Beat It: A Guide to the Inspired Techniques of Percussive Acoustic Guitar Playing
There are several ways to achieve a snare drum–like effect on an acoustic guitar, and they all involve striking the instrument’s body anywhere that produces a pitch that is higher than that of the kick sound, which is pretty much anywhere.
My rule is that the snare is wherever I can reach it, based on whatever other duties either hand is performing. My go-to snare drum is at the top corner area of the body, which I likewise strike with my pick-hand middle finger (see PHOTO B).
Other fingers can be used, and you should use whichever one you prefer.
This snare “cracks” pretty nicely, and its attack can be tempered by the way you strike the wood with your finger. For example, you can use the inner side of your first knuckle for that bone-on-wood sound, or the softer pad, or “paw,” between the knuckle and fingertip to smooth out the transient spikes that can be a bit shrill sounding and problematical for amplification or recording.
When recording, I’ll sometimes use various makeshift damping devices. These include taping a cocktail napkin to that part of the body, much as a drummer will put a towel over his snare to dampen it or a lead guitarist will tie a sock around the neck in front of the nut to suppress sympathetic string vibration when recording a solo. (If you cringe at the idea of taping anything to a valuable or favorite guitar, you might want to consider using a less-precious instrument for this purpose.
If your instrument isn’t a cutaway, the opposite corner area of the body will work well as a snare drum and can be easily reached with the fret hand from below the neck if your pick hand is busy picking or tapping a harmonic.
This way of playing the guitar is similar to playing a conga drum and requires a bit of resourcefulness and creative problem solving, as any given groove can pose different physical challenges and restrictions and call for a certain pitch produced by striking the body at just the right place. Tapping on the side of the body (with either hand) produces a higher-pitched snare sound (akin to hitting a conga drum near the rim) that I like to use to achieve a cross-stick kind of effect.
Another effective and convenient snare-like sound can be produced by tapping your fret-hand fingers on the back of the neck to create a grace-note flam effect or snare-drum “chatter,” akin to the way a drummer lets the stick bounce off the snare (PHOTO C).
It’s a subtle sound, but it can be very effective at enhancing a groove. You can also kill two musical birds with one stone by tapping a natural harmonic on one or more strings at the moment you’d expect to hear a snare hit, which is typically on beats two and four in 4/4 meter. In this way, you’re conveying harmonic and rhythmic information simultaneously. Efficiency is key when you’re trying to do the work of several instruments.
By sweeping either hand along the wound strings, you can approximate the sound of closed or open hi-hats. Depending on your musical proclivities, you can conjure up a little old-school vinyl scratching by sweeping your hand over the strings in a way that visually resembles a DJ manipulating a record turntable (think Tom Morello).