Young, Dumb, and Full of Strum — Many of us were inspired to pick up a guitar and play because we were turned on by an advanced, experienced player we heard in our formative years. For some it was Jimi Hendrix, for other it was Eddie Van Halen, still others may have latched on to Tony Rice. In their effort to match the chops, skills, and solos of these players, many students forget that these guys play the way they do because of fully mastering some fundamental parts of music and guitar playing and this is what gave them the ability to go as far as they did. This article (and accompanying video) are the first in a series I am doing for Gear Vault that is intended to identify these crucial basics and help you improve your playing from the foundation level on up. I have taught hundreds of students over the years and have observed that the ones that take the time to really get a handle on these basic skills are the ones that achieve their playing goals most effectively.
Let’s Learn Open Chord Rhythm
The first topic in this series is rhythm. Rhythm is the most elemental aspect of music and is the thing that holds the whole band together. The most basic kind of rhythm guitar playing is open chord strumming. The first position ‘cowboy’ chords are often the first thing many of us learn when we start playing and some players never really go past them, especially if they are trying to be singer/songwriters. One of the most important skills a new or advancing guitarist can develop is the ability to strum these guitar chords in a solid and steady way. The key to this skill is the basic down/up eighth note, or pendulum, strum.
The pendulum strum is really a simple pattern of down/up/down/up/down/up/down/up across a measure of eighth notes in 4/4 time and is counted 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, or 1+2+3+4+. The whole idea is that your picking hand goes down on the number and up on the ‘and’, swinging back and forth like the pendulum in a grandfather clock. You can see me demonstrate this in the video and get an idea of what it sounds like. I play the open G, C, Em, and D chords on the clip but you can do this from any chord you know to any other chord you know when you practice. The big thing to strive for is keeping it even and steady, as that is what you will need to be to play well with other musicians or even deliver a solo song convincingly. Most listeners don’t notice if we drop a clam in some blazing solo but your grandma can tell when your time is herky-jerky. Go as slow as you need to to keep the rhythm strong and make your chord changes with no dead air in between.
Once you get the hang of the pendulum, you start to realize that most of the strummed rhythm patterns we hear are based on this idea and that the key to making different rhythms happen is selectively hitting and missing the strings on different eighth notes within the original pattern. Get really good at this and learning all those ‘strum and sing’ type of songs is suddenly really easy. Neglect this basic skill and you will have a gap in your groove thing. You will know you are getting somewhere with this when drummers and bass players start liking you a whole lot better. Now get in the shed, start working it out, and watch this space for more goal-oriented guitar lessons. Peace.
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