I can't strum to save my life

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BRISTOL86BRISTOL86 Frets: 697
I've been playing two years and I just cannot strum. With a pick, with my hands, whatever. 

It's not a rhythm thing. I 'get' strumming patterns etc but it's the mechanical, physical act of it. I can't hold a pick (fine for single note lead stuff but flies around all over the shop if I try to strum) , can't get consistent volume, sometimes miss altogether, you name it. 

I've watched hundreds of videos on the correct way to hold picks, etc. I've tried thin picks, thick picks, grippy picks. Thin nylon ones are ever so slightly better than the rest but sound horrible and still it's not good or natural. 

I expect a lot of it is tension related. I just can't seem to loosen up, but most barriers that I've hit I've made gradual progress in overcoming but I seem to make no progress on strumming. 

Anyone else have this issue? Any tips?
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  • Old_SwannerOld_Swanner Frets: 11
    edited May 9
    I was the same for a long time when I began ... took me a couple of years to be comfortable with a pick.  Twenty years later I needed to learn to use a pick left handed, this time I managed to get comfortable with it in a few days!  My approach that time around is covered in the video below.

    Warning, a rare vocal performance from me in here, watch at your own risk!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iwjzmbDb0E
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  • BRISTOL86BRISTOL86 Frets: 697
    Thanks @Old_Swanner will take a look tonight! 
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  • vizviz Frets: 4269
    edited May 10
    As a violinist originally, for me, strumming came much later after left hand dexterity. As with all musical instruments, relaxation is the key.

    There are a few different styles of strumming, some strum from the elbow, others seem to strum from the fingers. The method I have had success with is to strum from the wrist. You keep the elbow angle constant; not locked per se - you keep it loose and relaxed - but the arm rests gently on the guitar and the elbow angle doesn't need to move. All the motion comes from the wrist which needs to remain incredibly relaxed. The palm can be rested on the bridge or unattached depending on the effect you want. But very importantly, you don't actually concentrate on the rotation of the wrist - that will lock you up. You close your eyes and concentrate on the strike of plectrum against string. The wrist will do the rotating for you. 

    The plectrum is held relatively firmly but not so your knuckles are white! But enough so it doesn't slip out. You angle the plectrum so that it doesn't attack the strings flat on, and doesn't exactly glance off them, but somewhere in between. And not too much of it protruding from the finger and thumb. 

    You can simulate the relaxed wrist motion you need without a plectrum, just by sitting down and rotating your wrist back and forth, hand unclenched, brushing your thumb against the outside of your right knee. Try and get it oscillating like a hummingbird's wings. 

    A great exercise is to try and strum down down ups in quick triplets, and also up up downs. Once you master them you'll have no problem with normal strumming. There's a great video of Al di Meola talking about strumming somewhere and demonstrating that.

    Also look at EVH doing his hummingbird effect on the top E string. Although you probably don't need that effect on any actual song, it's a great technique to build as it really helps you loosen that wrist. 
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  • vizviz Frets: 4269
    There's a bit on right hand halfway through this one but it's not the one I'm thinking of - I'll find it later. 


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  • TeetonetalTeetonetal Frets: 4619
    Two things that may help:
    1. Practice simple down up down up strumming really slowly, like 8th notes at 60 bpm - get some muscle memory
    2. Angle the pick so that the gripped part of the pick points in the direction of travel, the the tip trailing behind 70 degrees (ish) should do it... this stops the pick getting stuck in the strings and pinging off into the distance.Think of the pick like spreading butter. If it's perpendicular it cuts in and gets stuck.


