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Tapping is a guitar playing technique, where a string is fretted and set into vibration as part of a single motion of being pushed onto the fretboard, as opposed to the standard technique being fretted with one hand and picked with the other. It is similar to the technique of hammer-ons and pull-offs, but used in an extended way compared to them: hammer-ons would be performed by only the fretting hand, and in conjunction with conventionally picked notes; whereas tapping passages involve both hands and consist of only tapped, hammered and pulled notes. Some players (such as Stanley Jordan) use exclusively tapping, and it is standard on some instruments, such as the Chapman Stick.
Tapping may be performed either one-handed or two-handed. It is an extended technique, executed by using one hand to 'tap' the strings against the fingerboard, thus producing legato notes. Tapping usually incorporates pull-offs or hammer-ons as well, where the fingers of the left hand play a sequence of notes in synchronization with the tapping hand. For example, a right-handed guitarist might hammer down on fret twelve with the index finger of the right hand and, in the motion of removing that finger, pluck the same string already fretted at the eighth fret by the little finger of their left hand. This finger would be removed in the same way, pulling off to the fifth fret. Thus the three notes (E, C and A) are played in quick succession at relative ease to the player.
While the tapping technique is most often used on electric guitar, it may be performed on almost any string instrument, and several instruments have been created specifically to utilise the method. The Bunker Touch-Guitar (developed by Dave Bunker in 1958) is designed for the two-necked tapping technique, but with an elbow rest to hold the right arm in the conventional guitar position. The Chapman Stick (developed in the early 1970s by Emmett Chapman) is an instrument built primarily for tapping, and is based on the Free Hands two-handed tapping method invented by Chapman in 1969 where each hand approaches the fretboard with the fingers aligned parallel to the frets. The Hamatar, Mobius Megatar, Box Guitar, and Solene instruments are other instruments designed for the same method. The NS/Stick and Warr Guitars are also built for tapping, though not exclusively. The harpejji is a tapping instrument which is played on a stand, like a keyboard, with fingers typically parallel to the strings rather than perpendicular. All of these instruments use lower string tension and low action to increase the string's sensitivity to lighter tapping.
Some guitarists may choose to tap using the sharp edge of their pick instead of fingers to produce a faster, more rigid flurry of notes closer to that of trilling, with a technique known as pick tapping. Guitarist John "5" Lowery has been known to use it, and has nicknamed it a "Spider-Tap".
Tapping has existed in some form or another for centuries. Niccolò Paganini utilized similar techniques on the violin, striking the string with a bouncing bow articulated by left-hand pizzicato. Similar to two-hand tapping, selpe technique is used in Turkish folk music on the instrument called the bağlama. Tapping techniques and solos on various stringed acoustic instruments such as the banjo have been documented in early film, records, and performances throughout the early 20th century. The clavichord was an early acoustic keyboard instrument that used a mechanical hammer to "fret" a string for each key. It was followed by an amplified version, the Hohner Clavinet, in 1968.
Various musicians have been suggested as the originators of tapping on the guitar. While one of the earliest players to use the technique was Roy Smeck (who used the two-handed tapping technique on a Ukulele in the 1932 film Club House Party), electric pickup designer Harry DeArmond developed a two-handed method as a way of demonstrating the sensitivity of his pickups. One of DeArmond's students, Jimmie Webster made recordings in the 1950s using a two-handed tapping method he described in 'Touch Method for Electric and Amplified Spanish Guitar', published in 1952. 1980s heavy metal player George Lynch has claimed that George Van Eps used tapping in the 1950s. Another recorded example of early rock two handed tapping can be heard on Santana's 1970 album Abraxas, starting at 2:02, on the Song "Hope You're Feeling Better".
The two-handed tapping technique was also known and occasionally used by many 1950s and 1960s jazz guitarists such as Barney Kessel, who was an early supporter of Emmett Chapman. Vittorio Camardese, an Italian radiologist, developed his own two-handed tapping in the early 1960s, and demonstrated it in 1965 during an Italian TV show.
In August 1969, Los Angeles jazz guitarist Emmett Chapman discovered a new way of two-handed tapping with both hands held perpendicular to the neck from opposite sides, thus enabling equal counterpoint capabilities for each hand for the first time. To maximise the technique, Chapman designed a 9-string long-scale electric guitar which he called "the Electric Stick" (and later refined as the Chapman Stick. In 1974 he founded Stick Enterprises, Inc. and began building instruments for other musicians. With over 5,000 instruments produced as of 2006, the Chapman Stick is the most popular extant dedicated tapping instrument. Chapman influenced several two-handed tapping guitarists, including Steve Lynch of the band Autograph, and Jennifer Batten.
