March 15, 2024

From the Vaults: Tapping Into Eddie


     Everybody knows Eddie Van Halen invented a two hand guitar technique widely known as ‘tapping’.  All one has to do is call up a video of Eddie shredding the neck of one of his iconic guitars and it is likely he will employ tapping in a solo.  What is tapping exactly?  According to Gunnar Lawson’s description on the Instrumental Guys webpage, “Tapping is no doubt one of the coolest guitar-playing techniques.  It’s also one of the most difficult and misunderstood.  It involves playing the guitar like a piano.  You heard that right.  In other words, it uses both your picking and fretting hands to tap notes all over the fretboard.  Usually, guitarists play the guitar with a pick or pluck with their fingers.  On the other hand, the tapping technique involves tapping the strings so they vibrate and ring out.  Some players tap with one hand while others use both.  A perfect guitar tap, however, involves using both hands as the other hand is used to pull-off and hammer on the strings on the neck.”  Just like Michael Jackson doing the dance step called the moonwalk, Eddie was so good at it, he had to have invented tapping –  right?

     Drummers who dabble in guitar don’t necessarily pay that much attention to guitar technique, but there are things I remember seeing guitarists do that made me think, “Okay, that was neat.”  Ron Koss from Savage Grace was the first guitarist I ever saw coax a violin sound from his Les Paul.  Ron would pick a note with the volume off and then use the little finger of his picking hand to turn the volume up and down, creating a cool violin like tone (and no, he did not use a violin bow ala Jimmy Page). 

      When BTO invaded Hedgecock Fieldhouse at NMU, Blair Thornton employed a trick during a solo that was more for visual effect.  It was a form of tapping, I suppose, just not a really  complicated method.  Blair struck a note and then did a Pete Townshend windmill with his picking arm, only in super slow motion.  Townshend really cranked his arm when doing his trademark windmill power strokes, but Thornton slowly rotated his arm and used his index finger to fret a higher note on the guitar neck than the one he had left ringing.  It was a simple guitar effect but the crowd ate it up anyway.  If this was an ‘A-B-C’ level of tapping, the things that Eddie did would have been post PhD level.

     As for who gets credit for being the first guitarist to employ tapping, the answer depends on who you ask.  Most guitar players who use the technique will tell us where they picked up the idea, but that leads to a tree with many branches.  Finding the main trunk of that tree, the first guitarist to actually use tapping, is a little harder.  How about we consult a guitarist who not only toured with Van Halen back in the day, but is also a guitarist who wrote a book about the technique.  His name is Steve Lynch, formerly of the band Autograph.  Lynch was interviewed in the February 2024 issue of Guitar World and he had some interesting things to tell writer Andrew Daly on the subject.

     Back in 1984, Autograph had a smash hit with their Sign In Please album and its monster hit Turn Up the Radio.  They moved a lot of copies with it in heavy rotation on MTV.  On the strength of this record, Autograph found themselves opening for another hot new band, Van Halen.  Lynch was already 30 years old and had been around the block a few times in the music industry, but what happened next suprised him.  As he told Daly, “When our tour with Van Halen started, I was asked by their management, ‘Are you Steve Lynch, the one who wrote ‘The Right Touch’ [A 1982 instructional book with the full title ‘The Right Touch:  The Art of Hammering Notes with the Right Hand’]?  I said, ‘Yes, I am.’  I was then aggressively informed, ‘That’s Eddie’s technique;  you’re not allowed to play it on the tour – or else!’  I was PO’ed that I couldn’t play something I had created.  So later on, I confronted Eddie about it, to which he replied, ‘I had no idea they put those restrictions on you,  I’ll call the dogs off.’  I graciously thanked him and played whatever I wanted for the rest of the tour.  I’ll never know it he was telling the truth, but I don’t care;  we hit it off well after that.”

     As far as how he was originally introduced to the guitar, Lynch told Daly, “The spark was lit when the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan’s show in 1964.   My older sister had some of her cute girlfriends over to watch, and when I saw their reaction to the performance, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do!’”  He started off with a particle board acoustic guitar from Sears & Roebuck with strings so high off the fretboard, ”you had to almost stand on them to make a note come out”.  Steve kept at it, adding, “My style evolved when I stopped listening to other guitarists and started listening to jazz, which guided me in an obscure direction.   But when Autograph formed, I had to abandon my progressive side for a more commercially accepted style.  It didn’t bother me much, though… I had to pay the rent somehow [laughs].”

