You’re listening to the chorus of a new song and think the guitarists are just letting chords ring out with some effect on them. But after a moment, you realize they aren’t just letting the chords ring. That’s no effect, either – they’re so fast at guitar strumming that they’re playing chords 32 times a bar!
They’ve taken guitar strumming to such a level that you can’t even imagine how you’d play that fast yourself. But it’s not impossible.
The secret: a mastery of alternate strumming. With a few simple tricks, you too can break the sound barrier.
I’m focusing on that kind of electric guitar strumming here, but these techniques will work for acoustic as well. Now let’s get started!
The first thing you want to do is rest your forearm on the corner of your guitar as pictured. This will stop you from making any wild motions that waste time and energy.
Angle Your Pick
Don’t hit the string with the flat of your pick. You want to angle your pick just a little bit forward, away from the base of your thumb and toward your thumb tip. The edge of your pick should hit the strings first.
What you don’t want to do is angle your pick at 90° and then try to hack through your strings. Think of your pick like a helicopter rotor, angled slightly so the air flows around it. Do the same thing with your pick and your strings will flow around it, too.
‘Think of your pick like a helicopter rotor, angled slightly so the air flows around it.’
Feel like you have the right angle? Good! But don’t strum yet.
Now angle the tip of your pick up just a little bit. If you angle it down, you’ll trap the strings between your index finger and the pick, making your guitar strumming choppy and slow. If you angle it up a little, the pick will strike the string and then slide off it naturally.
Now you can strum down. If you have the angle right, your pick should easily glide over all six strings.
To strum up, just tilt the tip of your pick down instead of up. This will once again prevent you from creating a trap for the strings between your pick and your finger.
‘Tilt the tip of your pick … This will … prevent you from creating a trap for the strings’.
You don’t need to change the side-to-side angle of the pick. The other edge (the one farther from your thumb tip) will hit first this time.
Switching Between Down and Up Angles
You can quickly change the angle of the tip of your pick by gently rotating your forearm at the elbow as you strum.
‘In short, you literally rock your pick.’
Start with your palm even with the strings, then turn the pinky side of your hand slightly away from your guitar as you play each downstroke. This will change the angle of your pick’s tip from up to down. Gradually rotate your hand back during each upstroke so your palm is even with the strings at the end, turning the point of your pick slightly up once again.
In short, you literally rock your pick.
Choose Your Arm Motion
The next thing you need to do is coordinate your strumming arm. The goal is to find a motion that doesn’t cause you to tense up, as tension is what will tire you out or even cause injury.
Regardless of how you decide to strum, nothing should move above your elbow. Do not strum with your shoulder! Your shoulder should always be relaxed.
After that, though, there are a few different options.
The first is to move from the elbow. Only use your wrist to angle your pick while you strum. Let the rest of your motion come from your elbow. This is particularly useful for playing big, open chords.
On the right, you can see a real-time example of me strumming power chords from the elbow. An exaggerated pose-and-shoot example is shown below to make it easier to see what I’m doing.
Note that the example below shows me coming to a cold stop at the end of an upstroke with the pinky side of my palm still angled out. The example at the right, ending with my hand parallel with the strings, is in position to come back in for another downstroke.
The second option is to move from the wrist. This is generally better for playing power chords and other chords that only use a few strings. Try to keep your elbow and forearm steady as you flick your wrist up and down.
You may encounter other strumming styles over your career as a guitarist. As long as they let you play quickly, accurately, and without tensing up, they’re worth experimenting with.
Learning these tricks can take you from being unable to play an upstroke to being a speed demon. Practice making these motions without tensing up and soon you’ll be hammering out 16th notes or better without breaking a sweat.
Looking for songs to play with your newfound guitar strumming skills? Check out Easy Electric Guitar Songs. I promise you won’t regret it. 🙂
About the Author
Justin Golschneider is the Guitar Coach sub-editor. Before chopping off his hair and becoming a professional editor and writer, he played bass in the hardcore band Fractures and lead guitar in the short-lived melodeath band Steel and Crow. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.