How to Be Rhythmically Creative Without Reading Music
By Eric Dieter
As a guitar teacher, new students are often asking me about “strum pattern.” What the student is really asking is “What is the rhythm to this song?” I’m not a fan of the term “strum pattern” because it implies that you’d just memorize a few little sequences then you’ve got the whole strumming thing down. Which is partially true, but leaves the student missing out on the fantastic world of rhythm!
To me, mastering rhythm is a skill that most guitar players overlook. They get bogged down in new chords or fancy scales, but always play the same few rhythms. Being rhythmically interesting can make the same 4 chords that every guitar player knows sound fresh and exciting.
So here’s a quick way to become a rhythm wizard and quickly come up with new “strum patterns” in seconds. In doing so, you will also get better at picking out the rhythm of your favorite songs. Best of all, I’m not even going to make you read music.
Learn to Move Your Arm
Start with a simple 4 count. It’s highly recommended that you practice counting out loud but it isn’t required. Every count, strum DOWN.
If you are able, tap your foot along with your counting. This isn’t required either, but it helps with the next step.
As an astute guitar player, I’m sure you’re aware that never your pick nor your foot can really go down twice in a row. You’re lifting your pick up, past the strings before you go down again. Just like you’re lifting your foot UP before it can go down. My guitar students find it very helpful to imagine a rod is connecting their foot and their pick: Foot goes down, pick goes down; foot goes up, pick goes up.
Practice stomping (lightly) and strumming 1-2-3-4, hitting the strings/floor on every count. Make sure your foot is lifting evenly in time. If this is hard for you, or you are unclear what I mean by this, try stomping on 1 and 3 and lifting your foot on 2 and 4. This is even and almost mechanical.
Now practice lining up your pick with your foot and hit the strings on both down AND up. Remember to imagine the “rod” connecting your pick and foot. You should now have 8 strums: 4 downs and 4 ups.
Learn to Miss On Command
In your early guitar studies, we want your picking arm to always be moving up and down like the pendulum of a clock. Don’t let your arm stop moving to the beat, even if you don’t want to hit the strings.
The next step is to practice missing on purpose. Trying hitting the strings with your pick on all strokes, then remove one up strum. Don’t stop moving your arm, just miss the strings by slightly rotating your elbow (like you’re shaking my hand). This will take concentration because you’re going to want to stop moving your arm. Resist!
Keep working on this. The trick to being rhythmically creative is just missing the strings in some places. I find it helpful to write out 8 arrows, then I erase a few at random to make an interesting pattern:
Practice what you created. Once you get better at this, make your pattern longer by doubling the count to 8-giving you 16 arrows to play with.
The main focus here is to feel the beat in your arm and never let it stop. Practicing with a new set of “arrows” each day will not only make old chords sound better, but make you a way more interesting guitar player!
About the Author
Eric Dieter is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher in Lancaster, PA. He has appeared on dozens of international albums as a session guitar player and tours with the synth-pop and prog-rock band. Eric has studied guitar at Millersville University and Berklee College of Music. Additionally, he holds a degree in psychology and a certification in hypnosis, making him uniquely qualified to train the minds and hands of aspiring musicians. Contact Eric if you are looking for guitar lessons in Lancaster, PA.