Here are a few tips to walk out the store with the perfect percussive guitar, without being banned for life in the process.
So you’ve seen some videos of percussive fingerstyle guitar players and have thought of giving it a try. You might already have an acoustic guitar lying around somewhere and might be thinking: “Maybe I should get a new one to try it out on,”. But as you approach the shop, you suddenly realise that trying out guitars for their percussive ability is no mean feat. What features should you be looking out for when choosing a percussive guitar? Here is a comprehensive guide to choosing the right instrument for your new guitar style.
Type of Guitar
Your guitar will need to be a steel-stringed acoustic guitar. Percussive classical guitar playing is actually a thing, especially with highly skilled classical players, but a steel core string has a better striking sound that you could use either as a snare or a high hat. They also carry harmonics better, have prolonged sustain (trust me, you will need this) and have better volume. They also work with magnetic coil pickups whereas classical guitars do not have that option.
Go for a dreadnought shaped acoustic guitar at least 000 sized. Don’t go for mini dreadnoughts, parlor or anything that has a shallow depth. Cutouts can aid in fretting above the 12th fret but take into consideration the asymmetry of the tops if you get a guitar with one. Jumbos can sound better in an unamplified setting but usually have far too much low-end frequencies that need to be filtered out in live settings.
Type of Wood and Top
The guitar will need to have a solid top; softwoods are ok, plywood will not do. Remember you will be abusing this guitar so you need something sturdy enough to take the hits. Any wood types associated with bright tones are usually good, but it’s still best to take a listen to it and judge for yourself. A label that is stuck/printed on the backboard as you look into the soundhole often carries the brand, model number and type of wood used in the guitar.
A top that is too thick might adversely affect the sound of the percussion on the tops; you might need to hit harder in order to make it sound decent, which is not the best for long-term guitar care.
Gently test the top of the guitar with a thumb snare strike and a palm kick strike. Do it gently; ask for permission with the guitar sales assistant if necessary. A good percussive guitar would sound more like a small cajon without snares attached as opposed to a set of hand toms, which is usually more common for smaller-body guitars. Test the sound of the strings hitting the last fret by playing a string snare/ string hi hat hit. It should sound crisp, without too much of a knocking sound resonating in the body.
You may consider getting a guitar with slightly wider string spacing than what you are currently comfortable with. Percussive fingerstyle is a millimeter-precision performing art, so a slightly wider string spacing might help you avoid playing additional strings not part of your chord or arrangement.
A built-in mic would be the best sounding for amplified performances, and can work in tandem with either piezo undersaddle pickups or a magnetic coil pickup. However it may also be prone to feedback issues, so a soundboard transducer or a high quality undersaddle piezo pickup will do fine too. Ultimately you do not need to worry too much whether your guitar comes with the best pickups for performing with; you can always upgrade it to better ones in the future.
Cloth-capped X Brace
Use your phone’s front facing camera and carefully insert it into the soundhole of the guitar. Take a look at the underside of the guitar top and look for the X brace. See if the joint where the two braces meet is cloth capped. This offers more top flex when performing palm strike kicks. It also gives the beginning of the palm kick a punchier sound as the top meets the x brace during the strike, producing a slight clap sound.
Dead-sounding Guitar Neck
When you start exploring with all the cool hammer-on techniques that allow you to split your guitar into separate melody and percussion zones, the last thing you’ll want is the thuds of your fretting getting into the mix. So you’ll need to look for a guitar that has a dead-enough-sounding neck that reduces the amount of finger noise getting picked up by the pickups. One quick way of testing this is to strum the strings above the bridge of the guitar and see how much noise transmits through the neck into the body. Another way is to mute the strings with your right (master) hand and do hammer-ons with the other. Listen to how much knocking sound makes it through to the soundboard. It is impossible to get a completely dead neck, but the less sound the neck transmits, the less work you’ll have to do with dynamic EQ-ing.
Some key points to take note before buying
One very important point to take note before making the purchase is that by making it a dedicated percussive guitar, you are affecting its potential resale price down the road. Even solid top guitars will show wear over long periods of time, so trying to flip it over to someone else to fund a new guitar purchase will not be an easy thing to do.
The upside to this is that most upgrades you’ll likely be making are external gear such as installing new internal microphones or pickups, getting a compressor pedal and the like. Solid top guitars are also very unlikely to break due to percussive fingerstyle playing; using any form of amplification also eliminates the need to hit hard on the tops in order to be heard. Rest assured that you will be relying on this instrument for your percussive playing for a long time.