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The Ups and Downs of Strumming a Guitar

One of the most basic ways you can play chords is with a strum. Strumming the guitar is the simple act of brushing the strings with a pick, thumb, or the back of your fingernails. A strum can be slow, fast, hard, or gentle, or any of the infinite shadings in between.

  • Downstrokes: You are “executing a downstroke,” when you go to naturally strike the strings on a guitar. A downstroke (indicated with an open-bottomed box, shown in the following figures) is played with a downward motion of the pick, toward the floor — the way you naturally strike a guitar. You can strum multiple strings or pick an individual string with a downstroke.

  • Upstrokes: An upstroke (indicated with a V-shaped symbol) is played upward, toward the ceiling. Start from a position below the first string and drag your pick upward across the strings, from first to sixth. In an upstroke, you don’t need to worry about hitting all the strings. The top three or four strings are usually sufficient.

  • Combining down and up: In certain passages, upstrokes alternate with downstrokes, making them appear in virtually equal numbers. For fast eighth notes, the strict observance of upstrokes following downstrokes is called alternate picking and is the key for playing fast leads smoothly.

Regardless of whether your hand moves up or down when it strikes the strings, the important thing to remember is that you’re striking in a rhythm — or in sync with the beat. If you need help hearing just what the beat is, get a metronome — an electronic device that taps out the beat for you. You can buy a metronome at any music store, and many models are small enough to fit right in your guitar case.

  • Quarter-note striking: For quarter-note striking, play four strums for each bar of music. The quarter notes tell you that the strums occur once per beat. Note that quarter notes have just a stem attached to them.

    Two bars of an E chord with quarter-note slashes.
    Two bars of an E chord with quarter-note slashes.
  • Eighth-note striking, twice per beat: For eighth-note striking, you strum twice as fast (two per beat) as you do for the quarter notes (one per beat). Instead of the previously used slashes, you now face slashes with stems (the vertical lines attached to the slash noteheads — not the round, normal noteheads) and beams (the horizontal lines that connect the stems). Note that eighth notes have stems with beams connecting them to each other. An eighth note by itself has a flag instead of a beam.

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