     Lynch developed a two handed tapping technique after seeing Harvey Mandel ‘playing around with it at a soundcheck at a club in downtown Seattle in the early Seventies’:  “That’s what first inspired me.”  He pursued the idea more after seeing another local artist named Steve Buffington experimenting with tapping.  He gives the most credit to Emmett Chapman after seeing him do a clinic at the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT, now the Musicians Institute).

Lynch continued:  “I was awestruck by the sounds he created.  I immediately began to train my hand and began writing the two-hand theory, including arpeggios, triads, chord inversions, scales, intervals, and double-stops.”  Chapman invented the ‘Chapman Stick’ as a result of his experiments with tapping.  Lynch would take the experience into print with The Right Touch in 1982.  Knowing he had been immersed in tapping long before touring with Van Halen in 1984, he had every right to be miffed when he was accused of using ‘Eddie’s technique’.

     Eddie Van Halen always credited the idea to start tapping from seeing Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmie Page in 1971.  During the solo for Heartbreaker, Eddie noticed Page was doing a pull-off from a fretted note to an open string.  Eddie said to himself, “I can do that, but what if I use my finger as the nut and move it around?  I just moved the nut.”  It didn’t take long before he was experimenting with using both hands to tap notes on the fretboard.  This was a natural progression because Van Halen’s earliest training had been on piano.  Again, just for the record, Eddie did not invent tapping, he just took it up several levels from what had been done by others.  With MTV bringing what he was doing to a much wider audience that the previously mentioned artists could reach playing in clubs, it lit the music world on fire.  It also may have convinced many guitar players to quit (I am kidding), but more than likely it sent other players to the woodshed to copy what they saw Eddie doing.

     George Lynch (guitarist from Dokken and no relation to Steve) also saw Harvey Mandel utilize tapping at a show at the Starwood Club in West Hollywood in the 1970s.  In fact, George says both he and Eddie had seen and been inspired by Mandel.  Steve Hacket from Genesis was also using a tapping technique on the song Dancing with the Moonlit Knight and claimed he had been Van Halen’s inspiration.  Eddie disputed this because he had never seen Genesis play live nor had he heard Hackett’s take on tapping.

     If we dig a little deeper into the Wikipedia universe, we can find many roots to the trunk of the guitar tapping tree.  Some go back much farther than one would think.  For example, Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) used similar techniques on the violin.  Though most remember Paganini as a virtuoso on that instrument, he actually considered himself a better guitarist than violinist.  He wrote compositions for guitar (Grand Sonata for Violin and Guitar as one example) and some musicologists think he wrote many of his 37 violin sonatas on guitar before transcribing them for violin.  Paganini said he enjoyed playing his guitar in taverns more than performing in concert halls.  Frequenting such establishments (the taverns, that is), he was no doubt exposed to Romani ‘gypsies’ who used similar tapping techniques on guitar, as did Turkish musicians who played folk music on a stringed instrument called the ‘baglama’.

     There are filmed and recorded examples of tapping on various stringed instruments, including the banjo, from the early years of the 20th century.  One notable practitioner was Roy Smeck who was seen tapping on a ukulele in the 1932 film Club House Party.  To demonstrate the sensitivity of his electric guitar pickups, famed designer Harry DeArmond developed his own two-handed tapping style.  DeArmond’s friend Jimmie Webster was a demonstrator for the Gretsch guitar brand.  Webster made recordings using DeArmond’s technique.  Jimmie went on to describe the technique in an instructional book Touch Method for Electric and Amplified Spanish Guitar (1952).  Tapping wasn’t employed by guitarists exclusively on this side of the Atlantic.  Vittorio Camardese developed his own version in the early 1960s which he displayed on an Italian TV show in 1965. 

