Playing Percussively

Playing Percussively

You can get a lot of different sounds out of your guitar, even when you’re just strumming chords. This is a brief lesson on playing percussive strokes, a technique that gives your strumming a bit of a percussive bite to it.

To demonstrate, we’ll start with a simple basic strumming pattern using two chords, E and A:

Basic strumming pattern using E and A chords

Take your time to practice this until you feel you’ve got a good handle on it. When you’re ready, we’re going to concentrate on the second beat, which is currently a regularly strummed downstroke. What we want to do is replace that strummed chord on the second beat with a percussive stroke. A “percussive” stroke is a way of getting rhythmic beat out of your guitar without sounding a chord or a note. There are many ways to do this and for now we’ll start with one of the easiest. When it comes time for the second beat, instead of making a downstroke, simply slap your strumming hand across all the strings at once. You do this with the palm of your hand flat against the strings. You don’t have to do it very hard, simply hard enough to deaden the strings. You will note that you actually produce two distinct sounds. Okay, the first might actually be called a non-sound, since what you’ve done is dampened the strings and stopped them from ringing. But you also create a “snap” or a “pop” from your fingers hitting the body of the guitar below the strings (away from your head). Obviously, how hard you slap the strings will dictate how much “pop” you get. Please, don’t go slamming your hand against the guitar and then writing me that you’ve broken the poor thing! Use your head and experiment a little. You can get different sounds depending on where you make contact with the guitar.

When you feel confident that you can do this, try incorporating the percussive stroke into your rhythm pattern. Here I’ve used the asterisk symbol ( * ) to designate the percussive stroke:

Percussive stroke example

That hopefully wasn’t too, right? As you heard in the MP3 file, you can get a lot of variation on your guitar depending on where and how hard you happen to hit it.

This “slapping” technique works well on acoustic and classical guitars, but it does have a few drawbacks. First, you can’t really use it on an electric (well you can, but that’s a whole other matter best covered at some later point…). More important, slapping your hand down in this manner can be fairly disruptive of the rhythmic pattern, especially if you’re playing songs with reasonably quick tempos.

Which brings us to our second percussive strumming technique, something that I call a “heel stroke” (and I should note that these are names that I use because people ask me “How do you do that thing with your strumming hand?” I have no idea as to whether or not there are universal names for these techniques – although I suspect that there must be – and since I picked them up myself by watching and listening to other people and then experimenting on my own. I have tried to name them as simply as possible because, truth be told, I’m not really interested in what they’re called as much as I’m interested in what they do). This heel stroke is going to sound more complicated than it is and I hope that I explain it well enough for you to get on the first try. If not, please feel free to write me and ask me to re-explain it.

Essentially, what you want to do is to make a downstroke with your normal picking motion while dampening the strings with the heel of your hand at the same time. The “heel” of your hand is the “outer” edge, from the side of your pinky to the wrist. It is the part of your hand that is in contact with the paper (even though I was told it shouldn’t be) when you’re writing something. Think of it as making a forty-five degree karate chop into your strings between the soundhole and the saddle, if you will.

To hear what this should sound like, place the heel of your hand against the strings and keep it there while making a downstroke. Even if you’re fingering a chord at the other end of the fretboard, you’re still only going to get a percussive sound from the guitar.

Now that you know what it should sound like, try to make the percussive stroke by doing both the downstroke and the hitting your strings with the heel of your hand at the same time. The best analogy I can come up with is that when you bring the heel of your strumming hand down against the strings, snap your wrist into a downstroke, kind of like as if you were throwing a frisbee. The dampening action and the striking of the strings should be almost simultaneous. And yes, I know this is not as easy as it sounds! But, like (almost) anything, it becomes much easier, almost second nature in fact, with practice. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey! I sound sort of like Dave Matthews!” then you are indeed on the right track. Let’s go back to our strumming pattern for this lesson and now use the “heel stroke” wherever you see the asterisk symbol. Remember to take things as slowly as you need to in order to get the timing right:

Heel stroke example

If you feel comfortable doing this, then move on to the next step. In addition to using it on the 2nd beat of each measure, add a heel stroke to the 4th beat as well, like this:

Another heel stroke example

You can hear how smoothly this percussive stroke fits in with the rhythmic pattern. Essentially, it’s just playing a downstroke, which is something you do all the time.

This is a technique that is used constantly by guitarists. Chances are you’ve heard it over and over (as in our song lesson on Three Marlenas) and just didn’t know what it was. But now that you do, and now that you know what it sounds like, you can go back and try it out with other songs that you know. This is what learning should be about.

When you’re using the heel stroke, be sure to keep your strumming rhythm even and steady, as discussed in many of our strumming lessons. Being able to incorporate it into your strumming at the beat of your choosing will add a lot to the sound of your rhythm, making it more dynamic and interesting.