By Jeff Gunn
One of the most exciting developments in acoustic guitar performance in recent years has been an emphasis on percussive elements, as seen in the explorations of fingerstyle virtuosos like Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, Don Ross, and Tommy Emmanuel. By applying carefully timed hits, slaps, and flicks, these guitarists highlight the range of percussive tones that are available on the guitar. The following exercises will teach you how to begin doing the same.
Consider these three variables when developing string percussion: the location where you apply the percussive hit, the hand(s) and finger(s) you use to hit the strings, and the amount of force you use to execute the percussive hits. Striking the strings requires that you use the face of your pick-hand fingers or the side of your thumb. You can also hammer-on chords using the fret-hand fingers in combination with pick-hand finger strikes.
Ex. 1 demonstrates how to sound an A minor chord percussively. Use the face of your pick-hand fingers to strike the strings on the indicated beats. Make sure to strike all six strings midway between the bridge and the fretboard, and let your hand lightly bounce off the strings.
This approach is elaborated in Ex. 2, where on beats 2 and 4 you’ll strike the open strings with your pick hand at the 17th fret before returning to the area above the soundhole on the “ands” of those beats. Wherever you see the Xs in the notation and tab, release pressure on the chord grip, so that the strings sound muted.
Ex. 3 advances the rhythm further. Sound the A minor chord using the face of your pick hand on beat 1 and do the same with the open strings on the “and.” On the last 16th note of beat 1, hammer on the A minor chord. Approach beat 2 in the same way, but attack the strings at the 17th fret, squarely on the beat. Play the second half of the measure the same way you did the first half.
In steady 16th notes, Ex. 4 has you striking the strings at the soundhole and hammering on the A minor chord. Make sure to practice this exercise slowly for accuracy, and deliver more forceful strikes on beats 1 and 3.
Drum Sounds for All Styles
The ability to accompany yourself using percussive textures is an invaluable tool as a solo acoustic guitarist—in any genre. Your goal is to capture the nuances of various styles in your solo performance, so listen to recordings as a way to embrace the rhythmic feel of each genre.
The blues-rock style Ex. 5 uses a triplet feel to create the illusion that there is a bass drum accompanying an E chord. Expanding on this idea, Ex. 6 involves a snare-drum effect, courtesy of open-string hits sounded at the 17th fret on beats 2 and 4, while Ex. 7 demonstrates a way to use percussive effects and harmonic movement in a hip-hop groove. Make sure to emphasize the “1 and” and the “3 and” of each bar.
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Sounding Percussive Harmonics
Ex. 8 illustrates how to sound natural harmonics at the 12th fret with a percussive edge. Use the side of your pick-hand’s thumb to strike the strings, and do the same for Ex. 9, where the percussive harmonics are sounded at the seventh fret. In Ex. 10, add rhythmic hits on the “ands” of beats 2 and 4, while toggling between harmonics on the bottom and top three strings.
Once you’re comfortable with these assorted percussive techniques, always be on the lookout for appropriate places to use them.
Jeff Gunn (jeffgunn.ca) is author of the Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar series and guitarist/musical director for Emmanuel Jal.