Percussive Sounds on the Guitar
Hi everyone and welcome to the first installment of „Tom's Guitar Geekyness“. In today's article I'll endeavor to explain the basic principles of percussive playing on the acoustic guitar. So let's get right to the point.
The acoustic guitar basically is a wooden box with strings. Seeing it as that it becomes obvious that, like most hollow objects, you can actually hit it and it will produce some kind of percussive sound. Since it is a musical instrument, the body of the acoustic guitar is capable of producing quite a wide range of percussive sounds, depending not only on where you hit the body, but also which part of your hand you're using.
First off though, a few basic tips.
DO NOT hit your guitar too hard! You might actually break it, and that would not only be a shame, but also completely unnecessary. To produce good percussive sounds all it takes is a light hit, executed with conviction, not with force. Just try. Use the tip of your index or middle finger and tap on any spot on your acoustic's top. Start out lightly, then slowly increase the momentum and see what it does. Stop increasing the force when you feel that either your fingertips or the guitar's body might get hurt.
Be extra careful if you have long fingernails on your right hand (left for lefties, of course). Hitting the top with long nails scratches it easily, so start out by using the fingertips and try to avoid the nails!
The same is true for wearing rings or bracelets on the hand/arm you are doing the percussion with – it’s wise to take them off before playing as otherwise they will produce unwanted sounds and damage the wood.
Every acoustic guitar sounds different. Even the same model of the same manufacturer will not sound exactly the same as another. Keep this in mind when getting into the percussion thing, as some sounds might work better on your guitar than others. Don't force it and stay creative. Experiment, jam, and find the sounds that work best on your instrument and for your style of music!
As I have mentioned above, the kind of sound you'll get out of your acoustic depends on two major factors – where you hit, and which part of your hand you use.
1) Parts of your hand:
Try slapping with your thumb, much like bass-players do when slapping on the strings, but do it on any part of the guitar's body. This will produce a mid-pitch, hard and “snappy” sound which can be anything from a woodblock to a Conga- or Bongo-like sound.
Tap with your fingertips, like tapping on a table-top. These are probably the softest sounds you will be able to create, reminding me a lot of bongos, tablas and the like, again depending on where you do it.
The wrist, in particular the underside of it, is best suited for creating bass-drum-like sounds, as any hit will have a distinct “thump” and low sounding quality.
On the sides of your acoustic guitar, especially the lower bout, you might want to try one finger, stretched and a bit stiffened – I use my middle finger, but it's absolutely ok to use the index finger or even a combination of more than one. This might take a little practice! The goal is to achieve a dry and snappy side-stick/rimshot-like sound. It sounds a lot like snares used in hip-hop music and I personally really like this one, so I use it a lot.
Fingernails can also be used to create percussive sounds but BEWARE as repeated or overly forceful use will most certainly damage your guitar! I use fingernails mainly to either play what I call the “fingernail snare”, snapping the nail of my middle finger on the body just underneath the soundhole, onto the pickguard(!!!), or to do a Rasgueado – a technique from flamenco guitar playing, where you “roll” your fingers over the strings or body starting with your little finger and ending with your index, one after another – more on that in the video and probably in later installments. Again, I cannot stress enough, how important it is to be very careful when using your nails for percussion in order not to damage your guitar!
Knuckles will always produce a very significant sound, quite loud and typical. The sound varies depending on the location you hit, but not as much as with other parts of your hand. Also, hitting the guitar too hard might either damage it or you might hurt yourself – the knuckles are actually surprisingly sensitive to pain.
2) Spots on the guitar:
The body of your acoustic guitar features quite a few spots to hit, all of which sound very different.
On the lower outside bout section you will get the most resonance, meaning any percussive hit will sound rather low and (on higher quality instruments) even resonate a bit. This section is ideal for creating a full, fat and wet bassdrum, when hitting it with your lower wrist, as well as low Conga and Bongo sounds, when slapping your thumb or tapping with your fingertips.
On the side of the lower outside bout is where you can create “the snare”, as I've mentioned above, using one finger stretched out and stiffened (like a drumstick) or even a couple of fingers. This is the ideal spot for creating a dry, snappy, hip-hop-ish snaredrum.
Below the soundhole and towards the upper bout as well as above the soundhole in the same areas is where you can create dry and higher pitched percussive sounds, as the top's wood is stiffer and won't resonate as much. I often use my wrist to create a dry bassdrum above the soundhole, and my thumb, fingertips and -nails to achieve a wide variety of percussive sounds below the soundhole.
On the sides around the upper bout you will mainly find a similar sound as on the sides of the lower bout, maybe a tick higher and more dry, depending on your particular guitar.
Last but not least, and actually quite common and important – the strings! Hitting the strings with your hand and letting it rest there will create a distinct sound that reminds me a lot of a HiHat. Actually, the bottom two strings – E & A in regular tuning – create most of that sound, the high strings almost none. Mind that you can hit the strings either with your picking hand or with your fretting hand!
To cut a long story short and sum things up:
The kind of percussive sounds you can get out of your acoustic guitar depend mainly on where you hit it and with which part of your hand you will hit it. There is a great deal of variation and experimentation you can do. Just be creative and play around with it. Try weird stuff, like hitting your guitar's neck with the thumb of your fretting hand – yes, that makes a percussive sound too! - and keep your ears open to new ideas and ways of doing it. Also, watch the short video I made, showing what I wrote here in moving pictures for clarification!
Take it slow! Integrating percussion into your guitar playing is no easier or harder than any other technique, but it is actually very different from the “conventional ways” of playing the acoustic. Take your time and have fun.
Again, be careful not to damage your acoustic by hitting it. Don't play too hard. Think, before doing anything rash, like scratching the top with your nails or even breaking it. It is about the music!
Thanks for reading this, I hope you liked it. In the next installment, I will get into drums and percussion and how it all translates onto the guitar!
'Til then, keep on rockin'!
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