Have you ever seen the movie “August Rush” or heard the slap musical styles of the professionals, like Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, or Jon Gomm and had the burning desire to learn how they do it? Well now you can. In this guide we will teach you how to play slap guitar.
Holding the Guitar Safely
Assuming you are a right-handed guitarist, hold the guitar in the traditional way that you are used to, unless this way happens to be in the classical style, follow the instructions below:
- Seat yourself as comfortable as possible given your environment.
- Take your guitar and place it on your lap.
Brace the guitar backing to your chest, and hold the guitar roughly at a 45-degree angle, neck pointing outward to your left.
When it is resting in your lap, your right thigh should fit right into the curvature of its body. The strings from top to bottom should be the notes E, A, D, G, B, E. The bass notes at the top and going downward the pitch getting higher.
- Firmly plant your feet on the ground.
- Anchor your right arm to a point on the body of the guitar.
The point you choose to anchor your arm to, makes it easier to return to that point after you play a variety of percussive sounds on the body, strum, or play on the neck.
You may choose to anchor your right wrist to the bridge of the guitar and have your hand and fingers draped vertically above the strings. However, if this is uncomfortable for you, you may also anchor your wrist right above the low E string, located on the upper-body of the guitar.
Over/Under Ways of Playing on the Fretboard
“Over/Under” refers to how you angle your wrist in coordination to the fretboard. This determines whether you’ll drape your hand above the neck of the guitar, or traditionally, under the neck.
The benefits of playing over the neck include, but are not limited to; freedom to switch between hammering-on notes along the neck of the guitar, to playing percussive beats on the body.
Note: This style of playing does take its fair share of practice, but be careful that you don’t hurt yourself; primarily your wrist in the process. I sprained my wrist in the process of learning this song by Andy McKee, and it wasn’t fun because I didn’t get to play any guitar for a while until it healed. Give yourself proper breaks, and don’t be too aggressive with the percussion.
The benefits of playing under the neck are that you get more “finger-freedom”. While this does make it harder for your left hand to play percussion, it is not impossible.
Some people like to incorporate fitting both of these styles into their playing as they both have their benefits. Here is a perfect example as “Jon Gomm’s – Passionflower” does just that.
Tuning Used by Most Slap Guitarists
Standard tuning on the guitar goes as follows:
(low) E – Eat
A – A
D – Damn
G – Good
B – Breakfast
(high) E – Everyday
When it comes to slap guitar, we typically drop tune a select few strings to get the desired sound we’re looking for in slap guitar.
For those who don’t know – drop tuning is when you take the standard tuning of a guitar and detune strings to make it easier to play, or have certain notes that otherwise wouldn’t be possible to play in harmony with one another.
An example of this would be drop D tuning. Using the five fret method of tuning, you would take the low E string, and detune it until the note becomes D.
To be able to understand if you are in tune with the key of D, you’re going to play what was originally the low E string and hold the 7th fret, and play that with the string below which is the open A string and see if both pitches match.
The reason that they should match one another is that the 7th fret should be the note A, as should the open string below it.
Now, that you have a good idea of what drop tuning is about, we’re going to drop D, A, D or “Dad” as I call it for short.
The strings you will be drop tuning will be the low E string, the B string, and the high E string.
(low) E – Eat > (low) D
A – A > A
D – Damn > D
G – Good > G
B – Breakfast > A
(high) E – Everyday > (high) D
- Since we’ve already discussed how to drop the low E string tuning to D, the next string we will move onto is the B string which becomes A.
- Using the same method as before, we are going to align the pitches of both the B string with the second fret of the G string, which is the note A.
- Once you have detuned, the B string to match the note A on the G string, we will move onto the high E string, which we will drop to a high D note.
- To achieve a pitch that matches the high D, we will play the 5th fret of the B string we recently converted to the note A, in coordination with the open high E string.
Once you have dropped the high E string to a high D note, then you’re ready to go! Give all the strings a nice strum, nothing should sound out of place and you’ll wind up with a beautiful harmony.
Slap Guitar Fingerpicking Technique
If you’re proficient in the classical style of playing the acoustic guitar, you’re already at an advantage. Fingerpicking is the heart and soul of what makes slap guitar sound rich, warm and melodic.
