Tapping on a guitar (or bass) means tapping the fingers against the strings on the fretboard to make sounds. No striking, picking, plucking, or strumming is employed. Usually this means two-handed tapping, meaning to use the technique with both hands.
Two handed tapping is sometimes called ‘touchstyle,’ or ‘touch style,’ because the action of sounding the note feels more like touching than thumping the string. This is done on an amplified instrument to make the notes audible. Because it can be done with both hands, both hands can be used at the same time, like a piano player in a way.
It can be used to play polyphonic and counterpoint music on a guitar or one of the several specialty instruments designed especially for this technique. It can be used to play left-hand chords and right hand melodies much like ‘cocktail piano.’
It can be used to play basslines with simultaneous rhythmic chords. It can be used to play baroque music, and two-part songs as given in piano scores, and as exemplified in Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. And that’s not all …
You can use both hands on high-pitched strings to create solos and melodies with extremely rapid flurries of notes, or on low-pitched strings to create quick and funky bass parts. In some ways it feels much like two-handed ‘drumming’ on the strings.
Producing a sound on an electric guitar this way is quite easy. And although learning to use it fully could fill a lifetime, in actual fact, many wonderful forms of musical expression can be developed fairly quickly, and the practice is almost universally reported to be hugely fun by musicians who try it.
STANDARD GUITAR, OR SPECIALTY INSTRUMENT?
With the correct setup, two handed tapping can be effectively used on any electric guitar or electric bass.
Alternately, several manufacturers of specialty instruments exist. Generally, these specialty instruments provide a greater number of strings, so that the two hands do not need to squabble over a given string, and to extend the range of the instrument. Because if you can play with two hands like a piano player, then you can with the same effort play very low and very high, as a piano player do.
In addition, these specialty instruments have designs optimized for the technique, and are often easier to play, allow your hands a greater range of motion, and rest in a more comfortable playing position.
If using an electric guitar or bass, the key factor is correct positioning and correct instrument set-up.
Improper adjustment of a guitar can lead you to think that it doesn’t work. Tapping pioneer Stanley Jordan says, “The most important single factor is low action; the strings should practically touch the frets. This is absolutely crucial for ease of playing, clarity, and sustain.
“If you have tried tapping with normal action, you probably heard a weak, dull tone, because a large portion of the attack was the sound of the finger hitting the string. But with low action, a very light tap unites string and fret immediately, giving you a crisp tone.
“How low must you set your action ? Extremely low! If the distance between a string and the 12th fret is greater than the thickness of a penny, it is probably too high. After you become more proficient with tapping, you may decide to bring your action back up a bit for a fuller sound. But for now, get it as low as possible.”
Some sort of dampener will be needed near the nut to prevent open strings from ringing. As you play notes further up the neck and release the notes, the open string is extremely likely to sound. The note it’s sounding may or may not be in the key of your song, and in most cases that extra note will not be a benefit!
You can use a strip of felt woven over and under the strings between the nut and first fret. Other materials that musicians have tried include velcro, fuzzy-dice material, leather and suede, old socks, or strips cut from old bluejeans..
Stanley Jordan describes the basic finger action as “tap and hold. Your finger comes straight down and taps the string against the fret, holding it there for as long as you want the note to last. To cut off the note, lightly pull your finger straight off the string with as little side-to-side motion as possible. This movement must be very light. You barely even try to release your finger; mainly relax it, and let the string push it back up.”
When first practicing, try to play very slowly and play legato. When you can play legato slowly, then play a little faster. By the time you have learned to play legato with even tone and sound, you will be able to articulate the notes however you wish.
Many musicians have experimented with many kinds of tuning. But without going crazy, most guitarists will find it easiest too start with standard tuning, so that they are using the notes they already know.
However, it is well worth the experiment to try tuning in straight fourths. On a guitar from low to high that would be E A D G C F. The two smallest strings are raised a half-step higher than usual. Therefore any pair of strings is exactly a fourth apart. This simplifies and makes clear the entire fretboard, and makes it more logical. This makes playing with both hands simpler and easier, and so your speed of learning is increased.
