Guitar Basics: 3 Simple Tips to Get Better at Strumming

Learn to get comfortable holding a pick, then try some common strums of increasing complexity

If you’ve never really used a flatpick and would like to learn some strumming patterns, here are three tips for improving your strumming. In this guitar lesson you’ll learn to get comfortable holding a pick, then try some common strums of increasing complexity, first on the open strings and then with chords.

1. Get a Grip

Unlike on classical guitar, with its highly regimented fingerstyle technique, there’s not really any single proper way to hold a pick. I like to grasp mine between my index finger and thumb, as shown in the accompanying video at Experiment to find the way of handling the pick that’s most comfortable to you, and be sure not to let too much of the pointed tip stick out, or you’ll get floppy sounds. 

There have never been so many different types of flatpicks on the market—in a wide variety of shapes, thicknesses, and sizes, made of materials from celluloid and nylon to metal and wood. While you can easily spend $40 for a single boutique pick (see the roundup in the July/August 2022 issue), many types cost only a little pocket change. Go to your local music store, grab a handful of different picks, and play around with them to see what feels good and works best for you. 


2. Strum on the Open Strings

To get the hang of strumming with a pick, work with the open strings. Start by strumming downward across all six strings, toward the floor, nice and steady, as shown in Example 1a. You can also mute the open strings with your fretting hand, causing a percussive sound (Example 1b). 

Don’t use too much arm motion, or you’ll get fatigued. Try using a little wrist movement as well. It might be helpful to think of your pick as having a little drop of water on it, and in strumming, you’re trying to get that drop off—in other words, you’re using a controlled flicking motion. 

Next, as indicated in Example 2, try adding upstrokes (toward the ceiling) and strumming in a steady down-up pattern. Make sure that you are strumming with equal power in both directions—if you’re doing this correctly, the upward strums should sound as loud and present as the downward ones. 


3. Add Some Chords

Now strum on an open C chord. Since you’re using all six strings, try the four-finger shape introduced in Example 3. Start with all downstrokes, and then add the upstrokes, (Example 4). By the way, you might have noticed that the sound of your guitar varies with right-hand placement. When that hand is positioned close to the bridge, you get a brighter tone, which is darker toward the end of the fretboard. Experiment with what’s comfortable and sounds good to you. 

When you have the basic up-down strum mastered, then it’s time to mix things up. The possibilities are endless. Examples 5–8 show a bunch of common patterns, which I demonstrate in the video at a slow tempo. If you’re practicing them on your own, be sure to use a metronome so that your rhythms will be tight. 

Example 9 introduces yet another variation, this one on an open G chord. And Example 10 includes both the C and G chords in a more syncopated pattern (i.e., the emphasis falls on the weak beats). Try playing this one with a constant down-up motion, missing the strings on beats 1.5, 2, and 4.5. (If that nomenclature is confusing to you, just check out how I play it in the video.)

The more you practice these strums, the better you’ll hear and feel them when other musicians are playing them—and the better equipped you’ll be to confidently join in. 


This lesson is one of six included in The Acoustic Guitar Guide to Strumming by Cathy Fink, available to download instantly in the Acoustic Guitar Store.

Cathy Fink
Cathy Fink

Cathy Fink is a Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist. She teaches bluegrass and Americana guitar and performs around the world with her partner, Marcy Marxer.

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