Here’s an excellent example of melodic slap fingerpicking in unison with percussive beats done by Luca Stricagnoli covering “Hold The Line – TOTO”
Having your arm anchored to a comfortable point of your choosing on the body of the guitar, drape your fingers in a neutral position on the strings above the sound hole.
Exercising Your Right Hand
- Put your right thumb on the 6th string (the low E string)
- Put the index finger of your right hand on the 3rd string (the G string)
- Place the middle finger of your right hand on the 2nd string (the B string)
- Lastly, put the ring finger of your right hand on the 1st string (the high E string)
Those are the four fingers you will be using to slap fingerpick, otherwise known as P, I, M, A
P – The thumb = pulgar
I – The index finger = indice
M – The middle finger = medio
A – The ring finger = anular
Using their letter representation, we will be covering some exercises to get you used to slap fingerpicking.
Play these repetitively until you feel comfortable:
Thumb, Index, Middle, Ring… P,I,M,A….
Now we’ll change it up.
Finally, we’ll make it more challenging.
Tip: When you get comfortable with these fingerpicking patterns, try including some chords, and changing them up while keeping a steady pace plucking the patterns.
Example chord progression: C, G, D, A
Doing these exercises will help keep your fingers sharp, and build muscle memory. At will, you may change the patterns for increased challenge, or even test your muscle memory and play with a metronome while gradually increasing the tempo.
The ultimate goal isn’t necessarily that you play fast, but that you play accurately. Take it slow, and make sure that you can do it a set number of times without one slip up. The process can be fun, but dull for most. If you find yourself getting bored, change it up. It’s good to put the time and effort in to improve, however, if it’s taking the joy away from playing, then why bother?
I challenge you to do each of these exercises 100 times in a row without slipping up. This would mean, playing a wrong note, muted string, buzzing string, or playing off tempo. Think you can do it?
Songs to practice for fingerstyle guitar:
– Dust in The Wind – Kansas
– Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
– Blackbird – Beetles
Playing on the Fretboard
Holds are commonplace in most slap guitar compositions and is essential for learning how to play multiple parts of a song, that otherwise would require more than one guitar.
You might be familiar with hammering on notes, and pulling off notes, but for those who don’t know; a hammer-on is when you’re hitting the fret with your finger really hard to make it produce the desired note. A pull-off, however, is when you pull your finger off the string while maintaining the pressure which leads to you plucking the note with that finger.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are key to playing on the neck of the guitar with both your left and right hands. With enough practice, you will be scaling the neck and eventually understand how to improvise melodies, generate volume, and perhaps even add a little flair.
Playing with Both Hands
Scales are an excellent way of getting used to playing on the neck with both hands. Not only will they help you understand which notes go well together, but it will also help build finger dexterity among both hands.
It’s preferred among guitarists to play scales with their left wrist arched under the neck of the guitar, and hammering-on the notes of the scale, and with the right hand; hammer-on unreachable, or notes that otherwise would be played with the pinky.
When working your way down, you’ll be doing pull-offs with each finger corresponding to their respective frets.
Tip: When hammering-on as well as performing slides between frets, I’ve found it effective to use your middle finger when doing so, should it be available. The middle finger has the most reach, and can provide more force than the other fingers. If your middle finger is unavailable, then try to resort to your index finger.
Try and nail this F Major scale:
And back down…
Now try this A Minor Blues scale:
And back down…
Note: For those who are looking; there are a number of different scales and chords transposed to DADGAD tuning for slap guitar and can be found with a simple Google search.
We’re doing this in standard tuning because it’s familiar to you. You can also try and incorporate these techniques into songs you already know how to play and make them your own.
Slap Guitar – Understanding Harmonics
Harmonics are beautiful notes to play if you’re looking to add flair to your music. They exist all over the fretboard, but work the best on the 12th fret of the guitar. That’s usually the fret with the two dot markers on the neck. The reasoning for it working the best, is because that is the halfway point of the guitar string, meaning it contains a longer vibration length, as opposed to the string being divided into thirds or quarters.
Playing Harmonics on The Neck With 2 Hands
Ultimately, the 12th fret is perfect for beginners to understand how harmonics work. If you want to try playing a harmonic, select any string on the 12th fret and with your left hand, lightly place your finger over the fret-wire, and pluck the string with your right hand. You should hear a clear ringing tone that sounds an octave higher than that of the fretted note.
