Beat It: A Guide to the Inspired Techniques of Percussive Acoustic Guitar Playing
Now that we understand the rhythmic part of the equation, let’s look at how to make your strings conform in a way that facilities the technique.
Since you’re already doing as much as you can to wring sound out of the instrument, it makes sense to get as many of the strings involved at once. To do this, I’ll employ alternate tunings, my favorite being DADGAD.
Occasionally, I’ll drop the sixth string to C (low to high, C A D G A D), or drop the G string to F#, which gives you a luscious open-D chord if you strum across the strings (open D tuning: low to high, D A D F# A D).
Obviously, the strings provide the harmonic information, but they can also serve as drone notes to fill out your arrangement and provide an ambient environment for percussive playing. When playing this way, I’ll sometimes lay the guitar flat across on my lap, like a dobro.
This obviously affects what you can do with your fret hand, as you now have to fret notes from above the top side of the neck, like a piano.
When the guitar is on my lap, I’ll use droning open strings, typically the higher ones, and my fret-hand thumb to barre power-chord shapes across the bottom two or three strings (see PHOTO D). I also sometimes use my fret-hand middle finger to produce the previously mentioned snare-drum grace notes that provide some of the rhythmic finesse and chatter that a real drummer would.
But that’s not where all of the harmonic information comes from. Many guitarists overlook that critical extra sound source—your voice. You can think of it as a seventh string, if you like, and it has the advantage of operating completely outside the confines of the instrument.
Whereas open strings drone and remain static, sung melodies are able to move freely, and the voice can carry a lyric to the listener. With that, you’ve moved beyond percussive guitar and into songwriting, which, as I said in the beginning, is the whole reason I play.
Many guitarists are less sure of their voices than they are of their playing. If you’re too inhibited or self-conscious to sing, consider whistling, an old-timey practice that has made a comeback thanks to artists like Andrew Bird. Also try humming or playing a harmonica with a hands-free brace, Bob Dylan–style. Anything that helps you achieve what you hear in your mind is fair game.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now let’s see how these techniques can be put to use.
FIGURE 1a shows the basic two-bar vamp from my song “1,000 Miles” and is performed in the previously mentioned CADGAD tuning, which is one of my favorite tunings because of the wide pitch range between the low and high strings.
The figure is a laid-back R&B-style groove performed at a fairly slow tempo and serves as a good introduction to percussive fingerstyle acoustic playing.
The slow tempo is ideal for our purpose here because it buys you valuable time to work on integrating percussive tapping/thumping with picking notes on the strings. The bass notes and kick drum are one and the same in this case and are picked with the thumb (a couple of quick hammer-ons are employed too). The Xs in the tablature indicate the virtual snare-drum hits, which fall on beats two and four as the bass notes are allowed to ring.
FIGURE 1b builds upon the basic bass-and-drums groove pattern and introduces melodic licks played in the upper register on the higher strings. Here, snare-drum duty is shared by both hands, specifically on beat three of bar 2, where I use my momentarily available fret hand to do a snare tap (again, indicated in the tablature by Xs) as my pick hand simultaneously plucks the open first string.
Note the use of a hammer-on and double pull-off combination on the first string at the end of bar 1, which I use to create a noodle-y, exotic-sounding trill, Jimmy Page style (à la “Dancing Days”).
By exploring this playing approach, you’ll discover little tricks like this and learn how to sneak in bits of melody while keeping the rhythmic groove going. A vamp such as this one can be used as an accompaniment to a singer or another instrument and form the basis for an entire section of a song, such as a verse.
FIGURE 2 is a passage from my song “Springtime.” It’s played in DADGAD tuning with a capo at the second fret and the guitar laid flat across the lap. In this example, I’m using the kick-drum string-tapping technique described earlier to sound the first two power chords on the bottom three strings. I then strum the remaining chords by brushing my pick-hand fingernails across the strings but continue to use the kick-drum technique to get a pitchless thump while the chords ring out.
Other techniques employed here include snare hits (indicated by Xs on the higher tab lines) and slapped natural harmonics (N.H.) at the 12th fret (actually the 14th fret because of the capo usage), which I perform by quickly bouncing my outstretched pick-hand middle finger against the strings directly over and parallel to the fret wire.
This kind of playing is obviously a challenge to convey on paper, so be sure to check out the accompanying video below. Once you get the hang of this pattern, you’ll see that it’s pretty intuitive and not difficult to play. The critical thing is to get it to groove and create a tight pocket, so that you have a rhythm section to sing or play harmonica over. (In this song, I happen to do both.)
Once you’ve addressed the internal tools available for playing the guitar like a percussion instrument, it’s a short leap to the external. Tambourines and stomp boards for your feet or the use of a digital looper pedal can greatly expand upon this technique and help you fully realize the musical ideas you’re hearing. When these tools serve a song, I find they transcend gimmickry.
My goal here has been to make my techniques as simple as possible so that others can incorporate them into their songwriting.
To hear and see more demonstrations of how I employ and combine the techniques covered in this lesson, check out the companion instructional video at guitarworld.com as well as numerous videos of me performing songs I’ve written live, which can be viewed at my web site, errico.com, and on YouTube.