Strumming Dynamics Part 1

Continuing on with our series about strumming, let’s talk about another common problem people have…a lack of dynamics.   In music, “dynamics” simply refers to the volume or sound of a note or chord when it is played. When you listen to a good guitar player strumming, for example, you’ll notice that they can control how hard or soft a strum is, along with other aspects like palm muting or how long or short the strum is.  These aspects contribute to the emotion of the performance, adding dynamics to the overall sound.

What we’re going to talk about will apply more obviously to those of you who use a guitar pick, but the same rules apply when you are finger picking or strumming with just your fingers.

Here is one example, a song by Dave Matthews called “Crash Into Me”. I picked this version of the song because he’s playing it as a duo with Tim Reynolds and they are both playing acoustic guitar.  It starts out relatively even, with a strum emphasized by varying bass notes in the intro and the first verse.  What I want you to pay attention to is between the 1:03 and 1:10 minute mark, at the chorus or refrain.  You’ll notice that he suddenly brings the volume way down as he changes the chord progression and it softens up considerably through those few seconds.  Then he goes back to his verse strumming pattern:

So how do you control the volume, as in the example above, of your strum? When you are strumming with your fingers and thumb, you simply hit them a little harder or softer, but using a guitar pick can present a problem. When you first strum with a pick, you’ll notice that it can sound very loud and obnoxious!  This has everything to do with how you hold the pick. Below is a picture of the proper way to hold the flat pick.  Notice how less than half of the pick is showing!

This is key to controlling the volume of your strumming or picking.  When you hold on to more of the pick, you can hold it more loosely, and the looser you can hold it, the softer you can play!  Try it out.  Hold the pick very firmly and strum…you’ll notice that the more rigid it is, the louder it plays. Now try to loosen your hold and make sure you’re holding a large part of it as in the above picture.  Strum again and see how lightly you can hit the strings with your pick.

One other point to make is that there are different types of flat picks…the heaviest is the least flexible and is often preferred by people playing lead or solo. The lightest is very flexible, and sometimes this is a good pick to start strumming with;  the more flexible the pick, the more forgiving it will be. The SOUND of the pick is also different.  A lighter pick will give off the sound of its plastic when you strum with it.  Some people don’t like that plastic sound, others don’t mind, but it is certainly a good pick to start with if you’re not used to using them.

So as an experiment, try varying the volume of your strum.  Play a strum pattern more loudly and then soften up a bit and then back to more loudly. This is what a songwriter might do, for example, when he/she is singing a verse and then playing in between.  During the singing, you soften up on the playing so that the lyrics can be heard.  Think of your instrument as weaving in and out, volume-wise.

In the next post, we’ll get into other tips and tricks for creating more dynamics in your strumming.


Tempo Troubles

An Old Metronome

Many of the students I teach initially have problems keeping a consistent tempo, and in most cases speed up considerably as they are playing a song.  First of all, this becomes an issue when your chording hand can’t keep up with the speed that you’re playing!  But I notice that even people who’ve been playing guitar for awhile and are relatively proficient at it, have trouble maintaining tempo.

All you have to do to find out if you have problems is to play along with a metronome, a rhythm track (drums) or click track.  You’ll realize pretty quickly that you’re getting ahead of the beat!  Don’t worry, the truth is that all of us, even me, tend to naturally speed up over time without a reference beat to guide us.

A little side story:  Ray Charles, the famous singer and pianist, always had trouble finding session musicians (these are PROFESSIONAL musicians!) who could play slow enough!  He went through so many of them just trying to find the ones who could play consistently at a slow tempo on some of his recordings.  The issue is that when you are playing slowly, such as in some blues or jazz songs or ballads, it’s hard to maintain a consistent beat.  Why?  Because we can’t hear the rhythm as well when we’re going slowly.  When you speed it up, it’s easier to hear.  This causes a dilemma, however, when you are not as good at your chord transitions, because you can’t change chords fast enough to match your own strumming.  So you have to play SLOW.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, one error people often make when they are teaching themselves to play guitar is to stop every time they change chords.  This simply ruins the flow of your playing and becomes a bad habit.  You need to continue the strum and let your chording hand find its way in its own time, and it will!  In fact, continuing the strum encourages the chording hand to move faster each time so you may actually speed up the process by using this technique.

But once you are adequately changing chords, how do you learn to keep a more consistent tempo?  The simplest answer is to use a metronome, or a drum or click track as mentioned above.   When you work with one of these, you will become acutely aware of your tempo and over time your tempo even out.    The key is to never anticipate the beat, but let it LEAD YOU.  When bands or artists are in the recording studio multi-tracking, the drums or percussion (if there are any) are always recorded first.   This sets the pace of the recording and all of the other instruments have to let the drums lead.  This is also true of live performances;  those who know what they’re doing always let the drummer set the pace and never try to play right on top of the beat.   If you anticipate the beat, you’ll more than likely be ahead of it!  So it’s almost as if there is a slight lag between the beat of the metronome and your strum (or note, or whatever).  Not an obvious lag, of course, just the slightest one.  When you work with it for awhile, you’ll find what they call “the pocket”, you’ll be in perfect synch most of the time.