The technique began to be taken up by rock and blues players in the late 1960s. One of the earliest of such players was Canned Heat guitarist Harvey Mandel, whom Ritchie Blackmore claims to have seen using the technique onstage as early as 1968 at the Whisky a Go Go. George Lynch has corroborated this, mentioning that both he and Edward Van Halen saw Mandel employ "a neo-classic tapping thing" at the Starwood in West Hollywood during the 1970s. Mandel would utilize extensive two-handed tapping techniques on his 1973 album Shangrenade.
"Fool's Paradise" Recorded in 1993 in Palo Alto, California
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Randy Resnick (of the band Pure Food and Drug Act, which at one time also featured Mandel) used two-handed tapping techniques extensively in his performances and recordings between 1969 and 1974. Resnick was mentioned in the Eddie Van Halen biography for his contribution to the two-handed tapping technique. In reference to Resnick's playing with Richard Greene And Zone at the Whisky a Go-Go in 1974, Lee Ritenour mentioned in Guitar Player Magazine January 1980 that "Randy was the first guitarist I ever saw who based his whole style on tapping." Resnick also recorded using the two-handed tapping technique in 1974 on the John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers album "Latest Edition" and has said that he was attempting to duplicate the legato of John Coltrane's "Sheets of Sound".
One of the first rock guitarists to record the two-handed tapping technique was Steve Hackett from Genesis. Three examples of Hackett's complex tapping can be heard on the songs "The Musical Box" and "The Return of the Giant Hogweed", both from 1971 and "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight", from 1973. Other guitarists such as Frank Zappa, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Brian May from Queen, Duane Allman from The Allman Brothers Band, Larry Carlton (Kid Charlemagne 1976), and Leslie West from Mountain were using the two-handed tapping technique in the early and mid 1970s as well. Ace Frehley and Frank Zappa used a guitar pick for their style of two-handed tapping.
In the late 1970s, Eddie Van Halen brought the two-handed tapping technique firmly into the rock mainstream. While not one of the earliest of tapping players, Van Halen's showmanship and inventiveness (allied to his commercial success) made him arguably the most influential player in terms of encouraging rock guitarists into taking up the technique. Van Halen claims that his own inspiration came from Jimmy Page: "I think I got the idea of tapping watching (Page) do his 'Heartbreaker' solo back in 1971… He was doing a pull-off to an open string and I thought...I can do that, but what if I use my finger as the nut and move it around?" In doing so, Van Halen expanded upon Page's rapid pull-off and hammer-on technique so that he could use it in any key, as he was no longer constrained by the pitches available on open strings. Furthermore, two-handed tapping created a new guitar timbre different from that of a picked attack. Although secretive about this technique before the release of his band's 1978 eponymous debut album Van Halen, he unveiled it to the rock world in his revolutionary unaccompanied guitar solo "Eruption," in which he arpeggiates triadic chords at astonishing tempos during its finale. Van Halen expanded on his two-tapping technique on later albums, by tapping harmonics on a nylon-string acoustic guitar in "Spanish Fly" (Van Halen II, 1979) and by creating a percussive sound by tapping with his thumb (in a motion similar to slap-bass technique) during the intro section of "Mean Street" (Fair Warning, 1981).
During the 1980s, hard-rock and heavy-metal guitarists such as Vito Bratta, Steve Lynch, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai began to demystify the technique and incorporate it into their playing. Two-handed tapping developed much further as many players such as Stanley Jordan, Enver Izmaylov, and Buckethead used multiple right-hand fingers to tap. By the late 1980s, tapping had become a firmly-established standard rock guitar technique (albeit mostly in the fields of heavy metal and jazz rock fusion).
One-handed tapping, performed in conjunction with normal fingering by the fretting hand, facilitates the construction of note intervals that would otherwise be impossible using one hand alone. It is often used as a special effect during a shredding solo. With the electric guitar, in this situation the output tone itself is usually overdriven — although it is possible to tap acoustically — with drive serving as a boost to further amplify the non-picked (and thus naturally weaker) legato notes being played. Because of the amount of distortion generally present, the player should also focus on reducing unnecessary noise during tapping; for instance, by using the palm of the tapping hand to mute any open strings that might otherwise ring out.
The actual passages that can be played using this one-handed technique are virtually limitless. The note intervals between both hands can be shifted up or down the neck, or onto different strings, to form familiar scalar patterns, or even 'outside' tones by randomly streaming through any chosen notes for mere show (often by using chromatics or otherwise dissonant intervals).
