Applying A New Strum Or Picking Pattern to Songs

QUESTION: I’ve learned several picking patterns and have pretty much nailed the 80% benchmark as you suggested but I can't seem to get them to fit with songs.

ANSWER: Having difficulty integrating a new strum or picking pattern into a song is a common problem. 

There's a lot of different elements going on even in simple songs. You're keeping track of the rhythm, melody, lyrics, changing chords, AND any new strung or picking pattern.  

There's no one quick fix. The main strategy is to practice the different elements separately and continue putting them together until you can get it to work.

You could keep banging away at the song. You may even be able to get it all together at some point. In the long run it's not the best way to go as it creates a lot of frustration and even some bad habits. And more often than not students give up before they get to that point.

Now I’ll admit that the “breaking things down and working on them separately” strategy does take patience. It can also be a little overwhelming when you're just starting out.  I can hear you saying “I just want to play this freaking song”. 

The good news is that this process is a skill in itself. You get better and better at it as you use it.  You might even say it will eventually become second nature. 

Here are some ways to get you started. 

  • Use exercises to improve your ability to finger the chords and to change between them smoothly.  If you can finger the chords easily, work on changing from one to another in time with a metronome. 
  • Make sure the picking pattern fits the song. One of the main things to watch out for is the difference between three beats and four beats in a measure. (3/4 and 4/4 time).  It will make you crazy trying to fit a picking pattern that takes up four beats with a song that needs three.
  • Play the entire song with the simplest strum pattern possible. Make sure you can do this easily before adding a more complex picking pattern or strum.  I usually prefer to start by strumming slowly once for each beat. I still do this when learning a new song before adding more complexity.
  • Practice singing the song with backing tracks. One of the biggest problems I see is students trying to combine the singing with all the other elements. Practicing with backing tracks will make the singing easier so you can focus on other elements.
  • Do the opposite.  Practice playing the guitar chords with a backing track for the entire song without singing.
  • It may be possible to practice the entire song along with a YouTube video of the song.  Of course you'll need to play it in the same key as a YouTube video.  This may or may not work depending on what key you want to learn the song in for your voice.
  • Consider if it would be better to learn an easier song or two first.  More than once I've had instructors suggest I backup and practice the techniques on easier songs. Each time they were right and I'm glad I took their advice.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  I encourage you to use your own creativity to come up with other methods. Maybe there's something else that would work for you that I haven't tried yet. 

In general I’ve found it really helps to change the way you think about learning guitar. Instead of thinking of it as a series of isolated goals… like learning a specific song or a specific technique...  try to see it as a holistic journey where all the pieces affect each other. 

This makes it easier to see the success in practicing foundational exercises and parts of songs that eventually leads to playing full songs easily and with confidence.

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