Understanding strumming patterns for worship guitar
Strumming patterns for worship guitarists
If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to acoustic guitarists to improve their tone and dynamics it is to think about their strumming patterns. Very often when we first learn to play we get pretty good at changing chords with our left hands but don’t pay so much attention to the hand that holds down the rhythm. At worst we end up with two or three strumming patterns that we try to fit into everything and even if we learn to feel the right groove the patterns can be a bit wild and random.
Developing your rhythm technique will improve your timing, dynamics and will help the whole band to gel together musically. A good strumming pattern is like a key ingredient that all the other instrument parts can bond around. Change that one ingredient and the whole flavor of the song can be upset. So if we keep changing our patterns randomly it becomes very difficult for the other instruments to find a consistent groove.
If you’ve never analysed how strumming patterns work the main thing to understand is that depending on the type of song, your hand should generally be playing 8th or 16th note rhythms. Most mid tempo songs use 16th note patterns and 8ths are used for either slow songs with gentle grooves or really fast songs where it’s simply not possible to strum 16th times per bar.
For an 8th note rhythm the idea is that your hand will move down and up eight times in a bar and you would count 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &, and for the 16th notes your hand will move sixteen times. The easiest way to count this is 1,e,&,a,2,e,&,a,3,e,&,a,4,e,&,a (e as in tea and a as in abba) which rolls off the tongue nicely. If you start with a down strum at the beginning of the bar all numbers i.e. 1 2 3 4 and ‘&’s should land on a down strum and ‘e’s and ‘a’s should be upstrums. The key thing is to keep your hand moving in that 16th note rhythm regardless of whether your hand is hitting the strings or not. So if we were to strum every permutation of a 16th note rhythm it would look like this:
Of course if you played every possible down and upstrum in a bar it would be all noise and there would be no room for anyone else to add anything in to create a groove. The beauty of a pattern is actually more about the spaces you create when you don’t play than the actual strumming when you do.
To understand this let’s take a song like How Great is Our God. To find our pattern we predominantly listen to the kick and snare drum patterns and count along to the beats in the bar. So get your strumming arm moving at a 16th note pattern and count “1 e & a, 2 e & a, 3 e & a, 4 e & a” and try to count where your strums and kick and snare are lining up.
The kick drum line on most versions is on the 1, the 3 and the 3& with the snare played on the 2 and 4 – so these are where you want to play your down strums but if you only strum those your pattern will sound a little bit empty. You next need to add some extra upstrums just to provide a sense of momentum. Again, don’t just do this randomly. These are normally found by listening to the extra accents in the groove found by the rhythm of the hi hats or the accents or ‘pushes’ in the rhythm of the vocal line. So try this pattern and see how it fits the song.
Three rules for effective strumming
ALWAYS keep your hand moving so that the downs and ups naturally fall into place. If you stop moving it will mess your downs and ups around.
If you’ve got more than one acoustic guitar, either play exactly the same rhythm or perhaps split the pattern up and both play some parts of it. Again don’t make it too busy or you’ll eave no space for other instruments.
Once you’ve found a strumming pattern that fits, don’t go changing it randomly, as it forms part of the rhythm section and if you are playing with anyone else they need to fit what they are doing with your rhythm to form a tight groove.