Johnny Cash Style

Ever heard Johnny Cash’s “The Gambler”? What do they use for the beat in that song? Is Johnny just tapping the guitar or is there some sort of percussion instrument involved?

I seem to hear that sound on a lot of old country recordings, Merle Travis, etc…I know some of you old geezers know :D

Well, I’m not exactly an old geezer…but you could be correct in saying it was someone just tapping on the guitar body. The origins of “Country” music was from very poor people who had to use anything at their disposal for instruments i.e., the wash tub bass, the scrub board, whiskey jugs etc… A lot of this stuff carried on over into the recordings.

And those dudes beating on trash cans and hubcaps thought they had “invented” something new! :) :)


I am not familiar with the Johnny Cash “Gambler”. Kenny Rogers, yup, Johhny Cash nope. I hit Amazon and they don’t have any audio clips of it I can find. If you find a link to a clip, I’ll take a listen. But without hearing it, a lot of that old time country was just a guy playing a floppy snare with brushes.

One trick they used to use on the early Sun recordings of Johnny Cash was weave adollar bill in between the strings of the acoustic guitargiving the strings an almost “snare” sound when strummed (there was no drummer on those early sessions). Not familiar with “The Gambler” though.

I read somewhere that they used brushes on a cardboard box.

Quote (CallCurtis @ Dec. 10 2004,09:55)
I read somewhere that they used brushes on a cardboard box.

Yep. I heard a recording a guy done with his kick drum pedal whacking a big, heavy cardboard box. Fit the song perfectly with the big WHAP! kinda sound going on. Almost no resonance...just a big, meaty WHAP! It sounded pretty cool.


I haven’t heard that recording in many years so I don’t remember what it was, and may not be able to tell anyway. It could be any of the mentioned things. I know Johny Cash thumped his guitar occasionally, I also know the norm eventually became a snare with brushes and sometimes a stick in one hand and a brush in the other, and I also know a box with brushes was used. I’ve heard the story about a dollar in the strings, so it was probably done as well.

If you want to emulate the sound I suggest that you start with a box and brushes. I’ve used that myself on a few recordings (mostly Jim “Pamlico Joe” Swinson stuff) and it works very well and is easy to record. There’s little needs for EQ or anything to make it work. The idea is to play it so it sounds like what you want to hear. That’s where the experimentation comes in. Don’t just bang on a box unless that’s the sound you want. Add a little sideways slat to the brush to give it some swish and you’ll be on your way. Don’t mic it too close - a foot or two away and above is a good place to start.

Yeah I don’t know who wrote the song originally, but Kenny Roger’s has a version too - same song, different instrumentation. I think it’s from the album Country Store, can’t find an audio clip though:

The brushes on the box sounds about right though.

There have been many songs from the 50s and early 60s that used brushes on a box. When Elvis the Pelvis did his comeback concert…his drummer used brushes on a drum case. I have seen a video where brushes were used on an old suitcase.But there are lots of kool sounds that you can create…one example is putting thick paper on a padded chair and use brushes.

I have some new kitchen chairs made of maple…and by tapping with the tips of my fingers they make a great sound. LOL I even get different tones depending on which side I tap.