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There are three main ways to play the guitar: fingerpicking, picking (with a pick/plectrum) or by strumming. If you are learning the guitar you might wonder which method is the easiest to learn or perhaps you’ve learned one and wonder if the other one is much more difficult.
Out of all the ways to play the basics of the guitar strumming is the easiest to learn. However, there are advanced rhythms and techniques that can be applied to strumming that are difficult to master. Finger picking or just picking both have their own unique challenges and require more initial coordination than strumming the guitar.
So why? Why is strumming the easiest of all methods to play? I do say that it’s easiest but there are actually many ways that strumming can be very difficult as well. Let’s dive in and I’ll describe the whys.
Why Strumming Is the Easiest Way To Play the Guitar
I’ll be up-front and say that guitar is not an easy instrument to learn for most people. The first reason being that the guitar is physically challenging to play. Your fingers and hands will protest as they are being stretched and pushed in ways that they haven’t in the past.
The fretboard is kind of confusing and can be very difficult to get the hang of and to learn the intervals and the ways the notes are organized. Memorizing them is also a challenge.
There are many more reasons why the guitar is hard--if you want to see all of them check out my post, here, that goes into more detail.
However, that being said, if you were looking for the easiest method of playing the guitar out of all the other methods then strumming is definitely the way to go.
Why Easy: Strumming Coordination Is Fairly Simple
When you strum the guitar you basically pivot from your elbow to move your forearm and wrist up and down with your hand hinging loosely while gently scraping the guitar strings. somewhat similar to the motion you would use if you were trying to shake water off your hands.
The strumming position does take a little practice and some mindfulness to make sure you perform ergonomically so that you don’t hurt your wrist.
To actually play a song with the guitar while strumming, you need only a little bit of coordination get started.
If you know how to tap your foot to the beat of a song, then you essentially have the rhythm necessary to strum a very basic rhythm for a song.
One of the simplest strumming patterns is to simply strum the guitar strings downwards on every downbeat of a song.
Although this takes some coordination it doesn’t take nearly as much coordination as it does to play a song or a solo by plucking individual guitar strings.
Rhythms Can Be Simple
Even for very famous songs oftentimes strumming patterns can be fairly simple to play with a little practice. The example I used earlier of just strumming down on the downbeat is sometimes even used in actual songs. Although not often because they would be pretty boring.
That’s the amazing part about learning guitar! If you just learn a few chord shapes and learn how to transition between them you are now able to play hundreds of different songs.
Obviously there is more to strumming patterns than just what we’ve talked about.
You can vary up this simple rhythm very easily. When you strum the string downward, can then strum the guitar strings going back up, essentially strumming the guitar twice for every beat.
Again, this isn’t a complicated rhythm (although it may feel that way at first), but you’ll hear this rhythm used often in many songs.
Even simple rhythms are used frequently in music we hear on the radio or on Spotify.
Your Strumming Hand Is Only Doing One Thing At A Time
What do I mean by this?
The guitar is considered a polyphonic instrument which is a fancy way of saying that it can play multiple notes at once. Another example of a polyphonic instrument is the piano or the harp.
I don’t know about you but If I try and do more than one thing at a time life gets a bit difficult. For me it feels like I have to train my brain to treat two things as one thing, which takes repetition and practice.
To be more specific, If I try to play strings 1 and 3 at the same time I have to practice this enough to where this feels like I’m only doing one thing and so that means I have to memorize the shape and pattern and feel of both hands on the guitar.
In short, plucking more than one note at a time is hard.
Now, with strumming you are playing all the notes at once (or mostly all of them) which relieves the mental stress somewhat. However, your fret hand is furiously making chord shapes simultaneously so there still is an element of multitasking going on.
In short, strumming chords is easier than plucking chords.
When the Strumming Gets Tough
The tough get strumming.
So, strumming can be difficult. Here’s why:
As soon as you move past the simple rhythms and introduce syncopation (rhythms that don’t fall on the downbeat) it’s much more difficult to strum and in fact it can take a lot of coordination and practice to get it right.
Furthermore, if you want to play with other people even the simplest of rhythms takes practice to be able to play them steadily and evenly. Especially if you have no prior musical experience.
When I say steadily ,I mean being able to play to a metronome in such a way so that the strums are on the beat (or off the beat) that fits the music.
When I say evenly, you don’t want your strum upstroke to sound radically different from your strum downstroke. Getting your technique to a point where the sound is even takes some practice.
Additionally, sometimes advanced guitarists combine plucking and strumming to where you are strumming only particular notes of the guitar and plucking individual notes almost simultaneously.
For an example of a guitarist who does this listen to John Mayer’s “Heart of Life”. A great song to aspire to--but don’t feel bad if you can’t get it because it’s a really tough song to learn to play the way he plays it.
Why Is Fingerpicking/Picking More Difficult?
Now it might seem like I am saying that fingerpicking or picking with a guitar plectrum (pick) is so extremely difficult that there’s no comparison and that you have to practice strumming for months before you can even approach picking or fingerpicking.
That’s definitely not the case. It’s not an insurmountable skill to learn picking or fingerpicking but they are different skills and they have some difficulties associated with them.
You Can’t Watch Both Hands
Probably one of the biggest challenges for a new guitarist when you’re trying to learn how to use a pick or to use your fingers to pluck the guitar strings is that you are not able to see the strings that you’re picking and see your fret hand at the same time.
When you’re strumming on the other hand you can leave the right hand alone as you focus on the fret hand.
It takes so much practice to create that mental model to where you can play the guitar with your eyes closed because you know exactly where the guitar strings are. This is actually something that is necessary to do at least for the right hand. You have to be able to memorize the locations of all six strings so that you can pluck them without looking at them.
It can be really frustrating for a long time as you’re memorizing the locations of the strings. This is especially true if you’re using a pick, because you are lowering and raising your hand so that you can pluck the string you want to play and not the others. It’s just super easy to miss a string or pluck the wrong string.
As I mentioned before, things get a lot more complicated when you’re playing one more than one note at a time. Any time where you are plucking multiple notes it’s definitely more tricky and takes some practice.
Now, there are some polyphonic patterns that--while they are very difficult at first--once you get the hang of them are actually not as hard as they look and since they follow a distinct pattern, your muscles will learn what to do and you can get to the point where you can play the rhythm without really thinking about it.
An example of a well-known polyphonic rhythm is Travis picking.
You might think it sounds impossible at first--but with some practice, you can get this rhythm to the point where you can play it without thinking.
Strumming is easier than fingerpicking or using a guitar pick, (at least initially) but both methods have their own difficulties that you have to figure out.