A history of tapping on guitar
The guitar has always been a hub for creative people. We don't often appreciate it, but when you compare the guitar to the piano, we have something that begs for exploration. When you play the piano you press a key that strikes a string and that's it. You might play that note softly, you might play it louder, but that's really all you have at your disposal.
On the guitar we can manipulate the notes we play because we're in contact with the string. We can bend notes, add vibrato, create chaos with a whammy bar, and so much more. It's no wonder that the sounds seen from the electric guitar have evolved so much over the last 70 years! And one of those big evolutions was tapping.
Now it's worth mentioning, the idea of tapping isn't one born on the electric guitar. You can put a string between any two points, and then forcefully pressing that string against a point somewhere along that distance will result in the string vibrating. If you really think about it, this is all a hammer on is, you're plucking one note, then the force of the other fretting hand finger coming down on the string causes the string to vibrate and you hear that pitch.
The evolution and history of tapping on guitar
Tapping had been used (extremely sparsely) since before video and audio recordings, but one of the first great examples of it being used on video came from Roy Smeck in the 60s.
Another wonderful example of tapping came in 1973 when Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top used it on the song Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers – check it here at 1:23
And while it's undeniable that Steve Hackett of the band Genesis was using tapping through the 70s to create walls of sound at speed people hadn't previously thought possible, it was absolutely Eddie Van Halen in 1978 that brought the technique to the attention of the rest of the would when they first heard his guitar tour de force, Eruption. If you miss it, it's at 0:57... though missing it would be impressive!
Eddie Van Halen and his influence
There's a lot of people that take issue with just how much Eddie's name is thrown around on the list of influential guitar players, and more often than not this issue comes from the fact they often grew up listening to Hendrix, or they didn't like what Eddie actually did on the guitar. But I have to stress this bit, it really doesn't matter if you don't like what he did, or how much you loved Hendrix. Eddie completely changed the landscape of electric guitar, and influenced millions of people to pick it up and make their own sounds. To suggest otherwise is ignorant. Hendrix was extremely important to the art of rock music, and the attitude he brought to the table, and he absolutely influenced people to pick up the guitar... but Eddie changed how the guitar was played. You can think of the development of electric guitar as pre or post Van Halen. It's as simple as that.
Tapping post Van Halen
The big explosion in technique in a post Van Halen world came from Mike Varney’s influential record label, Shrapnel. After putting out a few records which didn’t set the world on fire, it was finding guitarists via his spotlight column in Guitar Player magazine which would really open things up. He would write about many of the guitarists who would dominate the shred scene for a decade, but the most influential would be Yngwie Malmsteen, who Varney brought to the USA from Sweden to make a record with the band Steeler.
This seemed worth mentioning because at this point in history, most tapping was led by the picking hand. By this I mean that the guitarists would tap a note to sound a string, and then pull off to notes fretted by the fretting hand. As a technique, this can be integrated quite quickly, because it doesn’t really require anything new in the fretted hand.
In the mid 80s, guitarists started experimenting with sounding new strings with the fretting hand rather than the picking hand. This is tricky to do because it goes against what your fretting hand is used to doing, but in theory, tapping a note with the fretting hand achieves the same thing as tapping with the picking hand, you’re still just sounding a note. This opened up a world of options, because now you could ascend and descend the neck without having to always start a string with the right hand. Early experts in this technique are obviously Tony Macalpine and Greg Howe (Kick It All Over is a great example), but if you want to see this taken to the extreme, I’d give some props to Mark’s brother Mike’s Legato records artist Scott Mishoe!
Using tapping as a guitarist
From a players perspective, tapping really helps to bring a level of speed to your licks that you might be struggling to bring to the table when combining fretting and picking, but there’s also the undeniable legato sound that not picking brings to your sound. It’s impossible to play Zakk Wylde style licks and make them sound smooth like Satriani playing, and that’s a result of the machine gun alternate picking required to play those ideas. Tapping should be learned as a tool you can pull out of your box if that’s a sound you need.
The popularization of left hand tapping really opened the floodgates, and suddenly guitarists started exploring a new world of playing which came to be known as “touch guitar”, or 8 finger tapping. Suddenly it became apparent that you could tap with all 8 fingers on the fretboard and play the guitar more like a piano. There are some rudimentary examples of this like Joe Satriani’s Midnight, and then there’s players who made this approach their entire way of playing the guitar. For example, Stanley Jordan who plays wonderful solo guitar arrangements (sometimes using each hand on a different neck!). Other notable names in this area include Jennifer Batten, and Felix Martin, or the shredtastic TJ Helmerich
The problem with this technique is that traditionally guitarists use the fretting hand to mute unwanted string noise, so lifting this hand off the fretboard (especially with distortion!) creates a noise issue on the instrument. Some guitarists try and mitigate this with careful technique, while others opt for devices like a fret wrap or mechanical string dampener that attaches to the headstock. An interesting development showcasing how people have had to evolve the instrument with their playing style.
Tapping is an exciting technique that could change your playing in so many ways, so if you’re ready to put that other hand to work, head on over to my tapping module and I’ll take you from Van Halen to Michael Romeo!