The versatility of the guitar, combined with the vast range of types and styles of guitars that are available, has made this instrument one of the most popular instruments anywhere. There are many techniques for playing guitar, some of which include percussive styles, which leads many to wonder if the guitar is a percussion instrument or a string instrument?
The guitar is a string instrument. Some guitarists have learned percussive techniques on the guitar, and acoustic guitars can be used for percussion in particular cases. Still, the instrument overall is defined under the category of stringed instruments.
The guitar is among the most versatile of all instruments. The wide array of techniques on this instrument has given rise to some important questions surrounding the guitar itself. Let’s find a definitive answer to whether a guitar is a string instrument or a percussion instrument.
Is The Guitar a String Or a Percussion Instrument?
The question of what category the guitar falls under regarding musical instrument classification is somewhat difficult to define. The guitar is the only instrument based on music implements of the ancient world, and it has been used for a variety of genres and styles of music since its inception.
The guitar is also manufactured in multiple configurations and styles intended for specific types of music. Some guitars are electric, others acoustic; some only have four strings, while others are known to have twelve strings.
The size and shape of guitars vary widely, and the wide range of techniques and playing methods on the guitar can make it difficult to classify.
However, the main guitar playing techniques that have led to the most confusion surrounding the classification of the instrument are the percussive techniques that are possible on the acoustic guitar.
These techniques are very impressive and sound great, as they involve the guitarist playing parts of the acoustic guitar body as a drum during the playing of a song or piece of music.
The guitarist will use their hands to play rhythms on the instrument while simultaneously producing melodies and harmonies with the strings.
This leads many to ask if the guitar is a string instrument or if it can also be classified as a percussion instrument?
The truth is that the guitar is a string instrument. The true classification of a guitar falls into the string instruments category as this is the instrument’s primary function and playing method.
The guitar is not intended to be a percussion instrument, and most truly, percussive techniques are only possible on acoustic guitars. If some percussion techniques are not possible on all guitar varieties, the instrument as a whole cannot be classified as a percussion instrument.
Furthermore, the percussion techniques used by some acoustic guitarists are not widely taught or used, and most guitarists use the instrument primarily for its string capabilities.
Another source of confusion here is that percussion instruments are defined as musical instruments that are sounded by striking.
This definition can describe the way a guitar is played, but the presence of the strings and the fact that the strings are the primary means of sounding the instrument classify the guitar as a string instrument.
There are percussive elements to playing the guitar. Still, this instrument is used by plucking, striking, touching, pressing, pulling, and otherwise manipulating the instrument’s strings, clearly defining it as a string instrument.
Using The Guitar For Percussion
All guitars are classified as string instruments, and the strings of the instrument are the primary means of producing sound from the instrument. However, there are some percussive techniques that are possible on guitars.
Some percussion techniques are possible on every style of guitar, but they are not true percussive techniques are; they are used to provide melodic or harmonic notes with the strings.
However, some percussive techniques are possible on only some guitar types that are strictly percussive and rhythmic, not contributing to any melody or harmony whatsoever.
With that in mind, let’s explore some of the percussion techniques that are possible for the guitar, beginning with the most common techniques and moving to the most challenging and least common techniques.
The hammer-on is a guitar-playing technique that is possible on every type of guitar. This technique is a way of playing a string or a note with the fretting hand without using another hand to strike or pluck the string in any way.
The guitarist will strike the string with the fretting hand near a fret on the fretboard to execute a hammer-on. This strike will cause the string to vibrate against the fret, causing the string to produce a note.
The hammer-on is a perfect technique for adding depth to a melody or harmony or an ideal way to produce extra notes with the fretting hand while the plucking hand is busy playing something else.
Fretboard tapping is another technique that is possible for every guitar that is considered a percussive technique. Fretboard tapping is an expansion of the hammer-on and follows the same basic principles, but it is a significantly more advanced technique when compared to the simple hammer-on.
The fretboard tapping technique involves both hands being used to tap the strings on the guitar’s fretboard. The fingers of both of a guitarist’s hands can be used to tap out melodies and chords or harmonize notes from each hand.
This technique utilizes the striking technique of the hammer-on, but it is done with multiple fingers from both hands simultaneously to create a unique effect.
This technique has been made famous by many guitar legends and is primarily used as an electric guitar technique, but modern acoustic guitarists have adopted this technique as part of a wider percussive playing style.
Percussive Rhythm Techniques
The only way that a guitar can be used for true percussion is when percussion rhythm techniques are employed on an acoustic guitar. These purely rhythmic techniques are true percussion, producing no notes, melodies, or harmonies.
