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using the 'other' hand

Generally speaking you need two hands to play guitar. I'm right handed but yet I know that when I'm playing I WILL be looking at my left hand. It's got the most complicated job of fretting individual notes and chords, of performing string bends, hammer-ons, pulloffs, vibrato and generally having the harder time of things. The vast majority of guitarists that I teach are of the same mindset as well. When I was learning I pretty much focused entirely on my fretting hand because I was so overwhelmed by everything that was going on with it. So much so that I forgot about my right hand, my picking/strumming hand.

Never underestimate the importance of your picking hand. This is the hand that is not only responsible for making the notes sound but also when then sound and how they sound. It's a huge deal. After I had been playing for 10 years or so i started taking lessons again and for the first 6 months of lessons the teacher took my picking hand back to basics and had to teach me to play correctly with it again because my picking technique was so terrible. Because as guitarists we are so fixated with what is commonly our weakest, least dexterous hand doing the most complicated and taxing job we overlook the role that the picking hand has to play in things. In my case I was severly limiting what I could do and I'm gratefull that I took the time to correct things.

This does not have to be simply related to playing faster, quicker, cleaner etc but can also affect the most simpler things such as strumming. Grab your guitar and look at the following example of a strumming pattern. In case you were wondering, 'D' means strum down and 'U' means strum up!

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +


This is a very basic strumming pattern. You strum down on the beat and strum up between or 'off' the beat. It's not particularly interesting but also not particularly hard to do if you have a basic grasp over strumming. So, what about if we flipped it around, does this sound right?

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +


Now we are stumming up on the beat and down on the off beat. Should this make a difference?

Well yes. When you strum a guitar chord you are playing a selection of the strings. However you are not playing all of the strings at the same time. If you strum down the lower pitched notes on the thicker strings get played first, a fraction of a second before the thinner, higher pitched strings. When you strum up the higher pitched thinner strings get played first. This leads to an emphasis being placed on which strings get played first in a strum. Therefore an up/down strumming pattern has a distinctive sound to it because you are emphasising different strings at different times. If you flip this, it doesn't necessarily sound wrong but it might not be what you had in mind!

Take the example of a more standard strumming patter that you might here people play a bit more often.

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +


The only difference with this pattern is that the first 'up' is removed after beat 1. You hand still moves up as you will need to strum down on the 2nd beat. This means that the pattern remains intact and you always end up strumming down on the beat. later on in the bar. However I have seen some play it like this.

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +


What has happened here is that after beat 1 the off beat is missed but the strumming hand does not return up and consequently beat 2 doesn't get played down but gets played up. Give this a try. It doesn't sound right because the sound that you would expect to hear on the beat isn't quite right.

In this case the lesson to be learned with your fretting hand is when strumming, make sure that your strumming is consistent with the sounds that you want to make. Make sure that you hand is moving constantly in an up/down motion, regardless if you are hitting the strings or not. This level of control underpins everything that you need to consider with guitar playing and your picking/strumming hand: how and when things sound. I hope to explore this more with regard to picking and other things in future articles so watch this space!

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