We’ve all heard slap bass, but what about slap guitar? Though it’s not as common to see guitarists utilize slapping, it’s a technique that has been successfully employed by many great musicians. From jazz and fusion to acoustic guitar and metal, guitarists use slapping in many different contexts. Let’s take a deeper look at slap guitar and see what it is, where it comes from, and who uses it.
What is Slap Guitar?
Slapping is a fairly self-explanatory name; you slap the guitar to create percussive sounds. Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Slapping also often involves popping, which is when you use your fingers to pull the string and create a pop sound. This is all done in a singular, fluid motion that results in a rhythm heavy sound.
It may sound simple, but it can be a very challenging technique—especially on guitar. Because the strings are smaller, closer together, and have lower tension, slapping is much more difficult on a six string guitar. Still, it is possible and many players have used the technique to great effect. Many modern players have made slap guitar easier by using extended range guitars, such as seven and eight string guitars. The lower strings on these guitars are closer to bass strings, which makes slapping easier, or at least a bit more familiar.
It is also worth noting that there are variations to slap technique. Tosin Abasi for example invented his own technique—as far as its use on the guitar at least—called double thumb, which is its own unique form of slapping. Slap guitar is not one singular thing and includes many different percussive techniques. With the basics of slap covered, let’s move to the history of slap guitar.
History of Slap Guitar
Sadly, there is not much written about the history of slap guitar. Many slap players seem to develop their own techniques, and no one knows who the first slap guitarist was. That said, let’s see what we can learn about slap guitar by looking at related techniques.
It all started with bass. Though the origins of slap guitar are unknown, slap bass is generally credited to Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. He invented the technique after his first band’s drummer left and their organ pedals broke. To make up for the lack of drums and low end, Graham got a bass and started slapping. Since then, his version of slapping has become one of the most popular bass techniques.
However, he was not the first musician to slap. Double-bass players started slapping long before Graham, going back as far as the 1800s. And if we look at percussive techniques in general, the history gets even older.
Flamenco guitarists use a technique called tambour, which involved slapping the guitar near the bridge to create a heartbeat sound. Flamenco playing also dates back to the 1800s, and possibly even earlier.
Clawhammer is another percussive technique similar to slap, used predominantly on banjo but also on guitar. While many think of banjo as a uniquely American instrument, the banjo and clawhammer playing come from Africa. This makes clawhammer playing a much older technique than the others. When African slaves were brought to America, they brought their musical culture with them, and clawhammer banjo eventually became the most popular music in America for decades during the minstrel show era. Clawhammer eventually made its way to guitar as well, somewhere in the 1900s. But how does any of this relate to slap guitar?
Since slap guitar is more of a modern technique, not widely seen until the later 20th century, its early players certainly were likely inspired by these other techniques. It’s not known for sure, but it’s a safe bet that early slap guitarists were applying aspects of these other techniques to guitar. Graham outlined the basic technique for slapping, flamenco proved percussive techniques could work on guitar, and clawhammer showed that percussive techniques from other instruments could be applied to guitar.
With all these different percussive techniques bubbling up and becoming popular, it was only a matter of time until guitarists wanted to get in on the action. So what artists are slapping on guitar, and how do they use it in their music?
There are many different slap guitarists out there, from mega-stars to buskers. For the sake of brevity, this section will only cover some of the most widely known slap guitarists and how they employ the technique in their music.
Regi Wooten is the first person that comes to mind for many when they think of slap guitar. He is one of the famous Wooten brothers, and he began playing music as a child. His style (as well as his brothers’) is incredibly unique. It’s hard to put his style into words, so here is a clip of him playing a solo instead:
Guthrie Govan is arguably one of the best guitars alive right now. His technical abilities are incredible, and he merges that with musicality that is often missed with other virtuosos. Slap is only one of the many techniques he uses in music, but he does it exceptionally well. He is able to mix slap with fusion and shred playing, resulting in a unique progressive sound. In this clip of “Wonderful Slippery Thing,” Govan uses slap during the intro:
Buckethead, like Govan, has incredible technical skills. He is a bit on an enigma though; he has put out over 300 albums and wears a bucket and mask onstage. Weirdness aside, he also uses slap guitar in his music. Buckethead’s music is incredibly eclectic, ranging from proggy playing to beautiful acoustic pieces. However, he mainly seems to use slap for electric guitar (or bass), as seen in this clip:
Fans know John Mayer not for his slapping, but rather his songwriting and incredibly soulful, bluesy playing. However, one of his songs in particular utilizes slapping on an acoustic, and it has long been the bane of many guitarists’ existence. You probably know what song I’m referring to at this point—”Neon.” Here is a great video of Mayer playing the song that allows you to see his slap technique:
It’s hard to mention John Mayer without acknowledging his teacher, Tomo Fujita. While Fujita played in bands and on his own, he is best known as a teacher and for his YouTube channel. He has been teaching at Berklee for nearly thirty years, which is where Mayer learned from him and presumably picked up slapping. He has an incredibly fast and funky slap playing, such as in this clip:
No article about slap guitar would be complete without Tosin Abasi. Slapping and metal may seem like an odd combination, but Abasi proves that is not the case. He invented his own technique called “double thumb” or “thumping” which he uses in much of his music with Animals as Leaders. He uses slapping in many different ways, including clean six string playing and heavily distorted extended range playing. Here is Tosin explaining and demonstrating some of his techniques (slapping begins at the three minute mark):
While slapping may not be the guitar’s most iconic technique, it is one that has been used by many great players. Guitarists took inspiration from other percussive techniques such as bass slapping and transferred them to the guitar. The result was a new set of sounds and textures for guitarists to explore. From metal and fusion to shred and funk, slapping is a technique that can be used for all sorts of styles. So pick up your guitar and learn to slap—you might love it!
Let’s say Regi Wooten taught us all!