Below are the most common mistakes that nearly all guitarists make when learning to strum. Ask yourself: “Do I make these mistakes?”
A good idea is to record yourself playing a short strumming piece by using a video recorder or the video recorder on your smart phone and then check for the following mistakes.
There are pointers on how to fix each mistake but don’t worry, we have our “Strumming Fixes” following this section, where I’ll show you some specific exercises that will fix these issues if they plague your playing.
The first set of mistakes are general mistakes that most beginners will make on a fairly regular basis in the early days.
It’s important for your strumming and your overall playing to get these fixed as soon as possible.
Mistake #1 – Trying to strum chords that are muted, buzzing, or unclear
This is a mistake that can be infuriating for the beginner.
It is when they are spending time trying to get a good strumming sound, only to realize (or not in some cases) that the chord they are trying to strum is buzzing or unclear.
Often, a student will play a chord and check it.
The chord will sound great but as they start focusing on their strumming hand, they unconsciously make micro-adjustments with their fretting hand (moving it or taking off some pressure) causing the chord to become unclear and “buzzy”.
This can be hugely frustrating as you need to make sure your chords sound great all of the time otherwise it will make your strumming sound bad no matter what you do.
You can try playing the chords higher up the neck with a capo (just like we will for many of the examples in this book) as this often makes the chords easier for beginners.
The reason why a capo often makes chords easier is because the higher up the fretboard you go the closer the frets are together. This can make chords such as C Major, which have a big stretch easier to play.
When you feel comfortable playing the chords on a higher fret (e.g. fret 5) you can move it down a fret (e.g. fret 4) and try to perfect them again there.
Keep checking the clarity of each chord regularly until you are confident, they sound great 100% of the time.
Mistake #2 – Speeding up and slowing down
Beginner guitarists nearly always speed a song up or slow it down.
Often, they will start at roughly the correct tempo but then as they get into the song and focus on things such as chord changes, strumming smoothly and keeping the strum pattern going, they change the tempo.
If a song is fast, often the guitarist will slow it down to a more comfortable tempo and likewise if a song is slow, a beginner often tends to speed it up as they struggle to maintain the steady tempo.
Basically, most beginners tend to speed up or slow down a song to what I call their “comfortable tempo” which is the tempo at which the guitarist naturally wants to play the song.
There are three good ways to improve your sense of tempo. These are:
1 – Playing to a click or a simple drum beat
2 – Tapping your foot to the beat when playing
3 – Jamming along with recordings
A click or drum beat will really help you tidy up your rhythm skills and although tough to play with at first, should be something you aim to do.
You should also aim to start tapping your foot to the beat when you play the guitar as this is your “internal timer” that keeps you steady (once you get the hang of it).
You should regularly play along with audio recordings to the songs you are learning and also try playing along with the audio to all of the examples in this book.
The above three methods will massively improve your ability to keep a tight groove.
Mistake #3 – Pausing The Strumming Arm
Pausing your strumming arm when you strum is a big mistake.
That little pause you may or may not do at the top or the bottom of a strum when playing a strum pattern will destroy all your rhythm.
You should always try to keep your arm nice and flowing and breezy.
If you are relaxed with your strumming arm, you will find this easier to do.
There are times with more advanced strumming that pausing the strumming arm can be done, but in the beginning, you need to make it a habit to keep your arm moving.
Record yourself strumming and watch your strumming arm when playing a basic strum pattern.
Do you pause at various points?
If it is a simple strum pattern you should be keeping the arm moving unless there is a good reason not to.
The next set of mistakes are the technical mistakes which include the way your strumming hand fingers or pick actually makes contact with the strings.
These mistakes are probably the ones most beginners struggle with at first and these can be the hardest to fix as very slight adjustments make a big difference here.
Take your time fixing these mistakes and keep working to improve these areas of your playing.
Mistake #4 – Strumming The Wrong Strings
Many beginners consistently strum every string when they strum.
It’s very common for me to hear a beginner strum a chord such as a D chord and hear the low E string rumbling through in the background!
Literally everything can be perfect with your strumming technique, but if you constantly hit the wrong strings in the chord it will never sound professional.
You should always remember that you should only strum the root note for each chord and no string lower than that (shown as a blue circle in the image below). You don’t want to hear the low E and A strings in this chord.
When playing certain chords, we need to be aware of what the “root” notes are for these chords.
If we strum from a string lower than the root note it will nearly always sound bad.
The way to fix it is to spend more time looking at the strumming hand than the fretting hand.
A good method, and one that my student, Gordon, uses is that you can mute the strings with the fretting hand and then strum only the correct strings in the chord for a period of time.
For D Major, this would be the D, G, B and high E strings. Do this for one minute and if you make any errors reset and begin again.
