A Lesson in Guthrie Govan's Superhuman Strumming

Luckily for us mere mortals, there’s a simple science behind Govan's almost comically fast and precise strumming. Learn it from the man himself.
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“When it comes to funk playing and that sort of thing,” says Guthrie Govan, “the thing I get asked about most often is the frantic right-hand stuff I do.”

Specifically, Govan is talking about the spastic strumming-hand flurries he so effortlessly injects into conventional sixteenth note- based grooves. It’s no wonder many players are captivated by his use of this technique, because he executes it with so much speed and precision it’s almost comical. 

He’ll be cruising along, perhaps playing a fast James Brown- or Nile Rodgers-style pattern, and then suddenly - often just before a big, satisfying downbeat strike - his pick hand will shift into a gear that revs so high, the ensuing spray of notes seems almost superhuman.

Luckily, there’s a simple science behind Govan’s signature funk spasms. The other good news is that the British guitar virtuoso teaches as well as he plays. And he plays pretty damn well.

“Some people think I’m doing triplets,” says the Aristocrats guitarist. The assumption is no surprise, because the technique in question does kind of sound like a light-speed version of the famous triplet move Leo Nocentelli employs on the intro to the Meters’ “Tippi-Toes.”

“It’s not triplets,” says Govan. “It’s thirty-second notes. [Mimics Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel] ‘It’s one more, isn’t it?’”

A great exercise for learning this approach, suggests Govan, is to simply strum a sixteenths- based groove and occasionally double things up to thirty-second-notes. And while he’s absolutely correct, before we do that, let’s do a quick refresher on how to subdivide a measure into 32 pulses. 

First, set your metronome tempo slow enough that when you’ve finally revved your wrist up to thirty-second gear, it doesn’t burst into flames. 75bpm might be a good start.

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Ex. 1: Tap your foot on each click, counting each group of four out loud (“one, two, three, four”), at the same time strumming the muted strings using downstrokes. Loop it. You’re now strumming quarter-notes.

Ex. 2: Shift up to eighth-notes by doubling up your downstrokes. (Count aloud: “One and, two and,” etc., one word per downstroke.) In this and every other example in this lesson, keep the foot tapping on and only on the quarter-notes (“one, two,” etc.). That’s the internal heartbeat that keeps the groove solid.

Ex. 3: Achieve sixteenth-notes by doubling up the percussion once again. Do this by adding an upstroke between each downstroke. (You actually were already doing this in Ex. 2; your pick just wasn’t yet making contact with the strings during its upward flights.) Count aloud using the music school convention, “one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a,” etc.

Ex. 4: Just before landing on beat three and (when it returns) beat one, double up your strumming attack yet again, for just half a beat. (There’s no real verbal convention for counting this subdivision, so choose a four-syllable phrase you can easily say fast, like “gotta getta.”) 

You’re now playing short bursts of thirty-second notes on the second half of beats two and four, as in “one-e-and-a, 2-e-gotta-getta, three-e-and-a, 4-e-gotta-getta.”)

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A bar of pure thirty-second-notes looks like Ex. 5. An easy way to think of this subdivision is eight pulses per downbeat - or eight per each tap of the foot. (“I think it’s important to see how long you can do this before fatigue kicks in,” says Govan. "If you’re doing it right, you should feel nice and relaxed.”) Most players will find they can do short bursts of thirty-seconds faster than they can a nonstop stream.

“In either case, it’s a lot easier if you tell your wrist to be very, very loose and relaxed,” says Govan. “It should be a small movement - a gentle wobble of the wrist. When I do this stuff, my wrist comes out and angles a bit, which makes it much easier. 

"Sometimes you’ll find you can do a burst once or twice, but not a number of times in a row, so maybe look into that. Stay at one tempo and increase the number of repetitions you can do before you lose concentration.”

Govan likes to apply these thirty-second-note spasms within chordal funk grooves such as Ex. 6. “Generally, it sounds a lot less messy if you do this while lifting the fretting hand just enough to mute the strings. You’re just hearing X’s, waiting to squeeze the chord until the big downstroke at the end.”

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Expanding toward our target tempo of (yikes!) 120bpm - and also expanding to a more interesting funk loop that evokes the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “If You Have to Ask” in bar 1 and hints at the James Gang’s “Funk #49” in bar 2. 

Ex. 7 offers thirty-second- note flurries that illustrate an important point. “You need to know that you’re not trying to hit all the strings when you do this,” says Govan. “You don’t need to. Two strings - three strings, tops - is enough to create the effect you’re going for. Think like a snare drum - a military snare. [Strums the iconic snare drum rhythm that opens 20th Century Fox’s famous fanfare.] Rudiments!”