What You Will Learn
  1. How strumming patterns are notated, including the symbols for upstrokes and downstrokes, and how rhythmic notation works
  2. How to strum properly along with tips on correcting common problems
  3. Simple strumming exercises in quarter notes
  4. How to mute during rests

How to Strum Guitar Chords

What is Strumming?

Strumming is a technique for playing chords on the guitar with a pick. It involves an up and down motion of the arm (at the elbow) and wrist to strike some or all of the notes in a chord at once. The technique is essential for every rhythm guitarist and can be used in many styles including, country, folk, and rock.

Strumming technique

The strumming motion should come from the elbow joint with slight wrist movement. The motion should be continuous. This means that as soon as you have played a downstroke or upstroke, you should start back in the opposite direction without stopping.

The pick should be held firmly, without excess tension, between the index finger and thumb. The optimal angle for the pick is either flat or at a slight angle to the strings.

How Strumming Patterns are Notated

Symbols for Upstrokes and Downstrokes

A strumming pattern is a specific pattern of rhythms and upstrokes and downstrokes. Upstrokes and downstrokes are notated with the following symbols:


Notation symbol for downstrokes


Notation symbol for upstrokes

Rhythmic Notation

Rhythmic notation is generally used to notate strumming patterns. This is similar to standard music notation, except slashes and diamonds are used instead of noteheads and there are no pitches indicated. Slashes are used for rhythms smaller than a half note while a diamond is used for rhythms that are a half note or larger. Chords will be indicated above the staff. The chords can be indicated with symbols or chord charts. Here is an example of rhythmic notation:

Music in rhythmic notation

Quarter Notes

Quarter notes are indicated with a slash. Anything smaller than a quarter note will be indicated with a slash as well. Beams or flags will be used for these smaller note values just like regular notation.

Quarter note in rhythmic notation

Half Notes

Half notes are indicated with a diamond-shaped notehead with a stem.

Half note in rhythmic notation

Whole Notes

A whole note is indicated with a diamond that isn't filled in.

whole note in rhythmic notation

Other symbols for notating rhythms, such as dots and ties, work the same way with strumming patterns as they do in standard notation.

Chord Symbols

Chord symbols are placed above the staff to indicate which chords are to be played. A chord symbol remains in effect until the next chord symbol occurs. Each chord symbol starts on the beat (or part of the beat) above the note where it is placed.

Strumming Exercises



All of the exercises are shown with an E major chord. However, you should practice the exercises with other chords you know. This will allow you to gain experience playing chords that use a different number of strings and improve your accuracy.

Exercise 1

Exercise 1 is all downstrokes. Immediately return your hand to its original position after playing each downstroke to prepare for the next strum. Make sure you are strumming each of the strings during the strum.

Strumming exercise in quarter notes with all downstrokes

Exercise 2

Exercise 2 is all upstrokes. Upstrokes are often problematic for many beginners. They feel awkward and there is more of a tendency to lose your grip on the pick while playing them. Make sure you have a firm grip on the pick while playing the upstrokes. If you start to lose your grip, you are probably not holding the pick properly.

Strumming exercise in quarter notes with all upstrokes

Exercise 3

Exercise 3 features downstrokes alternating with upstrokes.

Strumming exercise in quarter notes with upstrokes and downstrokes

Muting During Rests

Many strumming patterns include rests. This means that any chords that are sounding should be muted to stop the sound. There are two approaches to muting: right hand muting and left hand muting.

Right Hand Muting

Right hand muting is done by placing the side of your hand on the strings to stop the sound. The part of the hand used is essentially the same part of the hand you would use if you did a karate chop.

Left Hand Muting

Left hand muting is achieved by releasing any chords or notes you are currently playing and flattening the fingers against the strings in such a way that they stop ringing.

Which Kind of Muting Should You Use?

The type of muting you choose is up to you. Each approach has its pros and cons. Many players use the motion of the right hand to keep time. Right hand muting may interfere with this, so you should consider using left hand muting if you use the motion of the right hand to keep time. Left hand muting requires you to release any chord you are holding to mute the strings. If you are playing a pattern that is fast or complicated, the constant changes of position may not be practical, so right hand muting may be more appropriate. You should learn both and apply the technique that is best for a given situation. The exercises shown below are fairly basic, so either approach will work.

Exercise 4

Mute on beats two and four. Leave your hand on the strings only long enough to stop the sound and then get in position for the next strum.

Strumming exercise with quarter notes and rests on beats two and four

Exercise 5

Strum on beats one and two in Exercise 5.

Strumming exercise in quarter notes with rests on beats three and four

Exercise 6

Exercise 6 may feel awkward because you aren't playing on the first beat of the measure and you start with an upstroke.

Strumming exercise in quarter notes with rests on beats one and four

Exercise 7

Exercise 7 has rests on beats one and three and upstroke strums on beats two and four.

Strumming exercise in quarter notes with rests on beats one and three

Remedying Common Technical Problems

Not Strumming Continuously

Pausing after a strum before strumming in the opposite direction can cause problems with accuracy and rhythm. Make sure that your strumming is a continuous up and down motion with no pauses at the top or bottom. The best way to remedy this is to watch yourself while playing. Playing in front of a mirror is the easiest way to do this.

Losing the Pick

Strumming requires a firm grip on the pick. If you start to lose your grip on the pick, you likely aren't holding the pick firmly enough. Try adjusting the pressure between your thumb and index finger until it is firm enough that the pick doesn't slip, but not so firm that you create excess tension. Gripping the pick too hard can cause tension in the hand, wrist, and forearm, which should be avoided.

Inaccurate Strumming

Players often hit strings that shouldn't be played when first learning to strum. This isn't a big problem in the beginning, but you should work on becoming more accurate over time. The first thing you can do to improve accuracy is to improve the positioning of your downstrokes. If you are playing a chord that uses only the first four strings (the high E, B, G, and D strings), there is no need to position the pick above the sixth string. It should instead be positioned above the lowest string in the chord. For example, if you are playing a first position D major chord, you should position the pick above the D string. This should also give you a target position for your upstrokes. Assuming that you will be playing another downstroke on the D major chord after the upstroke, you should try to return to the same position rather than playing through all six strings.

Occasionally, strings are hit erroneously because a player isn't aware of which strings are actually in the chord. Pay close attention to chord diagrams in order to avoid this problem. Chord diagrams will tell you which strings are played and which aren't.