When you see a musician on guitar, have you noticed how they play? Some of them use a pick, while other musicians slap or rub the strings instead. The guitar uniquely falls under two categories of instruments. 

A guitarist can use a guitar as both a string and a percussion instrument. The guitar is primarily a stringed instrument because the player creates the instrument’s distinctive sound using vibrating strings. Percussion instruments are instruments that make a sound when they are rubbed, hit, or scraped, and many musicians use guitars in this manner.

There’s so much more to know about guitars. We’ll discuss the differences between percussion and string instruments to understand how both apply to guitars. We will also explore how musicians use guitars as a percussion instrument. 

The Guitar as String or Percussion Instrument

Guitars are one of the most commonly played instruments in the world. No band would be complete without at least one type of guitar, and many successful musicians are talented guitarists. 

It’s impossible to overlook the music of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, or Eddie Van Halen —  all brilliant guitarists.

The first thing you will notice on a guitar is the strings, so it is easy to understand why the guitar is primarily considered a string instrument. However, many have also noted the guitar is much like a drum with strings stretched over the top.

A string instrument is known to be generally made of wood, having a hollow inside which allows sound to vibrate within, as well as long, thin strings stretched across the hollow, which creates the sound (source).

The features combined give it the potential for use as a string and percussion instrument.

Since the guitar is a string instrument, most guitarists play it purely by using a pick or plucking the strings by hand. Occasionally, fingerstyle guitar players, who use fingers instead of a pick, may add percussion elements to their playing.

While playing any instrument is a challenge that requires the development of skill, percussive guitar players take the challenge to a new level. They use the guitar as both an acoustic guitar and a percussive drum while tapping or slapping the strings to create a unique sound.

Qualities of a String Instrument

There are many different types of string instruments. Guitars, violins, and harps often come to mind. Most string instruments are made of wood, and those like the violin and guitar have a hollow body.

String instruments create sound through vibrating strings, which means that harps also fall under this same category.

Acoustic guitars are also hollow, compared to electric guitars that have solid bodies. However, both fall under the category of string instruments due to their tightly stretched strings that produce music through vibration.

If you play an electric guitar, you may want to read our article, “Best Strings for Yamaha NTX,” to find out more about the guitar and what type of strings would be most appropriate for it.

This type of usage classifies the guitar as a string instrument, but there are many ways to use the guitar as a percussion instrument as well.

Qualities of a Percussion Instrument

Percussion instruments include any instrument that makes a sound when shaken, rubbed, or hit.

The player has to hit the instrument with the right amount of strength and at the correct place and time to create the correct note, making it a difficult instrument to play (source).

Common examples of percussion instruments are xylophones, cymbals, drums, maracas, and pianos. The latter is also an instrument that can be considered a string and percussion instrument.

All percussion instruments have a level of force used against them, whether by hand or with an accessory. The range of these instruments is immense, and you can create a variety of sounds.

When using the guitar as a percussion instrument, the wooden, hollow body of the instrument serves as a drum.

The guitarist may tap or bang on the body with their fingers or palms to create deep, quick sounds that nearly turn the guitar into a one-man-band.

Percussion guitarists use a fingerstyle or fingerpicking method to play their instruments. This style involves using fingernails to pluck or vibrate guitar strings, which negates the use of a pick.

This allows the guitarist to quickly switch between strings and percussion drumming or tapping.

This is in contrast to flatpicking guitarists, who use a plectrum or pick to strike the strings of the guitar. 

How to Use a Guitar as a Percussion Instrument

Image by Denise Jans via Unsplash

Percussion instruments are known for their ability to carry the beat of any piece of music. 

A band would miss a strong element without drums, and by playing the guitar as a percussion instrument, the need for a strong beat can be achieved without needing a second instrument (source). 

There are several ways you can use the guitar as a percussion instrument. The hollow inside of an acoustic guitar, when banged or beaten, releases a deep sound, similar to a small drum.

Playing the guitar as a percussion instrument also achieves similar sounds to certain parts of a drum set. The sounds are most often compared to a hi-hat, snare, and kick drum. 

Percussion guitarists, including Antoine Dufour, often use their wrists and the flat of their palms to hit the body of the guitar, below the soundhole. The closer the contact to the hole, the deeper the sound.

By patting the strings against the fret — the metal lines on the fretboard, which is the long neck of the guitar — the player can achieve the sound of the hi-hat.

The pick-guard area is usually the flat piece underneath the soundhole. By flicking the pick-guard area with a finger, musicians can imitate the sound of a snare drum. 

Another method to achieve a similar but sharper sound is by striking any point of the guitar body with the edge of the knuckle.

The player can achieve the sound of the kick drum by hitting the body just above the soundhole with the fleshy part of the palm.

They can also tap the bottom of the guitar body, and this creates a quick rhythmic cadence that adds to any composition. The ability to switch between strings and percussion leads to an interesting music style.

When playing the guitar as both a string and percussion instrument, the strings may need to be tuned differently to facilitate the chosen technique. This, in large part, will depend on the musician and the type of music they are aiming to achieve.  

A musician can tune their guitar in a specific way for percussion playing. This involves tightening and loosening the strings to play specific notes.

One example of alternate tuning that helps with percussion playing includes utilizing the notes D-A-D-G-A-D on a six-string acoustic guitar.

Music Played with Percussion Guitars

Generally, music played using the fingerpicking technique was initially used in folk songs, but it has evolved within a wide variety of genres, including pop and rock (source).

With the addition of percussion playing, the guitar adds another element to the music, allowing for the addition of multiple beats. Since some genres of popular music rely heavily on beats, the percussion elements of a guitar can allow for a wider range of sounds.

Advantages of Playing a Percussion Guitar

The guitar used as a percussion instrument allows for several styles of playing and strong creative expression.

There are several parts to guitar playing, such as bass, accompaniment, and melody. By using the fingerstyle of playing, guitarists can play across the range at the same time. The addition of percussion adds extra sound elements to the music.

For musicians who are unable to find a band or have limited means to create one, the use of the guitar as a percussion instrument allows them to fill some of those sound gaps.

It also allows musicians to imagine and play particular beats while composing their own unique style of music.

Challenges of Playing a Percussion Guitar

Playing any kind of instrument can be difficult, requiring hours of intense practice and commitment. A string instrument requires a different set of skills compared to a percussion instrument, and this makes mastering this style of playing quite tricky.

Percussion guitarists require many hours of practice to learn how to switch between playing the strings and hitting or tapping the body to create distinctive sounds.

We expect percussion guitarists to use the fingerpicking style of guitar playing, and that requires hand and nail maintenance. Nails need to have enough length and strength to withstand hours of practice and playing.

For newer players, there is a chance that the guitar can be damaged through beats, so there is a learning curve when attempting this style of playing. 

Final Thoughts

The ability to play the guitar as a percussion instrument is a unique one. If you can commit to learning and perfecting the skill, you will have achieved a unique style and skill set when compared to other musicians.

Because you can use the guitar as both a percussion instrument and a string instrument, it is distinct in its ability to create a variety of sounds that amplify any music genre.