The humble guitar is a very versatile instrument – It can be played stood up or sat down,
through an amplifier or acoustic, as well as with a pick or by using fingerstyle. Using various
techniques and a bit of reverb, it can even be used to play percussive beats, however, is it
fair to be able to class the guitar as a percussive instrument?
To be able to answer this question, we first need to understand what a percussion
instrument is. According to Dictionary.com, a percussion instrument can be defined as “A
musical instrument that is struck to produce a sound, as distinguished from string or wind
Of course, the guitar isn’t a part of the wind family, as no air travels through the body of the
instrument to produce sound. Instead, it’s most commonly classed as a string instrument,
with the vibration of the strings traveling through the soundboard and into the hollow body of
the guitar to produce sound.
This is where it can get tricky though, as the hollow body of the guitar, along with the strings
and fretboard can also be used to produce the sound of the three main parts of the drum kit,
which are the bass drum, snare, and hi-hat. Some examples of the techniques used include:
The “Strike”: This is the low, bass drum sound, and often provides the main beat in the
song. It can be produced by either using the middle finger to strike the bottom 3 strings
(muted of course!) near the bridge or by using the fleshy part at the bottom of your hand to
strike the body of the guitar near the soundhole. The EQ of the mix will need to have some
bass added to it, to ensure that you get a rich, thick sound.
The “Flick”: This is a mid-pitch, snare imitating sound, which will often succeed the bass
drum in a melodic beat, and will therefore need to be higher in pitch. It can be achieved by
flicking the body of the guitar further away from the soundhole or by flicking the scratchboard
with just one finger. It can also be dampened for a cleaner recording by taping a napkin, or
piece of cloth over the desired “flick” area.
The “Tap”: This will produce the sound of the last piece of the drum kit, the hi-hat, and is
produced by lightly tapping the strings against the fretboard with the left hand (if you’re
playing the guitar right-handed). Again the EQ will need some top end added, plus a
dampener, such as a cloth tied around the nut of the fretboard to get a clean, and realistic
sound from the action.
If you would like to see these techniques in action, I recommend you check out Alexandr
Misko’s cover of “Careless Whisper”, in which he incorporates all of these techniques, as
well as natural harmonics, detuning and tapping into a fantastic arrangement.
Along with Alexandr, there are many musicians who have perfected the art of incorporating
percussive techniques in their guitar playing, many of which are signed to record label
“CandyRat Records”. The label was founded in the United States in 2004, and is known as
one of the biggest acoustic guitar record labels in the world. Artists signed to the label
include Antoine Defour, Don Ross, and Andy McKee, whose live recording of his original
song “Drifting” has received over 59 million views at the time of writing.
So, does this make the guitar a percussive instrument?
Well, sort of. Although the instrument has the capabilities to produce percussive sounds, it
doesn’t fall into the conventional style of playing the instrument, meaning that it takes a lot of
skill and training to be able to make a decent sound from the techniques. If you would like to
learn how you can get started with this, check out some of my other articles here, where we
teach you how to begin your journey as a percussive guitar player.
In conclusion, based on the evidence we have, it would be fair to classify the acoustic guitar
as both a string and a percussion instrument. After all, the piano falls under both stringed and
percussive classification, due to the fact that the sound is caused by mallets in the body of
the instrument striking the piano strings when a note is pressed. Due to this, there’s no
reason why the same cannot apply to the acoustic guitar.
Despite this, I personally would lean towards mainly classing it as a stringed instrument.
Why? Well, because that’s what it was designed to be. Sure, you can produce several
percussive sounds similar to that of a drum kit, but I could also produce the sound of a
triangle by striking the bell of a trumpet with a beater. That doesn’t make it a percussion
What’s more, the appearance of the instrument itself reflects that of a stringed instrument
a lot more then it does a percussion instrument, and for non-musicians, it is the default
classification for it.