Thanks to Chuck Berry, the backbeat (the accented second and fourth beats in common time) is forever associated with rock ’n’ roll. It has worked its way into almost all forms of popular music and can be a very effective way of adding some punch to an acoustic guitar part. By using simple percussive techniques, you can add a bit more groove to both accompaniment patterns and instrumentals.
Let’s start with a basic exercise. In Example 1, play the open fifth string on beats 1 and 3 with your thumb. On beats 2 and 4, bring the tips of your picking hand’s thumb and fingers down on strings 3–5. Instead of strumming across the strings, slap your fingers straight down toward the body of the guitar. If you land on the strings forcefully enough, they will slap against the neck, creating a snare drum–like sound. Spend some time playing this simple pattern with a metronome or drum machine until the technique feels comfortable.
Example 2 adds a three-note A chord on beats 1 and 3. Play it fingerstyle, using your thumb, index, and middle fingers. As with Ex. 1, slap the strings with your fingers as they return to position to play the next chord. Once you’re comfortable with this basic technique, try Example 3, which introduces a little syncopation. Slide from the fourth to the fifth fret, while keeping the backbeat steady. The combination of syncopation and backbeat creates a groove reminiscent of Steely Dan’s “Josie.”
The backbeat can help anchor more complex rhythms, like the syncopated Am–E groove in Example 4. This rhythm pattern is busy, but the percussive backbeat remains constant. The challenge is to pick the chords with your fingers while moving your hand up and down, perpendicular to the guitar, to create the percussive sounds on the backbeat. Take this example slowly, and focus on creating a solid, consistent backbeat.
Sustaining Over the Backbeat
Part of the percussive effect in the previous examples comes from cutting off notes as you play the backbeat. But you may want to sustain a note over the beat, and there are several ways to do so. One is to use your thumb for the percussive sound while your fingers play sustained notes. In Example 5, bring your thumb into position to play the bass note on beat 3. As you land on the fifth string, you can add to the sound by simultaneously hitting the sixth string with the side of your thumb. This technique is useful when you want to sustain notes on strings 3 and 4 over the backbeat.
Another way to deal with notes that collide with a backbeat is to use the back of your fingernails, creating a sharp accent without damping the strings, as shown in Example 6. This strumming technique creates a different sound than the snare effect we’ve been using so far and is great for emphasizing the backbeat, as long as you use it only on the second and fourth beats.
Combining Percussive Techniques
For some tunes, a loud, consistent backbeat is perfect, but the effect can become annoying if overused. A softer, more subtle back beat works well in many situations, and it can also be effective to omit the backbeat at times. In some cases, even a single percussive slap at just the right time can provide a sense of propulsion. Experiment with percussive sounds on either the second or fourth beats, but not both, for a more laid-back feel. Example 7 uses the thumb technique on beat 2 only; Example 8 is similar, with a percussive thumb slap on beat 4.
Now it’s time to put these techniques to work in a short solo guitar piece, “Back in the Groove” (Example 9). The groove from Ex. 3 serves as both an introduction and ending. The melody begins at measure 4, leading into a chord progression with a descending bass line. Notice that the eighth-note melody is inserted between the rhythm pattern and that the backbeat drops out during the melodic sequence as well. I’ve combined each of the percussive techniques we’ve discussed in “Back in the Groove,” sometimes switching approaches within the same measure. The choices I’ve made are comfortable to me, but other variations are possible, so experiment to discover what sounds and feels best to you.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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