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I have seen a lot of guitar videos and read a lot of guitar books but one thing they all have in common is that while teaching strumming they tell you to "loosen up", "keep going up and down" etc. Or sometimes they start teaching you about the strumming pattern rather than how you strum. What they don't tell you is how to physically make that upstroke while strumming. They can sometimes talk about downstrokes but the upstroke is never explained.

What is the correct or the standard way to physically make that upstroke in as much detail as possible? I mean when you are strumming normally (up and down) and singing a song what is the correct way to be playing the upstrokes? It would be great if you could mention the following points while describing an upstroke:

  • angle of the pick, is it perpendicular to the guitar or slight angle towards the direction
  • does angle of pick change for downstrokes and upstrokes
  • do you hit all the 6 strings
  • do you apply equal pressure on all the strings you hit

With the answer to this question I'll end up playing upstrokes in no time. Wooah!

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6  
My first thought on this question is "how long is a piece of string?" –  yossarian Jan 23 '11 at 19:26
    
If you really need help with this, reading written descriptions of it is not going to help. You need to take lessons with a teacher who can work with you personally. –  Wheat Williams Jan 30 at 17:05

5 Answers 5

In guitar picking you often want a sizable amount of rotation of the wrist; i.e. rotation whose axis is along the forearm. If you do this, then, on the down stroke the pick will be properly angled for striking the thicker strings, and conversely the pick will be properly angled for striking the thinner strings on the upstroke.

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It's common for the upstroke to be lighter, quieter, and more trebly than the downstroke.

For example, try hitting only the lowest bass note of a chord on the downstroke, and hit 2-3 of the higher strings on the upstroke. You could also do the opposite, strumming all 6 strings on the downstroke but only 1 treble string on the upstroke.

In a more complex strumming pattern, you might mix some of both, for example,

  1. Downbeat: hard on the lowest string in the chord
  2. Backbeat: down hard and up again lightly on the high 3 strings
  3. Beat 3: medium-hard on the second-lowest string in the chord
  4. backbeat: repeat #2

I think that's kind of a standard folk/bluegrass/country pattern, but you can vary it a lot.

I never really think about pick angle... just use the angle that makes the sound you want.

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The advice about allowing the tip of the pick to angle backwards as you strum is OK for slow and mid-tempo songs, but it is no good if you want to do fast, controlled but still relaxed strumming, or those rapid flamenco-style flourishes that accomplished strummers can do. At that speed, you don't have time to allow the pick to change angle between down- and up-strokes, so the tip must strike the strings at about the same angle all the time. Therefore, the long axis of the pick (the one pointing towards the guitar body) needs to be about horizontal.

This presents a problem - at that angle, the pick tends to catch under the strings. One solution is to rotate the pick slightly about the long axis, either so that the bridge side of the pick is lower than the neck side, or vice versa. That way, the pick makes a softer contact with the strings, but the angle of attack for both up- and down-strokes remains the same. You can see how effective this is by taking it to extremes and rotating the pick to almost 90 degress. The pick glides easily across the strings, striking them almost edge-on. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound so good! So only a small amount of rotation is desirable.

Another way is simply to practise very precise strumming in which only the very tip of the pick hits the strings during strumming strokes. It takes a lot of practice to get this consistently right though. It can be combined with the rotated pick approach.

Another very important thing is wrist position and movement. The wrist should be located quite far from the guitar body, and the forearm should not move much. The fingers should flop down loosely towards the strings, and most of the action should come from sort of waggling your hand from that loose wrist. Think of the forearm as merely the boom of a crane, holding your wrist in the correct position.

Look on YouTube for a guy called Keith Groover (I'm not associated with him in any way). He has a good lesson about the mechanics of strumming. I don't exactly use his particular technique, but much of what he says is on the money, and he's one of very few people who even addresses this overlooked topic.

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Good answer and welcome to music.se! –  Ben Alpert Jul 3 '11 at 17:25
    
This is great advice. Especially the reasons for keeping the pick at the same angle for up and down strums. I always suggest to pupils that they keep the same pick angle for pretty much everything: up-pick, down-pick, up-strum, down-strum. The only thing that changes is how tightly you grip the pick: tight for single notes, looser for chords. This way you can switch between chords/notes easily and fluently. –  Bob Broadley Jan 30 at 20:41

Be aware of the dynamics when you are strumming too. Usually, the 'down' strum is on the 1st or 3rd beat of the bar, whereas the 'up' strum is on the 2nd and 4th. In most songs, you want to accentuate the 1st and/or the 3rd beat whilst keeping the 2nd/4th softer.

However in certain Latin beats etc., the opposite is true. You simply have to change your strumming dynamics to match the song and the mood.

Don't forget too, that sitting 'above and behind' the guitar, you might not be hearing what your audience is hearing right in front of the guitar. I strongly suggest that you record yourself playing and listen back to it carefully. You can pick up any irregularities in your picking style this way, and find areas to work on.

Doesn't have to be a high tech recording studio job. Even if you use your iPhone on the table in front of you to record when you play - you will definitely learn a lot. It might actually shock you at first (as it did to me the first time I heard a recording of my playing), but trust me, that is the best way to make your playing a lot easier to listen to for others. Best of luck!

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'Loosening up' is a good way for the book to describe it. Do not keep your hand stiff with the pick constantly at a perpendicular angle to the guitar. When you strum with a stiff hand and perpendicular pick the strums just do not sound right, and feel unnatural to play.

Instead, with a looser (but not floppy like a wet sock) hand, when you upstroke (moving your forearm up towards you) you are more dragging the pick across the strings, quickly. Because your hand is loose, when the pick hits the strings it angles itself so that it can travel across the surface of the strings. The same in reverse happens on a downstroke.

Which strings you hit are entirely up to what you are playing. With some chords for example (D, C, A) only the top 4 or 5 strings should be played, whereas with E and G for example all strings are played. With the chords where you do not play all strings, try and mute the string that is not played (usually the low E string) with a thumb or spare finger. That way you can strum without having to think about what strings you are hitting. With practice and time you will become subconsciously aware of what strings should not be played in a chord and when you are strumming your hand will avoid them.

How you strum as well makes a difference. When up stroking it is easier to place emphasis on the higher strings. In parts of 'Wonderwall' for example you can hear the upstrokes on the higher strings. If you are just strumming out a pub classic then you can 'just strum,' while not worrying about emphasising on any particular string. It can create different textures to your playing if you strum harder on some strings though.

I hope I have covered all the main points you wanted :)

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