How to Read Strumming Patterns for Guitar

When learning a new song using a chord book or guitar tab, we don’t have the same rhythmic information available that standard music notation includes. But, many official tabs include a strumming pattern.

If you’ve always just skipped over this stuff, it’s well worth learning, as when you understand what the different symbols mean, you can develop a genuine feel for the song and learn songs faster. With this in mind, today we’re going to discuss how to read strumming patterns for guitar.

Below is a quick summary.

Strumming patterns are notated using symbols, arrows, or letters (U or D). Each is shown on the beat (if displayed independently), or in guitar tab beside the chord. When included in tab, keep in mind the strings are shown lowest to highest. e.g. if the arrow points upward this indicates a downstroke. Additional symbols include an X (muting) and “greater than symbol” (accent).

For a more in-depth explanation continue reading.

Strumming Pattern Symbols

Rhythm is an important part of music and music theory. Strumming involves playing to a rhythm and consists of upstrokes, downstrokes, accents, muting, and rests.

And while there’s no universally “accepted standard” for displaying strumming patterns, the symbols used are fairly intuitive, so once you know the basics you can generally work out the strumming pattern regardless of how it is displayed.

For example, on some websites or when displayed independently for teaching purposes, the strumming pattern will include the beats e.g. 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 for eighth-note patterns with the up and down symbols shown directly above the beat within the bar.

A rest note is indicated if any of the beats have no symbol shown above them.

A common strumming pattern using symbols to indicate upstrokes and downstrokes
downstroke | rest | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | rest 

The symbols in the example above may seem counterintuitive at first, as the open box symbol represents a downstroke while the “V” symbol represents an upstroke (despite seeming to point downwards). The symbols are derived from bowed instruments, with the V representing the shape of the bow. If stuck, keep in mind the open end of both symbols points in the direction you should be strumming.

Of course, you will also see common strumming patterns notated with arrows. In this case, an arrow pointing downwards represents a downstroke.

A strumming pattern using arrows to indicate upstrokes and downstrokes
downstroke | rest | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | rest 

In less formal notation you may also see the direction of each strum represented using letters below the numbers, as per the example below.

A strumming pattern using the letters U (upstroke) and D (downstroke).
downstroke | rest | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | rest  

Up and downstrokes may also be written as a part of guitar tab. If this is the case, any of the symbols above may be used but will be shown above or below the tab (as per the example below).

Guitar tab showing strumming pattern symbols above.
downstroke | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | downstroke | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke

Otherwise, the strumming direction may be displayed beside the chord within the tab itself as per the example below, and the arrows will indicate the strings to be played. e.g. in the example below the first bar contains a C Major chord, which utilizes the top 5 strings. If we were showing a D Major chord, the numbers and arrow length would only cover the top 4 strings.

Strumming pattern showing up and downstrokes using arrows within the guitar tab
downstroke | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | downstroke | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke

Important. Keep in mind the direction of the strings.  While the arrows point upward, they are actually pointing in the direction of the higher pitch strings, and so are downstrokes.

What Does the X Symbol Mean?

An X, displayed within a strumming pattern indicates a muted strum. So for example, if I wanted to make the chord progression used above more expressive I could include a muted downstroke on the first beat of each measure, as per the example below.

A strumming pattern with the first chord of each bar muted (muted downstrokes).
muted downstroke | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | muted downstroke | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke

Otherwise, the fret numbers can also be replaced by an X, however, unless accompanied by a symbol above the tab the direction of the strum is unknown.

Strumming pattern showing the letter X replacing the fret numbers
muted strum | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | muted strum | downstroke | upstroke | downstroke

In the independent strumming patterns shown at the start of this article, the X would sit between the symbols, arrows, or letters.

An X usually refers to muting with the fretting hand (dead notes), but you may also see a palm mute indicated if the letters PM are written above the tab followed by a series of dots. You can read more about the symbols used in guitar tab here.

Accents

We can also notate accents within a strumming pattern by adding a “greater than” symbol above the arrow used to indicate the direction of the strum, as per the example below.

A Strumming Pattern with Accents
muted strum | accented downstroke | upstroke | downstroke | muted strum | accented downstroke | upstroke | downstroke

Accenting a chord simply means to emphasize it e.g. play the chord with more energy than the other chords in the chord progression.

Timing is Everything 

Ok, so it’s all well and good to know how to read strumming patterns, but:

  • How do we count music?
  • How do we know the tempo of the piece?
  • What do the numbers mean at the start of the guitar tab?

To learn the basics of rhythmic notation, including understanding the time signature of a song, and how to count music check back soon.

Final Thoughts

One of the best things about learning guitar is the number of intuitive resources available for learning, including chord diagrams, scale charts, and guitar tab.

Visual strumming patterns are another source of information that can be used to provide greater direction on how a piece of music should be performed.

Marty

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My name’s Marty. I’ve been into guitars, songwriting, and home recording for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about everything I have learned along the way.