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  • BRISTOL86BRISTOL86 Frets: 697
    Thanks guys. Helpful tips :)
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  • uncledickuncledick Frets: 111
    I find that if I use a larger pick, I don't worry so much about it flying out of my fingers.  You could also try turning the guitar down a bit which will allow you to play consistently harder - which is easier.  
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  • pintspillerpintspiller Frets: 388
    It could be expensive, but try different plectrums. I ended up using the Dunlop nylons, not because they are common place, but because they are the only plectrums I got on with.
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  • DanjiDanji Frets: 222
    I sometimes use the flesh of my thumb to strum, I've also used cardboard cut into circles.

    i reckon being able to strum properly and evenly is an art.  I've always found it difficult to overcome. 
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  • BradBrad Frets: 172
    Danji said:

    i reckon being able to strum properly and evenly is an art.  I've always found it difficult to overcome. 
    +1 that is definitely something that is overlooked. It's deceptively difficult doing that acoustic straight 8ths strumming and getting it consistent in both time and feel. I've come a cropper with it in the past...

    @BRISTOL86 what kind of stuff are you playing/learning with regards to strumming? If I've understood your initial post properly, I'm I right in thinking you're happy using a pick when doing single note melodic playing, but it goes wrong when you try to strum things? Are you happy with the other areas of your playing - changing chords etc?

    It seems you're getting pretty stressed about it if you've been watching hundreds of videos about how to hold a pick. Really try and relax your mindset first and foremost. You can't be relaxed physically and technically if you're not relaxed mentally about it (easier said than done I know...). Over thinking things really throws up barriers to progress.

    Analyse where all your tension is coming from. It was pointed out to me once that I had a lot of tension in my shoulders even though I thought I was pretty relaxed. It's surprising where we hold tension without realising it!

    I'm merely speculating as I've no idea of where you're at with your playing, but it could be the case that you're trying to do stuff you're not quite ready for yet. Take a simple song or chord progression, something where each chord lasts for one or two bars and just strum on each beat of the bar with a down stroke. Make sure you breath with it as you do it. Try and strum as gently as you can for a while and gradually increase the dynamic intensity and then back again. Try not to grip the pick harder if you're using one. Just close your eyes and try and enjoy this process, it becomes almost meditative after a while. Then gradually add layers of complexity over time.

    Don't force it, some things just take more time than we'd want them to but you'll get there.
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  • HAL9000HAL9000 Frets: 3183
    Silly question probably... how's your strumming if you're not holding a pick?

    Dont think that just because most players use a pick that you should too. Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, Wilko Johnson, Hubert Sumlin are just a few that manage perfectly well without.
    It might look like I'm listening to you, but in my head I'm playing my guitar.
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  • BensonBenson Frets: 212
    It's all in the wrist. Get used to the sensation of shaking your hand.Then do it holding a pick. Then introduce the guitar. If you can "air strum" chances are you can strum on a guitar but if you can't, you probably can't. 
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  • BRISTOL86BRISTOL86 Frets: 697
    Thanks all for your help and comments. I think I've made some progress since I posted this. 

    My my main issue is definitely around actually holding the pick rather than the act of strumming. I struggle to keep the pick from slipping and sliding in my fingers and thus changing the angle of attack. 

    I've gone back to flimsy nylon picks with dimples on until I get a bit more comfortable. The only way I can stop it sliding about more than I'd like is to hold it right between thumb and finger tip which is going against everything I read or watch which says it should be coming out at a 90 degree angle to the thumb. 
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  • CarpeDiemCarpeDiem Frets: 62
    Without seeing how you're holding the pick, I can't be certain what to suggest. It may be worth rolling your finger tip back so more of the pad is holding the pick, which it sounds like you are trying. Don't stick to a 90 degree angle if it doesn't work for you; hand and finger sizes and grip levels vary between people, so treat the 90 degrees as a guide. If you're fingers are getting sweaty, possibly because you are not relaxed enough, you could try using Gorilla Snot, which some drummers use to stop the sticks slipping out of their hands. The amount of pick exposed should vary for different techniques, with more exposed for strumming and tip only for pinched harmonics. This is more advanced stuff, but the aim is to develop the technique of moving the pick like this over time, and it does take time to master it.
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