Percussive rhythm techniques on acoustic guitars are achieved when the guitarist strikes the instrument’s body to create a rhythm. This can be done without playing the strings at all, or it can be used in tandem with notes played on the strings.
Some acoustic guitarists have mastered the art of playing rhythmic percussion on the body of the guitar while simultaneously playing melodies and harmonies with the strings of the instrument.
Other guitarists will use percussive techniques only, without playing the strings at all. This is applicable in certain circumstances when there is no percussion instrument available. This technique is often seen when acoustic guitar duos require some rhythm for a particular piece of a song.
Percussive rhythm techniques are very impressive when executed well and are one of the best percussion techniques for the guitar.
Are Percussion Techniques Useful On The Guitar?
The guitar is not classified as a percussion instrument, but there are percussive techniques that can be played on this instrument. Are these techniques useful and used by all guitarists, or are they a more niche playing style?
The most basic percussive technique on guitar is the hammer-on. This technique should be used by every guitarist regardless of what instrument they use, what type of guitar they prefer, and what style of music they play. The hammer-on is very useful and provides depth to any piece if used well.
More advanced techniques such as fretboard tapping are also very useful for getting a wider range of musical ability from the guitar, but this technique is not employed by every guitarist. Fretboard tapping is moderately used by guitarists, but only for specialized pieces.
However, techniques such as percussive rhythm played on the body of an acoustic guitar are very niche techniques that are only used by a handful of guitar players.
These techniques are only possible on acoustic guitars, which reduces the number of guitarists that use them, and they are only useful for a very particular style of playing and certain genres of music.
Percussive techniques are very useful for guitar players, but some are more useful and more commonly used than others.
Using The Guitar As A String Instrument
We have established that the guitar is not classified as a percussion instrument but rather a string instrument, yet there are some percussion techniques possible on the guitar.
While some percussion is possible, the guitar is primarily used as a string instrument. The guitar makes use of a set of strings to create an infinite array of melodies and harmonies. The strings are the most useful part of the instrument and can be used with a wide range of techniques.
The definition of a string instrument is somewhat ambiguous and covers a host of various instruments under its umbrella. However, the role of a string instrument is more defined, especially when related to a specific context.
The guitar is a string instrument that has many facets and can be used in many different ways and contexts, which is why this instrument is one of the most popular and widely used string instruments of all.
Let’s explore some of the ways that the guitar fills the role of a string instrument in various contexts and with various techniques.
The Guitar In A String Ensemble
Not many realize that one of the main uses for guitars is within the context of a string ensemble. A string ensemble includes only string instruments of various types coming together to play music of a specific style.
Acoustic, jazz, folk, and classical string ensembles are widely known to use a guitar as a core instrument due to its versatility and wide range.
The Guitar In A Band Context
The most widely used function of the guitar is within the context of a band. This could be a band of any genre, as acoustic guitars and electric guitars are both useful in a band scenario.
The guitar made its way into popular culture through its performances in a band context, and this remains to be the primary use of the string instrument to this day.
The guitar in a band context provides harmony in the form of chords as well as harmonies with other instruments and plays melodies as well as solos.
Guitars are useful for playing chords that provide the structure for a song, as well as harmonizing with other instruments such as secondary guitars, bass guitars, keyboards, and even vocals.
The guitar is the most versatile instrument in a band simply because it is a string instrument. The function of a string instrument in this context is to lead the music, as well as provide musical shape to the songs played by the band.
This means that the guitar provides the musical backbone of many bands, fulfilling the role of a string instrument and bringing life to the music.
The Guitar As a Solo String Instrument
One of the very best uses of a guitar as a string instrument is using it in a solo context. The guitar is such a versatile and functional instrument that it is able to play chords and melodies simultaneously, and when coupled with a good singing voice, the guitar becomes the only instrument that a musician could ever need.
One of the main advantages of the guitar as a string instrument is that it can be played in multiple ways, and each method and technique available provides a different sound.
Other string instruments, such as the violin, can only be played with a bow or by plucking the strings individually. It cannot play chords, and it cannot be used with any other methods. This instrument is beautiful, but it is very limited in terms of range and versatility.
Contrastingly, the guitar has a huge sonic range and can be played with a myriad of techniques that make it the perfect string instrument for solo performances.
The guitar can be played on its own and harmonize with itself, it can be used as a rhythm string instrument to accompany a voice, or it can be used as a solo lead instrument for constructing beautiful melodies. The guitar is the most versatile string instrument out there.
Defining the guitar as a percussion instrument is not accurate, but it should rather be defined as a versatile string instrument that can be used for precise and particular percussive techniques.
There is almost nothing that a guitar cannot do, and playing percussion is within the scope of the instrument, but it is primarily a string instrument and, therefore, should be placed into the category of string instruments.