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Introduction To Percussive Guitar Techniques with Vicki Genfan

Let the drummer inside you come out ...


by Chris Loeffler



Beyond traditional strumming and finger-picking approaches to playing the acoustic guitar, some guitarists employ percussive flairs in their playing by striking the body and neck of their instruments to create rhythmic beats. Players like Michael Hedges, Preston Reed, Kaki King, and others are well-known acoustic guitar players who employ percussive techniques in their playing style. A relatively small subset of modern acoustic guitar music, percussive acoustic players tend to focus on groove in their performance, and especially stand out when performing live; bearing witness to the manual dexterity and "multitasking" is impressive.


Vicki Genfan is one of the pioneers in this field, and seeing her play in person for the first time is a mind-opening experience - as is listening to her musical catalog. Here’s a brief dip in a very deep ocean to explore building a foundation of percussive acoustic guitar.


Build Your Kit


It helps to think of the percussive strikes you will be creating with your guitar as building out a standard drum kit, so let’s talk about how to build a basic kit.


You can coax a convincing "kick" sound out of several places with an acoustic guitar, but one of the most effective tones involves slapping the lower bout of the acoustic guitar’s soundboard with the heel of your hand. You can add a "snare" tone by slapping the side of the lower bout (approximately the same location your hand rests for the kick) with the fleshy part of your fingers. Muting the strings creates a crisper and more authentic sound, whereas leaving the strings open adds overtones to the notes.


Expressed differently, the kick could be likened to a stomp and the snare a clap.


Having mastered these two sounds, practice rotating between them using the “stomp-pause-clap, stomp-stomp -clap” beat of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” for your first percussive groove.


From there, you can start expanding your percussive kit by adding a "snare wire" sound, which is performed in the same location on the guitar as the kick by balling your fingers and then flicking outward, striking the soundboard with your nails as your fingers straighten. To add a "high hat" to this, lightly slap the fleshy part of your fingers against the same spot in the soundboard like a 16th note as you pull your fingers back in.


Grooving With Your Kit


Now that you’ve built your kit, you’ll notice you can strum your strings or strike with your right hand, but not at the same time! Percussive guitar techniques requires thinking about space in your playing to accommodate the introduction of percussive strikes, and lends itself to a greater level of dynamics than the typical “sawing wood” of chord strums. Groove is what drives a song forward, and percussive techniques add color and additional language to the mix.


To develop your groove, pick a chord progression and play it as simply as possible, strumming each chord on the one and holding it for the four beats. Listen to where you hear a kick drum fitting in and employ your palm strike. Now ask yourself where you hear a high hat, and add that. Consider if there are opportunities to add more strums or arpeggios in the space that is left. Add your snare, jumping between the standard snare and snare wire for more color. Through this process, your groove will develop and eventually all that space is full. Once you’ve completed and mastered that passage, compose a chorus or transition passage and practice rotating  between them.




Leveraging the naturally occurring harmonics of the acoustic guitar becomes especially important in percussive acoustic music. Conventional harmonics are played by brushing the strings at the frets 5, 7, and 12 up from the first fret with mild pressure from the fretting hand. However, applying percussive techniques like hammer-ons and pull offs to your fretboard opens up even more harmonic opportunities and complements the percussive activities happening on the soundboard.


Deftly striking your strings with the flesh of your fretting fingers where harmonics naturally occur creates a different color and tone to the harmonic, as does plucking upward as you’re pulling your fingers back from a hammer-on. This approach takes your hands away from the standard fretting position and frees you up to explore further percussive opportunities around the neck and top of the guitar.


A Final Note


Your brain builds neural paths as you learn new things, so it’s important to take something difficult, like adding percussive playing to your acoustic playing, slowly. While it’s tempting to try to play at the correct speed, you will actually take longer to unlearn the bad habits and mistakes you develop because you’re playing faster than a speed you can mantain successfully. Take it slow; this is an entirely new skill set that will reward patience and focus. Now tap, slap, and knock away! HC-





Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 


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