Those guitarists that appear to magically strum along with any song they hear. We can see how easily they do this. And while we enjoy their playing, we are, at the same time, perplexed….
“Why can’t I do that”? You might think to yourself.
“After all, I’ve been playing some songs myself on the guitar for a while now but my strumming either all sounds the same or I always need to be shown how to strum a song while those OTHER guitarists just seem to have strumming ooze out of them naturally.
In most cases the guitarists that you feel OOZE great strumming, are really just relying on one main skill- RHYTHM AWARENESS. I’ll admit…this skill is natural to some people but for the vast majority of guitarists it is a skill that must be learned in order to strum with confidence- and a fluid sense of confidence at that. In other words, they (the OTHERS) appear to be actually “responding” to the music they hear and creating strumming solutions on the fly rather than repeating a tired old “stock strumming pattern” that Uncle Tom showed them 10 years ago. Their strumming just seems fresher and more alive.
If you feel you are NOT natural at this then join the club!
But let’s dig in with a story…
You’ve just arrived at the beach with your guitar, as the warm sun of the day is beginning to set on a pinkish orange horizon. You can hear the soft surge of the waves, and someone has already started a good crackling bonfire. You smell the salt air and the wood smoke. Your friends, having pulled some makeshift seats around the fire, are beginning to settle in, in anticipation of some good tunes. You see another guitar player whom you don’t recognize. You’re looking forward to joining in on the music, but think to yourself,
“I hope I can strum all the tunes that get called out!”
Everyone is relaxed and warmed by the fire, and the songbooks are open in people’s hands. Someone suggests that you start with “Brown Eyed Girl”. You’re up for that one because you were just shown how to play it a few guitar lessons ago. Next up, “Wagon Wheel”. Lovely! You are comfortable with both of these tunes because, fortunately, your guitar instructor taught them to you, as well as a popular YouTube guitar teacher… But, you wonder,
“What would I have done if I hadn’t been shown how to strum these tunes?”
Both you and the other guitarist are jamming well together and the crowd is singing and relaxed. It’s beginning to get a bit darker now- you can only see one another by firelight. When you look up and away from the flames, you can see stars start to appear in the indigo sky. This soft summer evening promises to be cozy and memorable, and you look forward to helping to create the soundtrack to the night, surrounded by people you are comfortable with.
Jennifer is the other guitarist and you are starting to chat with her about all things guitar, when another song is suggested…“How about that new U2 piece on page 3”? You and Jennifer have heard the piece a lot and you both are knowledgeable and comfortable with the chords in the song. The songbook gives you the chord progressions and the lyrics- good to go! – However, you worry,
“But I have no idea how to strum this one! Do I admit it or maybe fake my way through it?”
Jennifer closes her eyes- it looks like she is taking a moment to hear the song in her mind. She whispers a clear but quiet “count in”, and away she goes, strumming the tune with confidence. A bit embarrassed, you admit to Jennifer, “But I don’t know the strumming pattern for that song!”. Jennifer replies “I didn’t know there was one”, leaving you perplexed… You wonder,
“If you didn’t know there was one, then how are you strumming it right now? How can you pull that off so easily? How did you do this?”
Jennifer smoothly and quickly shows you how she is strumming to the song, and, in no time, the sing-along is back on track… However, you think to yourself,
“But what would I have done if Jennifer was not there to show me how to strum the tune? Well I’d just have to admit that I don’t know the strumming pattern to that song- and that would suck big time. I wish I were better at this.”
After the song is done, Jennifer confides to you that it was the first time she played the U2 song. Amazed, you ask her, “How did you know the strumming pattern, if you’ve never played it before?”
Jennifer responds “You keep talking about what strumming pattern I used- I really didn’t use one in the sense that this song is strummed this way. I’ve just listened to the song a lot ‘cause it’s on my phone’s playlist and I guess I just got a “FEEL” for it in my mind over time. Getting that FEEL helped me to decide how I would strum it. Pretty straight forward actually” Jennifer says. “HUH! Not for me!” you reply. Unless I’m shown what to strum, I have no idea what to do … In your head, you add,
“…and that sucks too! Hate that feeling!”
Jennifer pauses for a moment.
“Does that mean that, for you, every song has a specific strumming pattern that you need to learn?”
A bit confused, and feeling a bit foolish, you respond, “Isn’t that part of learning how to play a song- being shown how to strum it?”. “Well sure! Kinda” Jennifer says, “when you’re just getting started. But, in the long run, developing a FEEL for the song is way more valuable and important than some prescribed or ‘canned’ strum pattern. Think of it this way-do you need someone to tell you what to say next? I certainly don’t have to wait for someone to show me how to strum a song. I can listen to it and hear certain things going on in the music that help me figure out a suitable way to strum the song that reflects the FEEL of it. Actually I call it the VIBE”, she grins. A bit jealous, you think,
“Gee I wish I could do that!”
“CRAP! Really! Jennifer how can you do that? You must be a natural or voodoo or something!”
“Hell, no!”, she laughs. It’s how I was trained to play the guitar. The key for me was listening for and understanding a little about how RHYTHM works- it really helped me to listen for the VIBE. But to be honest, I’ve been doing it this way for so long now, I don’t even think about it anymore- it’s automatic. What I hear in the song helps me to sense the VIBE and then come up with a way to strum it that actually captures the feel of the whole tune and make it sound good on one guitar.
Feeling a bit of a new musical world opening up for you, you respond, “Huh! Learning about RHYTHM! That way of playing the guitar-listening for the VIBE- has never been shown to me in my guitar lessons”. It occurs to you,
“…and isn’t rhythm the thing that makes music so fun to listen to? Why wasn’t I taught this like Jennifer was?”
Getting a bit excited, you decide to take the plunge. “Do you think you might be able to help me learn to play like that, Jennifer? I mean, without waiting for someone to show me how to strum a pattern for a song? You know!-the way you do it. It just sounds like a more natural way to play. Hey, maybe that’s why, when I play a bunch of tunes, they all tend to sound the same on my guitar – I’m just repeating the same “strum pattern” that was shown to me and not really listening for that VIBE or paying attention to how RHYTHM actually works.” You realize,
“I better learn more about RHYTHM and this thing called the VIBE!”
Jennifer agrees to help train you and you’re excited about taking your guitar playing to a more musical level. In your bones, you know this stuff is going to help you sound way more confident in your strumming, because the strumming is coming from decisions that YOU make, and is not based on a canned strum pattern.
Despite your self-consciousness, you push yourself and actually follow through on taking Jennifer up on her offer to show you how to listen to songs in this way. Turns out, Jennifer was so impressed with your strumming progress that she asked you to partner up and play some local coffee shops in town.
After a long winter, during which you enjoy playing in cozy living rooms and steamy-windowed coffee shops and feeling your rhythmic awareness confidence build, the weather slowly warms, tilting towards summer again. You and your friends start planning the first bonfire of the new season. This year, you know that you have a whole new world of musical and rhythmical skills to bring to these gatherings, which will help make those long summer nights truly memorable.
You’ve become a better guitarist.