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Guitar Rhythm (pick hand) Technique

OK, we now have a chord progression to play, and we will be expanding on the topic of chord progressions shortly. What we want to get into next is developing your right hand skills, picking and strumming. (If you are a leftie, no offense, most folks are righties, so we're writing to the majority. Just reverse everything.)

You can know all the chords and scales and how everything goes together, and still not be able to play anything worth listening to if you have poor right hand technique. You probably do have poor right hand technique, and will for some time to come, but donít let that discourage you. Practice is the key. As we said in the introduction, you must develop great dexterity and subtlety of movement in both hands. This is particularly true with the right hand, and this kind of control does not come naturally, but rather must be developed. We are going to point you in the right direction. It is up to you to do the work.

For now, letís get started on a very basic kind of rhythm technique. You may hear this technique most clearly in older country style songs. It is a farily straightforward technique, easy to understand and play, and that is why we are starting with it. Now, donít get hung up over the fact that you may not be interested in old country music. The point is to start easy and build from there.

If you will start with the C chord we looked at in the previous lesson, here is how you will play this technique. With your left hand in place on the C chord, strike the fifth string with your pick, then flick the pick across the remainder of the strings. Once this is complete, go back and strike the fourth string with the pick, then flick the pick across the remaining strings. Then start over, hit 5, strum, hit 4, strum, hit 5, strum, hit 4, strum. Click here to hear it.

Now you are going to begin to notice some things, the first one being that your left hand is probably muffling some notes that need to be sounding out. Donít get discouraged by that, just make the necessary adjustments and keep playing. Believe it or not, the C chord is going to be easy as pie in a few weeks if you practice daily.

The second thing you may notice is that it is hard to switch back and forth rapidly from hitting one string to raking several strings. This is also normal and will pass, just go slow and keep trying. Repetition is the secret of success.

The third thing you will notice is that your rhythm playing is not sounding a lot like the sound file you just listened to, and that is a little bit more difficult to address in writing. There is a certain level of artisanship in guitar playing that is difficult to convey in words. A lot of the art is in the right hand. We have found that students get frustrated when they can not play an exact duplicate of our rendition of a given chord progression, but that is really an unnecessary concern. An experienced performer can do some things with speed and ease that a beginner just canít do. That is no reason to get discouraged. The difference has a lot to do with fine motor control of the fingers, wrists, and forearms, and the only way to get that kind of control is to develop it through exercise, just like with athletic endeavors. Again, practice is the key to success! Just do the best you can, and that will be good enough. Be assured your abilities will improve with time.

Most beginners will tend to rake the strings with an awkward, heavy, slow, one-string-at-a-time motion. While this may be exactly the right technique for some unique applications, in general this is poor rhythm technique. The most correct way to strum the strings is to fling the hand across the strings and catch them all at once. Imagine you have just washed your hands and want to fling the remaining water off them, as if you just got through drying them with one of those commercial hand dyers. Go ahead and do it, pretend to flick the water off your picking hand. That is the same motion you want to use when strumming the strings. Not a tightly controlled drag, but a loosely controlled flick of the wrist. Also, moderate the pressure on the strings. You want a quick flick with light string contact. Go ahead and try it. You will have to work with this, it will not come automatically.

Now that you have the basic idea, letís add the remaining chords in the progression, then we will develop the picking hand technique some more. The next chord in our progression is the F Major. With your left hand in place on the F chord, strike the fourth string with your pick, then strum the remaining three strings. Then strike the third string, and this time strum the last three strings (since we are running out of strings we will include the third string in the strum.) Now, back to 4, strum, 3, strum, 4, strum, 3, strum.

Now G. Left hand on G chord. Hit 6, strum, hit 5, strum, hit 6, strum, hit 5, strum.

OK, letís put it all together:

C: 5, strum, 4, strum, 5, strum, 4, strum,

F: 4, strum, 3, strum, 4, strum, 3, strum.

G: 6, strum, 5, strum, 6, strum, 5, strum,

back to C: 5, strum, 4, strum, 5, strum, 4, strum.

Click here to hear it.

Now start over at the beginning and repeat the whole thing. There you are, playing a song! See?!

You may be struggling to change chords at this point, so it may not sound much like a song just yet. Keep trying, it will come.

Now letís look at the strum a little more. When you strum the strings, you want to carry your pick across the strings in a flat shape, so that you manipulate all of the strings equally. This technique will deliver the best overall quality of sound. Again, this will be difficult or impossible at first try. Do what you are able to do for now, and work toward the better technique as you come along.

After you get a handle on this technique, try adding a reverse stroke. In other words, after you hit and strum, when you make your movement back for the next hit, go ahead and strum the strings in reverse, without changing the overall speed of your song. This will take some practice, work it in as you are able.

Click here to hear it.

We will be looking at right hand technique further throughout the course. Work on this for now and we will get to some more advanced (and fun!) playing hand instruction soon.

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