Let’s face it. When it comes to learning the guitar, strumming plays a very large role. The majority of recreational guitarists often “assume” that playing a guitar actually means “strumming a guitar”. Of course as you progress on the instrument you begin to realize that its role is far wider than just strumming (think melodic/single note playing).
Getting students started with strumming is often a game of picking a song to play and having the teacher, the internet, a book, or a dvd SHOW the student how to play the song- and I’ll assume that the necessary skills are in place to build and change chords on time. The benefit of this approach is that the student can gain access to the song rather quickly usually using a “simplified” strumming pattern (i.e. probably not as elaborate as the original recording). Still the student will experience some playing success quite quickly- and that’s really good for keeping the motivation game in tact.
Often, however, the discussion of HOW strumming actually works (versus WHAT to strum), is left in the shadows. The student begins to develop an understanding that learning to play a song will require someone (or something) to SHOW him or her what to strum. Eventually the student has been playing songs (or rather should I say “PROGRAMMED” to strum songs), based on what someone else shows them. Using this approach over time, the student gains no independent ability to figure out strumming on his or her own. The typical result is that most tunes tend to sound more or less the same with very little, to no, creativity involved (which seems odd given that music in general is considered an art).
So, is this approach to strumming useful? Of course it is. All art requires some level of technique at the beginning. It gets the student moving forward in music pretty quickly, BUT….
The conversation does have to change in my opinion.
I often use the analogy of learning to ride a bike. At first there were probably “training wheels” involved to get you started. But riding a bike with training wheels is not really riding a bike. You don’t really know what it feels like to lean into a turn or pedal fast enough to keep the bike upright. If you “paint by numbers”, you don’t really know what it feels like to actually create the painting yourself based on color mixing knowledge or a good sense of composition. Strumming a guitar based on what someone showed you (canned strumming patterns I like to call them), is not really strumming a guitar. You don’t really know what it feels like to create your own strumming solution to a song. You don’t know how to really listen to clues within a song that could help you create your own strumming solution. So, what’s missing for the strumming guitarist is to eventually realise that strumming IS RHYTHM. And developing an AWARENESS OF RHYTHM will become important if you want to enjoy the more creative and artistic experience of playing guitar.
An awareness of rhythm includes such concepts as:
- Hearing/feeling the PULSE of a song (some call this the beat).
- Learning to actually physically experience the pulse in your body by tapping a foot, bobing a head or simply rocking the body.
- Using your awareness of the PULSE as a starting point for organizing the physical motions of your strumming. For example, will you play one strum/pulse, 2 strums /pulse or 4 strums/pulse (these are the most practical possibilities) or some combination of any of these. In my teaching I call these Basic Strumming Mechanisms.
- Being able to organize the PULSE into counts (most often in groups of 4).
There are many other concepts too but these are enough to get you thinking along the right lines.
In the next blog post, I’ll go into greater detail of the CONCEPTS listed above and how to integrate them toward your own strumming solutions- stay tuned.