E minor and D. Using the strum down down-up-down strum the lower strings, E A and D while fretting the E minor chord then the higher three, G B and E while playing the D chord. Pay attention to keeping the two sets of strings distinct and separate from one another by keeping your strum spheres compact and concise. Exercises like this will gradually train you to strum with precision when the rhythm you are playing demands that sort of thing. Ultimately though practicing breaking the strings helps to develop the ability to play from the wrist and create new possibilities and tools from which to draw from.
Breaking the Strings with Scales
Many guitar players seek to add scale patterns to their rhythms after playing for some time and this will most certainly spice up your playing. Breaking the strings will help you to keep focused on one specific area of the guitar and will consequently help you to concentrate on a specific riff or scale pattern.
Let's use the E minor chord again for illustrative purposes. Using the strum pattern down down-up down down in kind of a James Bond type-of-rhythm, remember to focus the energy of your strum on the three low strings. Your strum sphere should not go outside of those three strings so your pick will likely be right on or very near to the low E string and will create a very low-end and bassy type of rhythm.
Play the strum pattern indicated above and then play:
For those who are not familiar with tablature, play an ascending scale starting with the open E string, hammer on the third fret (G note) play the open A string then hammer on the second fret (B note) then finally play the D string open. You can start by doing this exercise as slowly as you need to but keep a couple things in mind. The idea here is to maintain a compact and precise sort of feel both on the strum pattern as well as the scale so keep your strum sphere small and only containing the three lowest strings. Secondly, try to play your riff while keeping time. This is an important part of adding scales to your rhythms and will undoubtedly give some players a bit of trouble. Many guitarists use a metronome for this purpose while others have developed an inner sense of rhythm which can really help you in the long run. But regardless of how you do it, it's extremely important that you are able to maintain the integrity of your time signature while adding riffs.
Usually if you are adding riffs into your rhythms it will force you to change the amount of strums you are doing. This is necessary simply because you are now devoting part of your time to the riff rather than to the strum itself. We'll examine this phenomenon further integrating the E minor and D chords again.
Use the basic strum pattern from the last example but add up down down, so the pattern is now down down-up down down, up down down. Remember that we are using these patterns only in the small region (three strings wide) of either the top or bottom three strings so your strum sphere is small and compact. The tighter you can keep your strum as well as your wrist motions, the quicker you will be able to grasp this technique.
Start playing the rhythm on the Em chord making sure that you are maintaining a small enough strum sphere to stay only on the E A and D strings. If you're having trouble staying within those lines, move the starting point of your strum closer to you or above the low E string, and try and keep your pick closer or even right on the E string itself. This will give you a higher starting point and will hopefully help you to remain withing the given boundaries of your strum sphere. Now do the same for the D chord. Get comfortable with the strum pattern as well as maintaining your three-string strum spheres.
Now we're gonna throw in the monkey wrench. Play the strum pattern for the Em chord, but when you switch over to the D chord, you will only be playing down down-up down down (our previous strum pattern) and then adding the following riff:
This is a descending scale beginning with the 3rd fret on the high E string (G note) and then descending to F#, E, D, B, A and finally G. Keep in mind that this riff should be played in the same amount of time that the now missing portions of your strum would have taken so again, if you use a metronome or are simply keeping time by stomping your foot make sure that you fit the scale pattern into the same time.
One way to tell if you're doing this correctly is that you are able to return to strumming your E minor chord without missing a beat. Try the whole thing slowly to make sure you've got a grasp of it and then speed it up gradually.
Let's try this again with some other chords shall we? This time we'll use C and Fmaj7!
Let's use the strum pluck down, up-down (twice on each chord before changing) where the pluck indicates striking the tonic. On the C chord the tonic will be on the A string, 3rd fret and on the Fmaj7 chord the tonic will be on the D string 3rd fret. Practice playing this rhythm with the two chords remembering to keep your strum spheres intact. In this exercise, you will be plucking the tonic in one sphere and strumming in the other so try and keep your actions specific to the set of strings that you are targeting.
Now play the pattern with the C and F chords making sure you are plucking the tonic and playing the chords cleanly and without muting strings. Now we're gonna step it up a bit.
Play the C chord as you were doing before, pluck down, up-down (snap strum) playing the pattern twice on the C chord, but when you reach the Fmaj7 just play the pattern once and then play:
This is a ascending scale beginning with the open D string (D note) up to E, F G A, B, C and finally B. Again, you will need to keep track of your rhythm and make sure that the riff should only take as much time as the strums you left out so you'll need to keep track of time in some manner.
This type of exercise can be assembled in almost infinite ways depending upon the chords you choose, the strum patterns you choose to incorporate as well as your skill level. But ultimately, you'll want to make sure that if you are pulling strums out to substitute a riff, then you need to make sure that the whole thing stays in time.
Because you are now becoming more and more competent playing smaller patterns or spheres, you will also benefit from incorporating larger strum patterns as well. Yes, it is important to be able to strum with precise and sometimes smaller patterns but it's also equally important to be able to play larger sweeping strums that incorporate most or all of your strings.
It's important as a rhythm player to be able to combine various strums, rhythms, patterns as well as scales and spheres as well as combine them smoothly and seamlessly. Let's do a quick exercise which will help you to gain some experience moving back and forth between smaller and larger strum spheres.
Let's use E major and C add9 on this exercise:
Now using the strum down down-up-down, play a small sphere on the E chord and a larger sphere on the C chord. Try and make distinct sphere sizes relative to the chord you're playing and make sure and really let go when you're doing a full strum. The idea here is to differentiate between the two sphere sizes and maintain control from one chord to the next. This process can take a little practice but over time you will develop a higher degree of control over the size of your strums as well as the ability to incorporate riffs and unlimited scale patterns as well.
Keep in mind that splitting the strings and playing different sphere sizes are simply techniques, shiny new tools for your tool box that you may incorporate at will. They are not intended to replace other full strums but rather give you options and insights as well as help you to learn the power of precise strumming and concision.
Palm muting is a broad term and can be achieved in a number of ways. But there seems to be two predominant manners in which a muting effect can be readily achieved.
The first is by exposing the outer line of the hand opposite the thumb as well as the outside portion of the pinky itself to the strings of the guitar. This line of the hand is particularly accessible to the strings and can be readily exposed in various degrees. The other common way of palm muting is to lay the entire hand across the strings with the fingers bent at the joint and in essence, parallel with the strings. This exposes a large portion of the hand including the flats of the fingers and the opponents pad (the meaty area supporting the thumb) to the strings giving you a large target in which to mute. Both manners of muting are effective and can be achieved through regular practice and application.
Palm muting can be one of the most profound methods of creating change and texture in your rhythms and should be investigated and studied by the aspiring rhythm guitar player. We'll delve deeper into the world of palm as well as other types of muting in the next installment.
Putting the Pieces Together
As we continue our discussion it is of the utmost importance that you practice the techniques contained within and put as many of the ideas together as possible. As mentioned previously, a good rhythm player combines techniques together as seamlessly as possible to create a collage of sound and color for the audience.