I don’t care how nice your guitar is, whether it’s electric or acoustic, baritone or 12-string, boutique or sweatshop, or how well it has treated you over the years—chances are it’s due for a good whuppin’. It’s time you slapped the living harmonics out of that thing, and this lesson will show you how. And don’t worry—as long as you don’t strike your instrument with anything harder than your own hands, musical corporal punishment of this sort shouldn’t cause it any damage. If anything, these full-contact guitar tactics will reward you with an avalanche of funky, spunky, sparkly, and fully-rockin’ riffs—the likes of which most guitarists have never explored.
The truth is, there are already scores of devoted guitar slappers on the rise. (Ben Lacy, Rodney Branigan, Justin King, and Thomas Leeb are four who come to mind). Having played this style for years, I nominate we name the genre spank guitar. In fact, it may be only a matter of time before a catchy, guitar-driven tune with an infectious, in-your-face spank riff makes it high up the charts and six-stringers everywhere jump on the spank-guitar bandwagon. So, why not beat the masses? The following pages are your chance to get in on this style at the ground floor. I’ll share the rudiments of spank as well as some riffs from my soon-to-be-released solo album (many of which I actually play on a baritone MJ Mirage, because spanked riffs sound all the more monstrous down a fourth). The real beauty of spank guitar is that perhaps more so than with any other guitar approach, no two people do it the same way. Experiment with these examples just a little bit and you’re bound to come up with a spank style that’s uniquely your own.
All In the Wrist
No matter how impressive a given piece of slap-guitar kung fu sounds, most black-belt spank riffs can be broken down into a succession of basic white-belt-level moves. The most crucial of these is the simple slap technique in Ex. 1. To execute this percussive maneuver, fret a note on the lowest string with your 1st finger, and, while using the underside of that same finger to mute the other five strings, slap (indicated throughout this lesson by an S between the staves) the sixth string with the outside edge of your strumming-hand thumb. (Pickers will have to store their plectrums between their palms and middle or ring fingers—or, simply chuck ’em aside.)
If you’re new to this form of 6-string smackdown, start off gingerly. Blisters, bone spurs, and fractured thumbs are unlikely, but if you become hooked on this style, the side of your thumb will have a big callous in its future. For a good tone, don’t press or “poke” with the slapping thumb. This appendage should be almost fully relaxed—an extension of the hand that can be whipped hard against the string using the centrifugal force generated from a quick twist of the wrist. Only a loose thumb immediately bounces off the string, thus minimizing the actual flesh/string contact time so that the string vibrates unimpeded.
While many funk bassists slap with their thumb angled upwards in an approximate “two o’clock” position (if they’re righties, that is), as this lesson unfolds, you’ll find that in spank guitar, the thumb can execute many cool stunts when the slapping hand is angled more towards the floor, as shown in Ex. 1’s accompanying photo. Spank guitar also involves a lot of slapping directly on the fretboard itself, so, unfortunately, any switches or knobs installed above the high frets (such as, for example, a Les Paul’s pickup selector) may be directly in the path of your slapping arm.
The natural counterpart to slapping is “popping”—the tasty practice of yanking a string away from the fretboard with the tip of your index finger and releasing it (indicated by a P between the staves) so that, by its own tension, it slams against the fretwire with a distinct metal-on-metal pop that precedes the ensuing note [Ex. 2]. You can lift the string with the pad of your finger, or, like some ace chicken pickers, with your actual fingernail. (An acrylic nail may be necessary for those players whose natural nails are on the fragile side.) And slapped and popped notes muted by the fretting hand are often employed to further boost the percussive element in spanked riffs [Ex. 3]. Eventually, you may find it useful and fun to incorporate tapped notes [Ex. 4] within your spank riffs.
The Secret Ingredient
Technique-wise, slap guitar does, indeed, borrow a lot from slap bass. On a 6-string, however, the style really comes alive when you incorporate the electric guitar’s many compelling sonic capabilities, including, most important, octave harmonics and other shimmering partials. As the stunning two-hands-on-the-neck timbres of Michael Hedges’ acoustic piece “Aerial Boundaries,” Edward Van Halen’s “Mean Street” intro, and Tuck Andress’ slap magic on Tuck & Patti’s “Tears of Joy” each prove, having sparkly harmonics fly forth from a simple slap on the fretboard can be thrilling for guitarist and listener alike. And, once again, it’s all about the bounce. Get that slapping thumb to ricochet cleanly off the string (this time exactly one octave—or 12 frets—above the C held at the 5th fret of the third string) and an octave harmonic will ring forth [Ex. 5]. For boosted sustain, hit the string exactly over the prescribed fret and add some compression or distortion.
