Strum series 3: wrist, hand, and arm

May 15, 2017

Strum Secrets 3: wrist, hand, and arm

In this series I’ve been exploring some different approaches to strumming, and how to create a variety of sounds and rhythms by varying your technique.

Just like all other aspects of playing an instrument, there is an ideal of “perfect” technique balanced by the reality that there are many great players that do things differently. But a good place to start is to look at the anatomy of the hand and arm, and notice which movements are most natural and fluid.

Consider that there are basically three ways to move the hand to strum: moving the wrist from side to side, swinging the entire forearm, and rotating the hand. You can explore this away from the guitar and notice how each one feels….each one does feel distinctly different, and produces a different sound.

The wrist movement is the least natural, in my opinion. Not that we’re not meant to move that way, of course we are. And if you’re doing any muting with the picking hand it’s pretty much the only option. But you’ll notice as you move the hand that it’s the most muscle-intensive of the three approaches. In a lot of ways it’s also the most precise, because it’s easy to keep the movements small…so in music that requires a lot of fast picking like hard rock or bluegrass, it works well for lead playing.

Try using this approach to strum, though, and the limitations should be obvious. An acoustic guitar especially won’t “speak” the way it should if you’re playing a rhythm part that should be ringing and resonant. To make the guitar really project, you need to use a larger movement to create more force in the stroke. It’s basic physics, really: larger lever + more motion = greater power.

When we take this approach, we need to make a distinction between swinging the entire forearm parallel to the face of the guitar vs. turning the hand slightly outward and rotating the forearm in the process. The first works well for driving, powerful strumming, especially eighth-note backbeat rhythms. Swing the arm further for a nice accent on the backbeat to simulate a snare drum hit:

down-up-DOWN-up down-up-DOWN-up

To play more subtle or intricate rhythms, though, the entire forearm is awkward to move quickly. Faster strums tend to work better when the forearm is relaxed and the movement is led by a slight outward rotation of the hand. Lead the movement from the fingertips, not the wrist. (Think about it as you try to compare, you’ll feel the difference). You don’t need to rotate far…think of the point of the pick forming a narrow arc that swings through the strings. This works great for 16-note note rhythms and syncopated parts like these:

1. Speak this rhythm: Dum di-ga dum di-ga dum di-ga dum
2. Play the same rhythm: down down-up down down-up down down-up down

This one should be played at a faster tempo than the earlier example. You should notice a big difference in both feel and tone.

Again, there are no absolutes here. Whenever we talk about technique, look for “natural” rather than “correct”, and be clear on the difference between “unfamiliar” and “awkward” as you consider how natural the movement feels.

Check out this video from a YouTube series I posted a few years back, exploring this concept. Again, don’t worry so much about whether you’re doing it “right”: just notice what you feel and hear, and it’s likely you’ll find most natural approach just by paying attention to what feels and sounds best.

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