Perhaps you’ve watched Don Ross or Andy McKee (or virtually anyone on CandyRat Records, like Calum Graham, who is a friend of mine) and thought, “gosh, that’s so cool – how do you play guitar like that?”
Percussive style acoustic guitar has grown in popularity considerably in the last 10 years. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been around for longer.
A slap here, a tap there, some harmonics for flare. It sounds so intricate and challenging, and maybe even impossible to some players out there.
But I’ve found out firsthand that any guitarist with good finger strength, a sense of rhythm, and a bit of determination can figure out how to incorporate these techniques into their playing. I have.
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Percussive Acoustic Guitar Hammer-Ons & Pull-Offs
Percussive style guitar requires strong fingers, and one of the best ways to develop your dexterity is with practicing hammer-ons and pull-offs.
Oftentimes with this style of guitar, your left hand and right hand will be doing two entirely different things. So, there isn’t necessarily an opportunity to pick every note you want to play. You’ll either have to hammer-on or pull-off, and you’ll also want to be able to do it with both hands.
Check out this video of Jeff Butler playing “Ocean”. At 1:02, you’ll see that he hammers down on the fretboard with his right hand (to create a bass line), while he hammers and pulls off with his left hand (to create a melody.
If you’re new to percussive guitar, this is a great place to start. It does require some coordination, and it will feel awkward at first, but if you’re able to trill, you can probably do this too (even if you can’t get much volume out of your guitar at first).
Alternate & Open Tunings
Contrary to what you might have heard, you can play percussive style in any tuning you want. Let’s just say that standard tuning isn’t the most advantageous.
Drop D tuning offers you more options, especially since you can just hammer on the bass strings (D, A, and E) to create a power chord. Like Butler, you can also create a nice bass line with your picking hand while your fretting hand is creating a melody.
Two other great tunings to be aware of are:
- DADGAD. It’s just like it sounds. After drop D tuning, you'd need to also drop your high E to a D. Finally, you would lower the B string to an A.
- Open D tuning. If you’re already in DADGAD tuning, the only thing you need to do is lower the G a half step down to F#.
Naturally, there are other tunings worth knowing about, but these two should be a good jumping off point.
Percussive style guitar isn’t just hammering on and pulling off, nor is it just tapping and knocking on the body of your guitar to create a beat. It’s also about being able to play fingerstyle.
Why do I say that? Because when you’re playing percussive style guitar, you usually can’t hold a pick at the same time. Like Butler, you may choose to have acrylic nails put on, or like Don Ross you might choose to use a thumb-pick (which would take some getting used to), though that’s not entirely necessary.
So, you might have a section of music that consists entirely of hammer-ons and pull-offs, but just because you’re doing something cool with your fingers doesn’t mean you get to ignore the fundamental of principles of music altogether. Melodic variation, dynamic contrast, slow and fast, all these elements still factor into a good song.
In a song like “Rylynn” by Andy McKee, you can see that most of the song consists of fingerpicking. Check out the video if you like:
Meanwhile, in a song like “Drifting”, which is one of McKee’s most popular songs, there isn’t any fingerpicking to speak of – it’s mostly hammer-ons, pull-offs, and strumming. But he still creates some variety in his playing with the strummed parts.
Rhythm & Percussion
Some percussive style guitarists have studied percussion instruments extensively.
But does this mean that you must learn drums or djembe or congas to be a great percussive style guitarist? No, I don’t think so. Knowing the basics of how the drums work could help though.
Just knowing what roles the bass drum, snare, and high hat plays in drumming makes a huge difference. Here’s a basic explanation. In a standard rock beat, the kick or bass drum is usually played on the one and three of the measure. The snare is typically played on two and four. And the high hat is played on all four beats, and is sometimes subdivided into eighth notes (which would be counted 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &).
In a way, you can find each of these sounds on your guitar too.
Let’s go back to the Butler video from earlier for a moment. Skip to 1:41 in the video. You can see that Butler is tapping the bridge for a bit of a “kick” sound, and tapping the body (right of the bridge) for a bit of a higher-pitched snare sound.
Again, I think this is a great place to start for most players that are new to this style. Percussive style guitar might seem random and spontaneous at first, but when you break down the components of what players are doing, it makes it easy for you to find areas of your guitar you can tap and knock to get the desired effect.
You can get fancier in the future, but for now, just use the bridge as your “bass”, and the body of your guitar as a “snare”.
Percussive style guitar can be a little rough on your instrument. You shouldn’t break it overnight, but as you can see from Butler’s guitar, you can really wear it down if you keep using it in this way.
Acoustic guitars can be somewhat pricey, so it might not be a bad idea to practice on a cheaper guitar before you start doing it on an instrument that costs thousands of dollars.