Beat It: A Guide to the Inspired Techniques of Percussive Acoustic Guitar Playing
Percussive acoustic playing has been around forever, and it’s easy to see why.
The guitar is essentially a drum with strings stretched over it. (Its cousin, the banjo, uses a drumhead to cover the body.)
As demonstrated in this issue’s feature on Andy McKee, Jon Gomm and Daryl Kellie, there has been a resurgence of interest in the percussive-heavy, alternate-tuned style of progressive acoustic guitar playing pioneered in the Eighties by guitarists like Michael Hedges.
Whatever style of music you play on the acoustic guitar, you can incorporate slaps, knocks, raps and other hands-on-wood effects into your playing that can enliven and add greater sonic interest to your performance.
In this lesson, I’ll show you how to harness some of the percussive possibilities that the acoustic guitar offers through a pick-free playing approach that I’ve adopted over the years. I’ll demonstrate how to integrate tapping and thumping techniques into vamps and grooves that also incorporate fretted and open-string notes and chords played using conventional techniques.
My own discovery of this technique was prompted by two things. First, my parents discouraged me from being a drummer because the instrument makes too much racket (you could say I’m a frustrated drummer at heart).
Second, when I started out pursuing a career in music as a guitarist, I couldn’t afford to hire a band and was dissatisfied with the amount of music that came out of the acoustic guitar played in the conventional way. So I set out to create a kind of workaround—a “pocket band,” if you will—by incorporating various techniques of rapping on my guitar’s body with my bare hands, as if it were a drum, in order to emulate the feel of a rhythm section.
If I’m writing a song and it seems to need a more rhythmically detailed pulse, I’ll start drumming on the instrument using my fingers and then try to get the strings to conform to my musical vision, typically by using an altered tuning.
Of course, not every song is served by this approach, and it’s never been my intention to take any technique to the heroic level of a guitar god. My mission is simply to approximate the feel of a band and convey the sounds I’m hearing to facilitate the writing process. While the sound of drumming on an acoustic guitar is no replacement for a real drummer, the techniques that I’ll show you can communicate a rich rhythmic groove in a way that conventional guitar-playing techniques often can’t.
We’ll begin with a look at the main pieces of a basic drum kit—bass drum, snare and hi-hat—as they relate to this technique. We’ll then move on to a discussion of tunings that can facilitate your use of the percussive-style playing, and conclude with some musical examples.
The Kick Drum
The kick sound that is most satisfying to me is found by striking the bottom three strings with my pick hand’s outstretched middle finger just in front of the bridge (see PHOTO A). If you’re using this technique in a live performance, make sure the sound technician understands what you’re going to do and provides a little more bottom end in the EQ to give your tone a satisfying thump.
If you’re recording, it often helps to mix in the direct signal from your guitar’s pickup with that of a microphone, as the pickup will capture more of the low-frequency energy of the thumping. In my recording endeavors, I’ll sometimes use tight kick-drum samples to help bolster the groove. (I told you I wanted to be a drummer!)
As an added benefit, if you have a bass line going on the bottom strings, you can perfectly synchronize them with your kick pattern by attacking the notes with this same pick-hand finger. This guarantees that your virtual bassist and drummer will always be perfectly locked in together.