Mike Moxcey ©2005
Besides what you do with your fingers on the fretboard, you've also got to concentrate on the fingers that strum or pluck the strings.
Flat-pick vs. Fingerpicks
To get started right off the bat, put away your fingerpicks. I started on the banjo and just strummed for a long time. I got used to the sound, developed a feel for rhythm, and learned a lot of songs. By the time I looked at bluegrass fingerpicking and old-time frailing, I only had to concentrate on my right-hand and didn't get all confused about fingering the chords or keeping time.
You can use either a flatpick or just use your fingernails. You can pinch your finger and thumb together so you can use a fingernail when strumming up or strumming down. However, if you play a lot on steel strings, your nails will wear down. On the other hand, learning to hold and use a flatpick is just one more thing you've got to focus on. But it's not too hard. Find a grip that works for you and play around with it.
Check Your Chords
Whew. Now that you've got your right-hand ready to strum with fingernails or flatpick and your left-hand forming a chord, we're finally ready. Strum down across all those strings. See if it sounds good. Each string should sound bright and clear. It probably won't at first, but that's what practice is all about. If you can stand to practice it, then switch between your two chords and strum down once each time. Keep doing that until it sounds perfect. There are some teachers who actually teach that way, and perhaps some students who learn, but not me. And that's not playing music, that's perfecting technique. It's something that must be done eventually, but I think it comes with time.
Strumming can get complex. It usually needs to in order to sound good. Just strumming down is okay, but often sounds best when done behind other musicians. A straight down-up sounds like a machine. To me, the best sounding basic pattern is a:
Each of the 4 components of that strum have the same amount of time attached to them.
You should be able to evenly count One Two Three Four and have the Down strums occur on the One and Three (and Five and Seven if you keep counting).
- The first hurdle is to get the pause sounding right.
- The next hurdle is to get the second strum exactly right. The space between the counts of Four and Five and between Eight and Nine (as you keep counting) must be identical to the space between all the other counts.
- The final hurdle is to switch chords without messing up the rhythm of the strum. It helps to slow the whole thing down a little.
Practice Switching Chords
Once you've got a reasonably decent strum pattern going (I know it isn't perfect the first few days) over one chord, try switching to your other chord without messing up the strum pattern. This is tricky. Most of the time you'll either totally mess up the rhythm of the strumming, or else the rhythm will be perfect but you'll be unable to finger the chord correctly. And occasionally, both things will go wrong at the same time.
Remember: Keeping the Rhythm is more important than playing the chord correctly (or even playing the correct chord). There are several techniques for "cheating" when switching chords (such as strumming a partial chord) but I don't want to encourage those for beginners. You really need to be able to switch between two basic chords on your chosen instrument.
Practice keeping the rhythm AND switching chords correctly. For some folks, a metronome helps. For others, that just gets in the way (another thing to concentrate on). I think the best way to learn to keep your rhythm is to actually play songs you know. Then you'll be able to hear yourself when you mess up the beat.