As far as the actual technique goes, there are many ways of performing a one-handed tapping passage. The most common technique involves rapidly repeated triplets played at a rate of sixteenth notes, using the following sequence: Tap — pull-off — pull-off
In this case, the right hand index or middle finger sounds the first note on a string by sharply hammering onto it once, then pulling off (often with a slight, sideways 'flicking' movement so as to strengthen the note) to a lower note held by one of the left hand fingers, that of which is then finally pulled off to the last note held by another left hand finger. From there, the cycle is repeated. If one breaks that down even further, the very first part can be seen as the actual 'tapping' motion itself, whereas the second part involving the left hand acts as a way of embellishing the passage with additional notes. Overall, this could be considered an extended trill. The overall aim is to maintain fluidity and synchronization between all the notes, especially when played at speed, which can take some practice to master.
Alternatively, different sequences can be used. One common variation is to reverse the action of the left hand and instead add the second left-hand note as a hammer-on at the end: Tap — pull-off — hammer-on
The above variation can be heard to good effect on the famous guitar solo, "Eruption", in which Eddie Van Halen uses the above tap–pull–hammer method to create a lengthy cascade of tapped notes. In addition to the aforementioned triplets, tapping can be played using sixteenth notes (four notes to one beat as opposed to three), or even — though rarely heard — quintuplets (five notes to one beat). This, especially the latter, can result in even more complex-sounding passages, with some guitarists choosing to use it as a form of neo-classical phrasing to further deepen the musical possibilities of the technique. Again, there are a number of ways of doing so, but some examples of sixteenth-note tapping could be broken down as:
If looked at in scalar terms, the above sequences would follow the intervallic forms of a minor scale and a blues scale respectively. The same concept can therefore be applied to virtually any scale imaginable, making tapping a very diverse technique with constant room for experimentation.
Two-handed tapping (right-handed hammer-ons and pull-offs)
Two-handed tapping can be utilized to play polyphonic and counterpoint music on a guitar by using eight (and even nine) fingers. For example, the right hand plays the treble melody while the left hand plays an accompaniment. Therefore, it is possible to produce music written for a keyboard instrument, such as J.S. Bach's Two-part Inventions.
The method increases the flexibility of the instrument, in that it makes it possible to play more types of music on a guitar. The main disadvantage is the lack of change of timbre. As it produces a "clean tone" effect, and since the first note usually sounds the loudest (unwanted in some music like jazz), dynamics are a main concern with this technique, though Stanley Jordan and many Stick players are successful tappers in this genre. It is common to use a compressor effect to make notes more similar in volume.
Depending on the orientation of the player's right hand, this method can produce varying degrees of success. Early experimenters with this idea like Harry DeArmond, his student Jimmie Webster, and Dave Bunker held their right hand in a conventional orientation, with the fingers lined up parallel with the strings. This limits the kind of musical lines the right hand can play.
Emmett Chapman was the first acknowledged to tap on guitar with his right hand fingers lined up parallel to the frets, as on the left hand, but from the opposite side of the neck (see photo). His discovery, in August 1969, led to complete counterpoint capability and a new instrument, the Chapman Stick, and to a new method Chapman called the "Free Hands" method.
Eddie Van Halen popularized this method on a six-string guitar, with his song "Eruption" off the album Van Halen. He created a following trend of tapping guitarists including most Glam metal guitarists in the 1980's musical landscape, such as Jeff Watson (guitarist) of Night Ranger who utilized all 8 fingers in his tapping passages. Some players such as Stanley Jordan, Paul Gilbert, and Steve Vai were notably gifted in the use of both hands in an almost piano-like attack on the fretboard.
In the new millennium, progressive and experimental guitarists such as Steve Vai, Chris Broderick, and Daniele Gottardo have extended the technique to involve extremely long and technically challenging passages involving very precise and complex arpeggiation.
Tapped harmonics are produced by holding a note with a player's left hand, and tapping twelve frets down from that note with the player's right hand. Rather than hammering-on and pulling-off with the right hand, harmonics are produced by hitting the fret with a finger. This method of tapping can be heard in Van Halen's songs Women In Love and Dance the Night Away.
- Erdal Erzincan and Erol Parlak are playing an Azeri tune using the selpe technique.
- Roy Smeck tapping in the 1932 film Club House Party
- George Lynch Interview, Metal Den, March 2009
- Vittorio Camardese demonstrates tapping techniques on Italian national TV in 1965
- Ritchie Blackmore Interview
- Sanchez, Abel. Van Halen 101.
- Steve Hackett
- Duane Allman tapping
- Eddie Van Halen quoted from Bosso, Joe. “VH1.” In Guitar World Presents Van Halen, ed. Jeff Kitts, Brad Tolinski, and Chris Scapelliti, 14-25. New York: Backbeat Books, 2010. Originally published in Guitar World, April 2008.