An average heartbeat is 60 beats per minute, or 60 BPM.  When you first try out the metronome, do this:  start strumming and then try to set the metronome to the BPM that most matches your strum.  It will probably be somewhere between 120-150 BPM, and more likely on the higher end of the scale.  So set it at whatever tempo you’re playing at and then follow it.  You’ll feel it when you want to go faster.  This is the instinct that we want to stop!  Always let the beat lead.

When you feel you’ve become better at matching that tempo, then try reducing the BPM down.  The idea is to learn to play more slowly so you can train yourself to play at any speed with no loss of “groove”.

Over time you’ll actually develop an “inner metronome” and be less likely to start racing through your songs and pieces.  If you are performing, or even just playing for a friend or family member, you might become nervous and this also adds to your playing speed!  So think about the tempo of the song before you even start it and try to match what you hear in your head when you begin to play.

A little bit about metronomes;  you can purchase one at your local music store, but there are also plenty of them online and even apps that you can buy and use on your smartphone.  Most of the time we play in what’s called “Common Time” (because it’s common!) which is 4/4 time.  Without going into a lot of detail, 4/4 time means four beats to a bar or measure.  So the count is 1,2,3,4.  With a metronome you can often adjust these settings, but I would stick to 4/4 time at first.  Most metronomes will ACCENT the FIRST beat so that you can hear where it is.  If you’re strumming, your first strum should match the first beat of the metronome and the rest of it follows.  Use an easy strum instead of trying to get too fancy.

If you are playing a melody or lead, keep it simple at first too.  Don’t try playing something that has a lot of syncopation in it until you are more comfortable with the metronome.  Here are two online metronomes you can try out:

The Web Metronome – this is as simple as they come and probably a good one to try first and it uses a blip sound for the beat

All Guitar Chords Metronome – this metronome has the look of an actual one with a tempo slider at the bottom that you can adjust, and the beat is more drum-like

There are many more, some Java-based, others that are more sophisticated and look like the old-fashioned metronome as pictured above.  Digital metronomes are relatively inexpensive too and can be purchased at your local music store.  However you do it, spending the time to work on your tempo will substantially improve your guitar playing.

Good luck!


To Watch Or Not To Watch

When you’re first learning to play guitar, you might find yourself constantly hunching over watching either your chording hand or your strumming (picking) one.  Of course you need to do that when you’re very new to playing because how else are you going to get a sense of where the strings and the frets are?After awhile, however, you may find yourself at a disadvantage if you are habitually watching your hands.  How can you read chords and lyrics or tablature and watch your hands at the same time?  Well, you can look back and forth, but you’ll likely lose your spot on the page pretty easily.   And once you’ve firmly established this habit, it’s pretty hard to break.  I’ve had some students who’ve come to me after having played for awhile, with the habit of watching their hands.  That’s pretty much the first habit I try to break them out of.

Eric Clapton NOT looking 🙂

The truth is, after awhile, you don’t need your eyes for playing guitar any more!  You won’t believe it until you try it.  Even with my beginner students, I work to get them to stop watching pretty soon in the game.  They don’t believe they can do it either, until they try it a few times.  The fact is that your fingers have muscle memory and they will begin to remember the shapes of the chords pretty quickly.  They might not always hit the right string or the right place on the fret, but the shape will be there.  Certain chords will come more quickly than others…for instance and ‘A’ chord where you place all your fingers in the second fret, is easier to find without looking.   A ‘C’ chord does not come as easily to some, so this one will take more work.

If you have a habit of watching your chording hand, try it out.  Discipline yourself to move between two chords that you know fairly well.  You’ll be surprised at how many times your fingers will hit the right spot without the need for looking.  If you MUST look, look AFTER you move, not AS you’re moving.  This will help you to get out of the habit too.

Now of course you’ll notice that there are dots on the neck of your guitar indicating certain frets.  Most guitars have fret dots on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th and 12th frets.  Those dots are there to help you see your way to another fret, especially when you are playing up and down the neck.  And this is because sometimes you need to look in order to hit the right fret.  Classical guitars do not have these fret dots, but most other guitars do.  And when you watch Eric Clapton play, sometimes he looks down so he gets to the right fret, although most of the time he doesn’t have to look at all.  So there are certainly instances where glancing down helps.

But the sooner you get out of the habit of looking, the sooner you will be liberated!  How many times have I seen a guitar student’s fingers go to the right chord, and then look and second guess themselves?  The eyes and the thinking can actually GET IN THE WAY of playing more smoothly!  When you don’t have to look any more, you will be depending on your muscle memory and your touch rather than your eyes and your thoughts, and that’s a lot faster!

So do yourself a favour and break yourself of the habit of watching your hands…and the sooner the better 🙂