When you first learned to play guitar, you were probably taught to strum each chord as a whole, singular unit. While that’s a perfectly valid way to approach the instrument, it can be somewhat limiting if it’s the only you ever strum. You can open yourself up to whole new worlds of playing by simply breaking your strumming pattern on chord shapes that already know. While there are many ways to go about doing this, a concept known as “bass note strumming” is both one of the most common and one of the easiest to start with. Bass note strumming is a great way to get started with a whole new approach to playing chords, and something that doesn’t take much time to learn at all.
Bass note strumming is exactly what it sounds like: strumming centered around the bass note. When playing a bass note strum, you are going to alternate between picking just the bass note of any given chord (as in the lowest pitched note in that chord), then the rest of the chord. Don’t worry if that concept feels a little abstract right now, we’re about to get into a hands-on example.
Try finding your basic, open C-chord shape. Once you’ve found it, pick just the bass note of the chord, which is the 3rd fret on the 5th string. Now try playing the rest of the chord, as in the entire C-chord minus the bass note that you just played. This means that when I say “rest of the chord”, I am referring to the notes played on the 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings, but not the note played on the 5th string. Once you’ve played the rest of the chord, go back to that bass note and give it a strum. Then strum the rest of the chord again. Then go back to the bass note and so on. Once spent some time getting used to alternating between strumming just the bass note and then just the rest of the chord, trying playing it at a steady, quarter-note rhythm, strumming entirely with downstrokes.
You can see all of that written out in tab and standard notation here:
And you’re doing it! You’re now playing a simple, bass note strumming pattern. But while this is a great start to bass note strumming, there’s still far more that one could do with the technique.
Moving Bass Notes
Playing a bass note strum with moving bass notes is a common and easy way to embellish what we just learned above. Moving bass notes means that we are going to play almost exactly what we played above, except that when it becomes time to strum the bass note, we won’t necessarily always strum the same note. This will often mean having to reach a little bit outside of our conventional chord shapes. While there a lot of ways of determining which new notes to go to when playing with moving bass notes, the typical way is by using a concept called moving in fifths.
Moving in fifths means that when it’s time to strum the bass note, you alternate between strumming the bass note naturally in the chord, and strumming a new note that is something called it’s fifth. Luckily we don’t need to go into the theory behind moving in fifths right now, the reason being that, on guitar, the application of the concept is a lot simpler than the theory behind it. In order to find a note’s fifth, simply play the note on the same fret as your original note, but one string thicker. This means in that are above example, where our bass note was the 3rd fret on the 5th string, that note’s fifth is the 3rd fret on the 6th string.
Take a moment to go back and forth between our original bass note (the 3rd fret on the 5th string), and that notes fifth 3rd fret on (the 6th string). Now try playing those two notes in a solid, quarter note rhythm like this:
If you can do that, then you’re almost there! While you’re not quite playing a bass note strum at the moment, you are correctly moving the bass notes in fifths. Once you having the moving bass notes down, try playing the rest of that C-chord shape between each bass note, as we did earlier. Still keep a steady quarter-note rhythm, and play will all downstrokes. The only new variable from that first exercise we tried should be the introduction of the moving bass notes. Here is all of that written out in notation:
Now you’re playing the full technique. However, there are obviously a lot more chords other than just C, so let’s try taking the same concept and applying to other chord shapes. Find your open F-chord shape and do to it exactly what we just did the C-chord, finding its bass note, the bass note’s fifth, and then playing the whole thing with the same pattern we just went over. If you did all of that correctly, you should be playing this:
Once you’ve got that concept down solid on the F-chord shape, try going back and forth with that pattern between the C-chord and F-chord shapes. You can see what that should look like written out here:
Now with all of the being said, there is still one major caveat the concept described above. Trying applying this concept of moving fifths to a typical, open G-chord, and you’ll see what I mean. Unless you’re playing a guitar with seven or more strings, you’ll have trouble moving the bass note down a string to find the fifth. This is because on the G-chord, the starting bass note is already on the thickest string, which leaves nowhere else to go. However, there is an easy workaround to this problem.
If you find yourself trying to apply moving bass notes to a chord where your starting bass note is already on the 6th string, instead simply start with the second lowest-pitched note in the chord as your bass note. This means that on an open G-chord, your starting bass note is going to be the 2nd fret on the 5th string instead of the 3rd fret of the 6th string. Then, when it would ordinarily be time to move the bass note to the fifth, instead play the original bass note of the chord, which in this case would be the 3rd fret of the 6th string.
You can see that in notation here:
While you are no longer technically moving in fifths when using this workaround, it will still work in most musical contexts and captures the feel of moving in fifths well enough to blend in with the rest of your chords.
While there are far more ways to break up strumming than just bass note strumming and far more ways to play a bass note strum than just moving in fifths, the information in this piece is a great way to get started on both those concepts and to approach strumming the guitar in a whole new way.
Thanks for reading! If you have a question or topic related to guitar or music that you would like to see explored in one of these blog posts, please feel free to email me a email@example.com and I’ll see what I can do!