Most musicians will find it easiest on a normal guitar to keep the thumbs riding along the edge of the fretboard. This anchors them and makes your playing more precise, but it also strengthens your hand and fingers, and feels more comfortable, so you can play relaxed without having to hold your arm rigid. All these improve your playing and comfort level.
On a guitar, normally you would touch the strings with your fingertips, not the pads, and in the beginning will help you to avoid hitting adjacent strings. Your fingers should be naturally curved while playing.
However, on a specialty touchstyle instrument, usually the neck is wider and accomodates more strings. This also allows an alternate hand position, because your thumbs can slide behind the neck, which still gives them a stable-feeling anchor, increases strength and comfort, and improves finger accuracy. But in this position it may work best to play with finger flats.
Well-designed specialty instruments generally provide you with a slightly wider string spacing than does a normal guitar, and playing without hitting adjacent strings is fairly easy after just a few days. This allows you to have greater touch sensitivity.
You will generally get the best tone when you touch the string right *at* the fret. And when playing with finger flats, even if you don’t think about it, your fingers can actually feel the fret beneath the string, and so you have constant and ongoing feedback in your body as to your positioning. Even if you never think of this consciously, your accuracy will improve as a side-effect of the ongoing feedback.
A number of instruments have been designed to extend the two-handed touchstyle method, to make it easier, or to make it more powerful.
Although an early pioneer named Jimmie Webster patented some guitar modifications, such as a split-output pickup, the basic guitar design remained the same.
The first known modified instrument is the Bunker Touch-Guitar, designed for the two-necked touchstyle method he developed in 1958, and presented in his method book “Touch Guitar.”
At a later time, Los Angeles guitarist Emmett Chapman began to experiment with modified guitars, and deveoped an upright-positioned instrument where the two hands approach the single neck from the two sides.
Although he had an unusual method of tuning the bass strings, this hand position opens the doors to vastly more fluid play and the use of the two hands in an identical manner. The instrument, whose design he patented, is called the Chapman Stick (R).
All of these instruments have a longer neck, a larger number of strings, lower string tension and low action to increase the string’s sensitivity to light tapping, and are generally positioned in a nearly upright position, which allows both hands easiest access to the fretboard.
It’s unclear who discovered tapping, but it was certainly popularized, though not discovered, by Eddie van Halen. Van Halen was listening to “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin, and he was quite inspired by the solo, which contained a variation of tapping. This is arguably the song that pushed Van Halen to popularize and use “tapping” frequently.
Many years earlier, the first musician to play this way was pickup designer Harry DeArmond in the 1940’s. He used tapping as a way to demonstrate the sensitivity of the pickups he made. He still held the guitar in the conventional orientation, and the right hand with that alignment does not move as fluidly as the left hand.
However, it appears that his method was seen by guitarist Jimmie Webster, who wrote an instruction book called “The Touch System for Amplified Spanish guitar” and published it in 1952.
He made a record called “Webster Unabridged” and was a great wonder, but it did not really catch on. The technique is a little difficult, compared to techniques on specialty instruments, because either each hand must be content with onlyl three strings, or one hand must coordinate and steal notes from the other hand. It’s kind of a finger-juggling act!
In 1969 Emmett Chapman discovered that he could tap on the strings with both hands, and that by raising the neck up could align the right hand’s fingers with the frets as on the left, but from both sides of the fretbard. This made scale-based melody lines just as easy to tap in the right hand as the left, and this approach to playing a stringed instrument has taken hold, and is the preferred method for nearly all specialty-instrument musicians today.
Chapman began selling his new instrument (The Chapman Stick) to others in 1974, as he began travelling around to music stores and demonstrating this new technque and new instrument, and in 1976 he published the lessons he used for teaching, as a book called “Free Hands.”
Stanley Jordan, who released a number of successful albums on Blue Note records, became quite well known in the 1980s for using a similar method on guitar, and was featured in the Bruce Willis movie “Blind Date.”
An expanded “History of Touch-Style” can be found on the Mobius Megatar website with a special section on two-handed tapping, and a special section on the pioneering innovations of Emmett Chapman and the Chapman Stick. Many additional articles about two-handed tapping and the Chapman Stick can be found online.