How to Add Variety to Basic Guitar Strumming Patterns and Use Them When Playing Songs

Here are some patterns you can practice on their own and then use in traditional songs

Maybe you know a few basic strumming patterns on guitar and would like to learn more. To help you achieve this, here are a handful of new patterns, both in 4/4 and 3/4, that you can practice on their own and then use in traditional songs. 

Try Some New 4/4 Variations

In the previous lesson, I showed you how to strum with a pick. This time I’ll build on that by introducing some new patterns and teaching you how to use them when playing songs. It’s easiest to begin strumming by including all the notes in a given chord, but that can quickly become monotonous. Let’s try adding some variety to some strums on a C chord. Remember that I prefer a voicing with the fifth, G, played on the sixth string. However, you can use just a regular three-finger C chord, without a note on that lowest string. 

Example 1a shows a strumming pattern that includes light brushes on just the bass strings on beats 1 and 3. Though three strings are consistently shown in the notation, it doesn’t really matter how many you play; just aim for the lower strings with that brushing movement. You can mix and match this sort of idea with variations like the one depicted in Example 1b. Both patterns have quite a different feel than if they were played in the same rhythms, but on all six strings throughout. 


Play “Waterbound”

Once you’ve practiced both patterns on a C chord until they feel second nature, try plugging them into the chorus of the traditional song “Waterbound,” written in the key of C major in Example 2. This excerpt uses three chords: C, F, and G. Note that for the G (technically a G5, because it’s missing the third, B), I sometimes mute the fifth string with the inside of my second finger, but you can instead play the B on string 5, fret 2, with your first finger. 

Heads up on the quick chord changes, two per bar, in measures 6 and 7. Be sure to keep your picking hand moving as you switch between the two shapes. The end of bar 6 reveals a useful switching trick—you can always strum the open strings, which buys you time to get to the next chord shape. Also, remember to experiment with the position of your picking hand—the closer to the bridge, the brighter the tone. I like to strum songs like this with my hand near the bottom of the soundhole, but be sure to experiment with placement to find out what sounds best to you. 

For additional practice on these strumming patterns, see the accompanying video at, in which I demonstrate “Waterbound” at different tempos, and in the keys of D and G. I also give the bluegrass tune “New River Train” a similar strumming treatment in G. 


Delve Into Some Waltz Patterns

All of the previous strums have been in 4/4 (or common time), four quarter notes per measure. Now let’s talk about 3/4 or waltz time, with three quarters in each bar. First try a basic strumming pattern (Example 3a), which features a brush on the bass strings on beat 1, followed by fuller strums on 2 and 3, all using downstrokes. What that does is emphasize the rhythm a little differently than if you were playing big strums on all three beats. Next try the variation shown in Example 3b, which adds an upwards strum on the “and” of beat 3. 

Work On “In the Pines”

After you’re comfortable with those basic 3/4 strumming patterns, you can use them in a tune. Example 4 shows the second pattern put to use in the chorus of the traditional American folk song “In the Pines” (aka “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”). You can also try adding an up strum on the “and” of beat 2, as I demonstrate in the video, and mixing and matching the different 3/4 patterns in the same song. 

If you have diligently practiced these examples, then you will have moved forward in your strumming skills. Stay tuned for the next lesson, where we’ll get into some more involved patterns that have many good applications. 

Add Variety to Basic Strumming Patterns guitar lesson music notation sheet 1
Add Variety to Basic Strumming Patterns guitar lesson music notation sheet 2

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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