     Jazz artists were not immune to the lure of tapping with many employing it in the 1950s and 1960s.  Barney Kessel was one of them and he became an early supporter of Emmette Chapman.  As previously mentioned, Chapman developed his ‘Electric Stick’ (later to be called either ‘the Stick’ or the ‘Chapman Stick’) in August of 1969.  The 9-string Stick was a long-scale guitar he invented to accommodate his new way of tapping the strings from opposite sides of the neck.  Chapman called this the ‘Free Hands’ method and utilizing it allowed him to explore ‘complete counterpoint capability’.  Both Steve Lynch and Jennifer Batten were influenced by Chapman.  Jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan is a modern day artist who relies extensively on tapping.

     Harvey Mandel’s name is one recurring touch-point for rock and blues players from the last fifty years.  Mandel’s playing with Canned Heat was also mentioned by Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple who said he saw him tapping on stage at the Whisky a Go Go as early as 1968.  Mandel began his recording career with blues harmonica icon Charlie Musselwhite in 1966 (Stand Back!  Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band).  Mandel later joined Canned Heat in the middle of a gig at the Fillmore West when he happened to be in the dressing room when Henry Vestine quit the band.  The set Canned Heat did at the original Woodstock Festival was only his third gig with the band.  Later, Mandel and Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor joined John Mayall’s band where he stayed for two years.  There is no doubt a lot of guitarists were introduced to the idea of tapping with Mandel performing some pretty high profile gigs in that time period.  He also has had a prolific solo career releasing 28 albums from 1968’s Cristo Redentor through 2022’s Who’s Calling.

     Another noted musician who helped popularize tapping was avant garde guitarist Frank Zappa.  It is little wonder Steve Vai has become one of the top tier tappers after having come to the forefront of the guitar world playing in Zappa’s band.  Vai would later mentor Zappa’s son Dweezle who has become a guitar player’s player with his own set of over the top tapping skills. Back when Guitar Player magazine still came with those thin plastic demo records inside, I heard Frank introduce a live track recorded at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, my son Dweezle…the Dweez” during a 1984 concert when he would have been all of fifteen years-old.  “Dweezle is going to play the guitar solo on a song from the Them or Us album called Sharleena,” Frank told the cheering crowd before he ripped off an amazing solo (replete with a flurry of tapping).  Paul Gilbert (Racer X, Mr. Big),  Buckhead (nee:  Brian Patrick Carroll), and Reb Beach (Winger, Whitesnake) are also contemporary guitarists who do amazing things with tapping.  A quick internet search will provide one with plenty of examples of how tapping has evolved in the last twenty years.

     While researching this topic, I found an interesting little sidebar concerning Eddie and Jennifer Batten.  Eddie had been asked to do a solo on Michael Jackson’s hit single Beat It.  Eddie listened to the playback and suggested a few chord changes to make it more interesting and easier to solo over.  The record sales kind of proved that the King of Pop was not one to turn down good advice from other musicians.  When Jennifer Batten became Jackson’s touring guitarist, she had to employ all her skills to cover Eddie’s now iconic guitar parts.  She did the song justice and said the only time it made her nervous was when she had to play it for Eddie.  Van Halen was in an adjacent studio when MJ’s band was rehearsing so he stopped by and asked Batten to play the solo.  Surprisingly, he then asked her to teach it to him because he had forgotten what he had recorded.

     Batten compiled but said the thing that made her job more difficult was the tempo.  Jackson performed the song much faster live than he had on the record.  There is a live clip out there from 1984 that is worth taking a look at.  Eddie is guesting with MJ’s band and he manages to pull off the solo (replete with tapping) live, but in the beginning, you can see him smiling and commenting to the other guitarist.  You can almost read his lips as he arches his eyebrows and says something about the speed.

     Steve Lynch added one more interesting item about incorporating tapping in his solos:  “I would never have been able to create the solos I did without my knowledge of theory.  I’ve never created a solo with a guitar in my hands.”  Lynch is currently working on a solo effort he calls Blue Neptune.  He describes it as a ‘modern day Dark Side of the Moon which happens to be one of my favorite albums.”  I imagine we will hear more tapping from Lynch in the future.


Top Piece Video:  Eddie used ‘Eruption’ as a practice/warm up . . . until the producer working on the first Van Halen album heard it . . . the rest would soon rock the whole guitar playing universe!