Even more satisfying than single harmonics, of course, are chords made up of slapped harmonics, and they’re not hard to execute once you’ve developed a decent spank attack. For instance, fret a simple Am triad at the 5th fret of the highest three strings and, mimicking its vertical shape with your thumb exactly 12 frets up, slap the strings cleanly [Ex. 6], and the resulting chord should burst with juicy harmonics. And if the chord tones don’t all reside at the same fret—as is the case with the second chord, the diagonal Dm triad fingering—simply angle your thumb as shown to match the chord’s diagonal shape.
Of course, chords don’t always have fingerings that can be exactly mimicked with the thumb, but sometimes just striking within the vicinity of the chord’s octave frets is enough to make the overtones scream. Spank the strings approximately an octave above Ex. 7’s fifth-position A7b9 (landing the side of your thumb right between the 17th and 18th frets) and, despite the chord’s zigzag shape, the partials will ring brightly.
The Disco Doorway
Now that all the engine parts are in place, it’s time to put them together and get your slap/pop motor running, and there’s probably no easier jumpstart than the simple disco groove in Ex. 8. As indicated, slap each low A and pop each high A, holding the low notes for a full eighth-note and the high notes for only a staccato burst (as directed by the staccato “dots”). When it’s time to cut off a note, do so by simply lifting its fretting finger. Most of all, though, focus on keeping the time even and the groove strong. Without a fat, confident, pocket, it doesn’t matter how hard you hit your guitar—your slaps will have no sting.
Many a great slap lick can be constructed from a sixteenth-note funk feel. A good place to start is with an aggressive, highly percussive punk-funk freakout such as Ex. 9. Inspired by Flea’s memorable bass bombast on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blackeyed Blonde,” this repeating one-bar loop adds muted notes and hammer-ons (which, like pull-offs, are indicated by standard slur markings) to the spank party. Remember, only when you’ve committed the moves to motor memory and the music is no longer trickling out of your brain, but exploding with true conviction from the center of your chest, will you be able to deliver this riff with any real power.
Pentatonic Choke Hold
There’s a reason the pentatonic scale [Ex. 10] is so beloved by the world’s guitarists—it fits the human hand perfectly, and when it comes to spank licks the scale is no less convenient. Building on the rhythmic fabric of Ex. 9, Ex. 11 adds fourths hammered at the 7th fret and harmonics slapped at the 5th on beats two and four—chordal “handclaps,” if you will. Play this with a slow sweep of the wah pedal and, perhaps when the rest of the band breaks for a few beats, burst into the flashy triplets shown in Ex. 12, and you’ll get everybody’s attention.
It’s no secret that flat-pickers, twang-bangers, and chicken pickers often incorporate open strings into their riffs to facilitate fretting-hand position shifts. Another reason they do so is that open notes are useful as “clone tones”—alternate versions of pitches fretted on lower strings that create a pleasing timbral contrast between two otherwise identical notes. Plus, they just plain sound good, because nothing rings as vibrantly as an open string, particularly when it is popped, which is exactly why Ex. 13 is so full of zeroes. Each “0” in the tablature represents an open string that is spanked, yanked, or pulled—a note that (in many cases) could have been played as a fretted pitch but is instead sounded at the nut to achieve a more lively tone.
Phase shifters, ring modulators, envelope filters—these are just a few of the many effects that will add dramatic colors to guitar riffs, including, of course, spanked licks. One of the most exciting effect treatments is an echo set to repeat a note precisely a dotted eighth-note after—and at exactly the same volume at which—it is initially struck. Echoes timed in this manner will transform ordinary picked or slapped staccato eighth-note lines into machine-gun fast sixteenth note textures à la EVH’s volume swells on “Cathedral;” The Edge’s sheets of sound on U2’s “Streets Have No Name,” and Albert Lee’s twangy pyrotechnics at the end of “Country Boy.”
Miraculously, much of this dotted-eighth delay magic can be simulated with a good spank/hammer attack, as is required to play the simple “echoing” lick in Ex. 14. Employ efficient use of fretting-hand string muting, add a sweep filter of some kind, and you’ve got a mesmerizing electronica texture. As Ex. 15 demonstrates, you can also liven things up by tossing in a hammered fourth on the highest two strings at the 10th fret and then slapping the interval as harmonics a sixteenth-note later.
Seeing Is Believing
No example in this lesson is a musical piece unto itself. However, each example is a key that can unlock the door to a boundless world of inspired spank riffs. To see video of me demonstrating where each of these gateway riffs (and much more) can lead, be sure to go online and click to GuitarPlayerTV.com.