How the Fingerstyle Slap Technique Can Light a Fire Under Your Acoustic Playing

Jimmy Leslie demonstrates the fingerstyle slap technique on an acoustic guitar
(Image credit: Kerri Leslie/Future)

There’s nothing more rewarding than when technique and artistry come together creatively. Interviewing players from across the musical universe for 20 years has provided unique opportunities for me to learn from some incredibly artistic technicians, and for the past half decade I’ve been funneling lessons learned into Spirit Hustler’s debut album. 

Learning fingerstyle slapping and plucking was a core breakthrough that led me to a lot of the album's most interesting material. I can’t think of another player that does this exactly, so I’m happy to share this revelation with you.

Inside Fingerstyle Slap

I began messing with slap-and-pop technique by copping funk-bass licks on guitar, which is a great way to start. Acoustic offers more percussiveness and room to operate, so it’s generally better on an acoustic than on an electric guitar. Simply use heavy strings and focus on the bottom four. 

The basic approach isn’t rocket science: Stick your thumb out like a hitchhiker and whack the knuckle down on one of the two lowest strings. Then pluck upward with the index fingernail to grab notes on the third and fourth strings. Once you’ve got that under your belt, start incorporating the top two strings into thumb-and-trigger finger-plucking patterns.

Inspirations And Examples

I found inspiration to dig deeper working alongside “spank guitar” maestro Jude Gold at GP and interviewing funk bassists like Fishbone’s Norwood Fisher and Larry Graham – the root of all “thumpin’ & pluckin’” – for Bass Player. But interestingly, it was acoustic players that helped seal the deal. 

At a NAMM jam with Santa Cruz Guitars artists (including James Nash) who were using flatpicks and fingerpicks, I realized my freehand fingerstyle wouldn’t compare unless I got fake nails, and it was a sea change to always have a hook ready to grab those top strings. The technique is unwieldy at first, but once you get the hang of it, the flow becomes almost automatic. All sorts of new ideas open up, especially in open tunings.

See the accompanying video tutorial above, and listen to the Spirit Hustler album for examples such as the pre-choruses on “Circlin’ the Sun,” covered here last month.

Another song anchored by fingerstyle slap is “Angels of Summertime,” which includes a cameo from Christie Lenée. You might not think a slap-bass inspiration would lead to a tender ballad, but it was the basis for the main part. This versatile technique is also the backbone for the Americana-style stuff on “Hard-Fought Magic” and “Honey Moon” (with Nash on mandolin). 

Recording Tips

It’s best to focus the technique into a small range of motion when recording. Instead of using the top of the fretboard as a springboard, which can be helpful and fun onstage, keep the plucking hand anchored on or near the bridge in the studio. The tone is deeper and more consistent. 

Keep the mic away from the sound hole by placing it below the bridge and slightly toward the endpin on the lower bout. Ribbon mics work best. We used a pair of vintage Coles right next to each other. You can hear that tone at the top of “Angels of Summertime.”

Best Slap Acoustics

Key elements for a good slap acoustic guitar include a full scale length, robust bass, and a quick response to a fast attack. The best I’ve found is a Martin M-36. The 0000 body style is essentially a jumbo OM, and it has such a snappy, bass-like response that I refer to it as the M-Bomber. It’s featured on “Angels of Summertime.” 

The tuning is E modal, which goes, from low to high, E B E E B E. See last month’s column for more specifics about that tuning. Have a blast learning fingerstyle slap. May it inspire thrilling new riffs and licks that lead to outstanding songs.

Order the Spirit Hustler album here (opens in new tab).

Jimmy Leslie has been Frets Editor since 2016. See many Guitar Player- and Frets-related videos on his YouTube channel (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab), and learn all about his psychedelic folk rock group at spirithustler.com (opens in new tab)