Part of the reason we love acoustic guitar is that it sound great all on it’s own. Because of this, it’s become the default “band replacement” for singers and songwriters the world over, and even spawned a genre that bears it’s name - “acoustic” gigs, “acoustic” albums…
While the piano may be the king of the chords thanks to it’s gargantuan range, and electric guitars might be more vocal and sustaining, acoustic guitars have one thing over both of them: percussion. The clack of strummed strings is crucial part of Nashville sessions, solo singer-songwriters and buskers on the high street, because it taps into the most primal element of music: rhythm. But there’s much more to percussion on acoustic guitar than just strumming. From “More Than Words” slaps, to the rich flamenco tradition, right up to the modern virtuosic stylings of Andy McKee, Kaki King and Mike Dawes, your acoustic guitar is a veritable percussive machine. But where to begin? Well, how about we take inspiration from the most popular percussive instrument of our age, the drum kit. In rock, pop, soul and most contemporary styles, the two most important elements of the drum kit are the kick drum and the snare drum. Let’s start there.
KICK DRUM: There are a few ways to get a kick drum sound out of an acoustic guitar, but my favourite is a technique we’re going to borrow from flamenco guitar called a golpe (from the Spanish word for knock). It involves forcefully tapping the ring finger of the right hand onto the body of the guitar. Ideally you’ll want a pickguard or “golpeador” if you don’t want your guitar to end up looking like Willie Nelson’s. The beauty of this technique is that it leaves your index finger and thumb free to strum at the same time, meaning you don’t need to interrupt your chords and melodies to add some low end thump.
SNARE DRUM: The snare drum gets it’s characteristic snap and rattle from the wires (snares) that rest against it’s bottom head. When you strike the drum, the snares rattle against the bottom head and create a high pitched crack, and we can achieve a similar effect with the guitar strings themselves. You can slap your whole palm against all six strings, or us ether nails of your right hand for a similar effect, but my favourite way to achieve this is with a thumb slap against the wound strings, similar to John Mayer’s percussive slaps in “Stop This Train”. You don’t really need much more than your thumb against a couple of strings to create the desired effect, and it leaves your other fingers free for strumming and picking.
A SIMPLE RHYTHM: There’s perhaps no better example of a drum beat that isn’t actually drums than Queen’s 1977 hit “We Will Rock You”. The iconic “boom boom BAP” rhythm is actually the sound of stamping feet and clapping hands, but it’s a great example of how kick and snare drums are typically played in contemporary music, with the kick drum playing on and around beats 1 and 3 and the snare providing a “backbeat” on beats 2 and 4. Try emulating this by playing “golpe golpe SLAP” in the same rhythm.
When you’re happy with keeping a simple groove, it’s time to start incorporating strums alongside your percussive playing. For the golpe, you can use either your thumb or index finger to strum a chord at the same time as you strike. This takes a bit of getting used to, but the rhythmic possibilities it opens up makes it well worth the effort. The same is true for the thumb slap we’re using for snare drum sounds - you can use your index finger to strum at the same time as you slap, or pick with any combination of right hand fingers.
Tom Toms (usually shortened to just “Toms”) are the other drums typically found on a modern drum kit. They don’t have snares, so for our purposes we can think of them as small, higher pitched kick drums. Try using the same golpe technique we used to emulate a kick drum, but in different places on your guitar’s top. You’ll quickly find spots that are higher pitched, and one of my personal favourites is the spot just above the soundhole on the bass string side. This means you’ll have to use your thumb for the strike, and that’s perfectly fine.
That’s an overview of how to create the key sounds of a drum kit on your acoustic guitar, and in the next lesson we’ll take a look at arranging parts that incorporate both a drum groove and guitar chords. Until then, have a play around with these techniques and see what you can create! Have fun!