Once you have gotten the hang of playing the 12th fret harmonics, you may try to play it at the 7th and then the 5th fret. This will likely be harder as the distance of the fret to the closest end of the string will be a third or a quarter of the entire string. Ultimately, this will be higher in pitch.
Have you ever wondered why when a baby cries, or a puppy barks, the pitch is so high? The answer lies in short vocal chords! The same principle applies to your instrument, and why your guitar doesn’t sound like a violin or a cello.
Playing Harmonics on The Neck With 1 Hand
- You will want to start again at the 12th fret of the guitar.
- With your right hand you will want to place your index finger on the fret-wire. (Don’t press down)
- On the same hand, using your middle finger; pluck the string.
Don’t fret over it if you happen to hear a muted string, just keep practicing. In due time, you will succeed. Practice this mini-exercise that’s proven to work:
The * is to show the fret being played as a harmonic.
When you’re feeling good about that, give this a shot.
And finally, this.
This comes in handy in a couple of scenarios, like when you need to hold down a chord with your left hand and would like to play an arpeggio, while mixing in some harmonic notes with your right hand.
Mixing Melody with Percussion
There are a vast number of ways to get the most out of your guitar. When it comes to slap guitar, anything goes.
Much like flamenco guitarists, it’s not uncommon to find people who don’t trim their fingernails on the hand that goes over the sound hole. They do this for a number of reasons:
– The nails depending on shape can produce a number of different sounds, some good, while others are bad. Rule of thumb is to avoid anything sharp.
– Assists in percussion, whether that be tapping on the body of the guitar, muting the strings, scratching, flicking, etc…
– Helps you define your own sound based on how you maintain and groom your nails.
Here’s a video of Antoine Dufour playing his song, “These Moments” – Watch as he uses the length of his nails to produce his own unique sound.
Furthermore, there are techniques that come from fingerstyle playing, of which can also be incorporated into slap guitar.
Note: It is important when using these techniques, to have already determined where you are anchoring your arm among the body of the guitar.
Palm muting – Simply, force your palm down on the strings above the sound hole. Be careful not to include too much force, however. If done successfully it should not only mute the guitar strings, but produce a slight beat, or kick.
Another way to successfully mute the guitar with hand, is to have your fingers draped over the sound hole, and using your wrist, snap your hand against the strings. This more-so uses the upper half of your hand, keeps your fingers in tact with the strings, and is not only gentler, but likely louder than using the palm. Many prefer this way of doing it.
Palm Beats – Sounds a lot like a kick drum, for those looking to create a consistent bass percussion in their music, or have rhythmic structure, this will help. Simply, smack your palm against the body of the guitar above the sound hole and strings.
Chord Beat n’ Strum – Having a chord ready in your left hand along the fret board of the guitar, with right hand clenched, you’ll hit the strings above the sound hole and then open your hand and strum the notes as your hand is opening up.
Harmonic Taps – On the 12th fret of the guitar, using the middle finger of your right hand, tap the notes inside the fret. This should create a ringing, pure tone as well as a short percussive tap.
Flick – Usually done on the top body of the guitar, a little flick of the index finger or finger nail. Creates a light tap, with little to no low-end frequency.
Body Taps – Tapping the body of the guitar with your first three fingers usually done on the body of the instrument, above or below the sound hole, with either hand.
Knocking – Bumping your knuckles against the body of the guitar.
Body Snare – Just a typical slap to the guitar, mostly done on the offbeat.
Given these examples, you have a variety of different colors and timbres to play with when creating music. These are some of the rhythmic options you have when playing slap guitar. There are plenty more to be discovered!
Pursuing slap guitar can be a challenge, as well as some of the most fun you’ll have playing guitar.
Mastering Slap Guitar – Steps to Take Next
Now that you know the essentials behind how to play slap guitar, here are a few steps you can take to master slap guitar:
- Make sure you practice different scales that are according to the DADGAD tuning, as well as learning different chords. Ensure that you use a metronome when practicing to perfect your timing.
- Shadow the professionals. Learn some of the songs they’ve written, and study the way they play. I’d recommend, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour and Jon Gomm to name a few.
- Insert percussive beats into scales or chord progressions.
- Try covering songs that don’t originate in the fingerpicking or slap guitar ways of playing.
- Learn to improvise melodies with different scales you’ve learned.
With enough practice and persistence with the above slap guitar techniques, I can promise you that you will make your guitar sing.