How to strum a chord

Guitar fantasyThere are a few different ways to strum a chord. By strumming we are referring to the right hand (if it's a not a left-handed guitar) technique used to get sound from the guitar by playing several strings instantaneous.

Strumming techniques

Playing guitar is about making a harmony of two hands in motion. There are three main methods for strumming the strings, which are:

  1. You play with the inside of your thumb,
  2. You play with your index finger nail, or
  3. You use a plectrum.

Nothing is absolutely right or wrong. It all depends on your own preferences and the effect you want to accomplish. The recommendation is to try all three methods to begin with.

If using a plectrum for strumming, choose a limber one rather than one that is very stiff (the stiff ones are more convenient for lead playing). The plectrum approach will sound louder (it may not be optimal if there are people around that doesn't want to be disturb). One disadvantage with using the thumb for strumming is that it can be a little tricky to accentuate up strokes.

Basic strumming patterns

It’s not required that you think in terms of note values and look at sheet music when you play, but it can be a great foundation to know about the difference in tempo.

1a. Whole notes

The most basic pattern is using only whole notes which result in one strum per bar in 4/4 time. Only down strokes are used. This is not musical and not a suggestion of how you should encounter chords, but included as an example just to show the relationship with whole notes and strumming.

tab chord progression

1b. Half notes

Another basic pattern that uses half notes which results in two strums per bar in 4/4 time. Only down strokes are used. Neither this example is musical and again included to show the relationship with notes and strumming.

tab chord progression

1c. Half notes and quarter notes

A basic pattern using quarter notes and half notes which result in three strums per bar in 4/4 time. Only down strokes are used.

tab chord progression

1d. Quarter notes

A basic pattern using quarter notes which result in three strums per bar in 4/4 time. Down and up strokes are used, forming the pattern: down - up - down - up.

tab chord progression

1e. Quarter and sixteenth notes

A pattern using quarter notes and sixteenth notes, which in this case result in six strums per bar. Down and up strokes are used, forming the pattern: down - down - up - down - up - down.

tab chord progression

Using the thumb or index finger

You will get a somewhat muffled sound using your thumb and a kind of crispy sound when strumming with your nail. Something to consider is that it can be harder to play accentuated upstrokes with your thumb than with your fingernail or a plectrum.

Using a plectrum

The advantage using a plectrum is that you effortlessly get between the strings without touching them. This refers mainly to when you’re plucking and not strumming. But regardless what you are playing for the moment, it's always good to learn to play with a plectrum. For best guitar strumming practice, use a thin plectrum for strumming.

It's unusual to use a plectrum on a classic guitar – it won’t sound very good and neither is a plectrum needed for plucking due to the large space between the strings. Plectrum is on the other side common on steel-string and electric guitars.

Strumming positions

Depending on the position where you are strumming on the guitar, the sound will differ. Nearer the neck will the sound have a rounder and warmer characteristic (suitable for jazz) and nearer the bridge will the sound have a sharper characteristic (suitable for rock).

There are mainly three positions, and they are sometimes referred to the Italian terms: normale – you play over the sound hole; sul tasto – you play nearer the fretboard; sul ponticello – you play nearer the bridge. Notice that this will be less relevant playing on an electric guitar.

Up- and downstrokes

When it comes to strumming, you can create rhythms by using up and downstrokes. In addition to that, you can use techniques such as muted strings: you mute the strings for one or several strokes to create a percussive feature.

There are also room for variations. To avoid a wearisome sound, all strings in the chords mustn't be strummed in every stroke.

Down- and upstrokes are often abbreviated D and U to make it easier in given strumming pattern examples. One typical pattern is the classic folk strum pattern:


To accomplish a smooth movement, use ghost strokes (down- or upstrokes that doesn't hit the strings) when shifting from down to up and vice versa.


Playing six-strings chords without long pauses will create a thick texture. By adding some space between the strums, a medium texture can be created. Less strings involved in combination with space between strums will lead to a sparse texture.

Strumming with speed

Sometimes it sounds better if you strum with speed. It can be hard to strum fast in the beginning, but eventually you get faster. Try to avoid moving your whole under arm from the elbow but instead move your hand from the wrist. This is much more economical and serves the speed since you are able to strum up and down with small movements.

Rolling chords

One alternative to strum in the common way are so-called rolling chords, which are played by hitting each string in a fast sequence. In music tablature, rolling chords are indicated with a wavy line.

Chord chart with explanations
G Major as a rolling chord

Avoid getting monotonous

Only strumming chords can sound monotonous. Here are some tips for avoiding that:

  • Use both down- and upstrokes
  • Vary the strum rhythm
  • Vary the duration and beats on the chords
  • Hit different strings or just playing parts of the chord
  • Accentuate some strokes to create dynamic.
  • Think about textures (see above).

You don’t need to use all these methods all the time, but try to use some of them.

Strumming with syncopations

Strumming variation involving syncopations.

tab chord progression

Strumming with mutings

Strumming variation involving muted strokes.

tab chord progression

Read also about other playing techniques or go to strumming lessons with audio.