Once you can consistently strum only the correct strings, try it on the actual chord without any muting ensuring that only the correct strings are being played.
After five minutes or so this builds the necessary muscle memory for the correct strumming of the chord.
Once you can do this on one chord, change to another chord and repeat.
Keep asking yourself: “Am I strumming from the correct string, in other words, from the root note?”
Mistake #5 – Having A Weak Upstroke
Most guitarists get comfortable with down strums pretty quickly, but the upstroke can sound awful for quite some time.
I remember my upstrums sounded pretty terrible when I started learning guitar.
I couldn’t get comfortable, dragged the pick up through the strings and it almost sounded like a harp it was that bad!
This can happen on downstrums but mostly happens on the upstrum.
Try to NOT to get too focused on strumming all the available strings in the chord on your upstrums.
With up strums, focus more on just hitting the treble strings (G, B and high E) and leaving the other strings in the chord for the down strums.
Not only will this make playing upstrums easier, they will sound more professional and create a nice little bit of contrast with your downstrums.
Mistake #6 – Strumming all the Strings, all of the Time
If you strum all of the strings available to you in a chord all of the time, things can very quickly sound boring, “samey”, and a little amateurish.
In a chord such as C Major you can strum from the A string, all the way to the high E string, giving you five strings to strum (as shown in the image below).
Many beginners strum all of these five strings on this chord for every strum.
This often sounds boring to the player and listener!
What you should be doing more often is alternating at various points which strings in the chord you strum.
At different points, you will want to mix up hitting just the:
Bass strings (low E, A and D strings)
Treble strings, (G, B and high E strings)
This is a great technique that can separate the beginner to the intermediate and we will be looking at this later on in the book when I talk about the “Bass/Treble technique” for strumming.
The following mistakes are the ones that most guitarists make directly with their fingers (if fingerstyle strumming) or with a pick (if pick strumming).
Mistake #7 – Gripping The Pick Too Tightly
Gripping the pick too tightly, if you use one, can make strumming far harder than it should be.
When you grip the pick tightly, you are making the process of fluidly striking through the low E, A and D strings very difficult.
If you grip it too tight you will not be able to have a smooth strumming sound and you will find it very difficult to strum softly.
Those who grip their picks too tightly tend to have a loud and shrill strumming sound.
What you should aim to do is have a firm but NOT tight grip on the pick.
Having your pick gripped in this way will allow you keep the strum sounding smooth and fluid.
You don’t want it flopping about in your fingers, but you don’t want to strum it with a vice like grip.
Mistake #8 – Using The Wrong Pick
A simple error that many beginner guitarists make is to use a pick that came with the guitar or one a friend has given them.
Most guitarists don’t pay attention to the pick brand, material or thickness.
I’m not a brand snob, and think most of the time brands are overrated in the guitar world but when it comes to picks, I nearly always favor Dunlop Nylon Max Grip picks with a thickness between 0.4 and 0.73 for strumming.
Experiment with picks and, if you are a beginner, I urge you to start off on the lighter side. They are easier to use.
As you improve your strumming, you can move to a thicker pick for a better tone but, when it comes to strumming, rarely will you need to go thicker than 0.7. This is, of course, personal preference.
The above is what I have found works best for the 100+ beginners I have taught.
Mistake #9 – Using Your Thumb To Strum
Strumming with the thumb is something many guitarists do but it’s something I am not a huge fan of – at least not when you do it all of the time.
Don’t get me wrong, strumming with the thumb can sound good when you need a quiet, warm sound but most of the time the sort of sound the thumb gives you just won’t cut it.
The thumb simply doesn’t give your strumming much clarity or volume.
Many beginners like this quiet sound as they worry about others hearing them when they play!
Playing quietly allows you to hide mistakes more easily but remember, it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we fix them quickly!
Instead, I recommend you strum with your index finger, using the nail to strum your downstrums and the fleshy side to strum your upstrums.
This generally gives you a louder, brighter and clearer sound which can actually be heard without your audience thinking they need a hearing aid!
Mistake #10– Dragging Through The Strings
A lot of guitarists make the mistake of dragging the pick or their fingers across the strings when they strum. This usually happens because they turn or twist their wrist when strumming.
Turning or twisting your wrist when strumming can cause your strumming to sound broken or harp-like and the clarity of the strum can be reduced.
When strumming, you should try to think of the strings almost as if they are one big “block”.
When you strum, aim to strum through this “block” of strings in one motion.
To do this you will have to ensure you don’t angle, twist or turn your wrist – which, as stated, causes us to drag across the strings.
If you strum with a pick you will have to hold it a little softer if you grip it tightly.
If you strum without a pick you will have to relax your finger or thumb a little if it is too rigid.