Slapping and popping might be techniques more readily associated with the electric bass, but when applied to the guitar they yield a wealth of new riff ideas, harmonic textures and rhythmic possibilities. That’s the premise of Solo Slap Guitar, a recent entry in Hal Leonard’s Musicians Institute Master Class series, written by guitarist, educator and longtime Guitar Player contributor and editor Jude Gold. In expert but lucid prose supported by images, online videos and notation with tablature, Gold covers everything from subdivisions and rhythmic groupings to full-contact harmonics. In this excerpt, he introduces guitarists to the key wrist motion behind the slap.
Readying Your Wrist Rocket
If you have ever sat behind a drum kit, you know it is fairly easy to produce an authentic bass-drum sound—just stomp on the kick pedal. Similarly, if you grab a drumstick and take a swing at the snare drum or the closed hi-hat, it’s not difficult to get a convincing sound out of those two pieces either. However, putting those three sounds together to produce a convincing beat is much more challenging.
The same is true of slapping and popping. The individual moves (the slap and the pop) aren’t particularly difficult. The trick is to integrate them (along with hammered, pulled, muted and tapped notes and harmonics) in a way that produces a compelling guitar part with a clear sound and irresistible groove. As was the case with the drum kit, we’re talking about a handful of simple moves that offer a lifetime of possibilities.
With that in mind, let’s get things started by taking a close look at one half of the slap/pop yin-yang: slapped notes.
“It’s All in the Wrist”
When people do something amazing, such as make a three-pointer from half-court, pull a rabbit out of a hat or crack a safe, they sometimes joke that the task is super easy, saying, “It’s all in the wrist.” When it comes to slapping notes on a guitar or bass, though, it really is all in the wrist—or at least mostly in the wrist.
True, the thumb is obviously very involved in slapping. In fact, it’s so involved that bassists combined the word “thumb” with the word “slapping” to introduce a new verb to use when describing the technique: thumping. And, to the untrained eye, it might appear that the slapping thumb is solely responsible for generating the string-against-fretwire smack that is the sonic hallmark of slapped riffs.
However, the thumb is a more passive participant in the slapping process than most people realize. In fact, the thumb would be all but useless for slapping riffs if it didn’t have the wrist to fling it at the strings.
Fistful of Funk
Before we get started with actual musical examples played on the guitar, ignore your instrument for a moment and hold your slapping forearm out with your hand in the lazy “thumbs-up” position shown in Fig 1.1. The thumb should be mostly relaxed—particularly where it joins the hand—with the four fingers curled toward the palm but not clenched.
Congratulations! You’ve achieved the most common hand shape used in slap bass and slap guitar. Your relaxed thumb is ready to slap, and your index finger—having taken on a relaxed hook shape—is primed to pop. Before we execute our first slap, let’s make sure your thumb really is loose at its base. To do this, quickly rotate your wrist back and forth, clockwise and counterclockwise. If your thumb whips about slightly, almost as if it’s a lifeless rubber attachment, it’s loose. Good. You are now ready to…
Build That Bounce
No, don’t grab your guitar just yet. First, hover your “lazy thumbs-up” horizontally over a firm surface such as a table edge (Fig 1.2). You are about to practice flinging your thumb against this surface to produce the slap effect, much like you will on the guitar. Before you do, though, imagine that the outermost bone at the tip of your slapping thumb—the one on which your thumbnail resides—is a rubber ball tied to your wrist.
Now, rotate your hand away from the table somewhat so that your thumb rises. Next, with the muscles loose where your thumb meets your hand, quickly reverse that wrist motion, putting on the brakes right when your palm is once again parallel with the table. If your thumb is loose during this dead stop, the side of your upper thumb—a.k.a., your “rubber ball”—will keep going. Its own inertia will cause it to smack against the table and even bounce off of it. This bounce is what we’re aiming for in slap guitar. Why? Because a loose thumb will bounce off the string, leaving it ringing, which is our goal. A tense thumb, however, will remain on the string an instant too long, thus deadening it (instead of leaving it ringing).
To develop a good slapping attack, practice this motion on many different objects, including your knee or chest if nothing else is available. Before you start slapping strings on the guitar, though, remember that, just as in real estate, slapping is all about…
Location, Location, Location
To produce an articulate slapped note on guitar, impact location is a key consideration. With that in mind, you may now grab your instrument. As shown in Fig 1.3, a good place to start slapping may be between the pickups, where the strings are most forgiving and offer your thumb a welcome bit of trampoline-like bounce.
If you’re new to this full-contact style, know that just as it probably took a while to develop callouses on the tips of your fretting and plucking fingers when you first started playing guitar, it may take a little while to toughen the hide of your picking-hand thumb when you first start slapping. With that in mind, make it a goal to practice (but not over-practice) slapping the guitar every day. Practice enough to build up a good callous right where your thumb makes contact with the strings, but not enough to break the skin. In the event you feel more than a little soreness in your slapping thumb, take a break, as a blister may already be forming.
Also, make sure your strings aren’t so old they’re at high risk of snapping. If there is one style that tests the tensile integrity of strings more than most, it’s slap/pop.