As every guitarist knows, tapping was done to death in the 80s and early 90s and for the rest of the decade and into the early 2000s became a downright cringeworthy, no-go area except if you were doing something musically interesting with it a la Steve Vai, or you had the kind of tapping licks that never go out of fashion a la Eddie Van Halen. Over the last few years it has made something of a comeback with guitarists using it to complement their lead playing in a musical way, rather than some, ‘uh-oh here comes the big tapping lick’, spinal tap type moment.
I don’t know if Eddie Van Halen invented tapping but he certainly popularized it, though what most guitarists seem to miss is the fact that Eddie used it to create pieces of music, most of which could be considered standalone pieces in their own right. The technique was then abused to death by 90% of the guitarists that followed in his wake, which led to it becoming tasteless and, mentioning no names, borderline ridiculous.
Tapping itself is probably one of the easiest ‘advanced’ techniques to master on guitar, so I won’t go into it here; if you’re just starting out then you might want to put a hair-tie, or a sock if you don’t have long hair, over the nut or the first fret to dampen any unwanted string noise. Turn the distortion down at first too as you don’t want to rely too heavily on it to create the sound. Most guitarists tap with either the first or second finger of their picking hand, but experiment to see which is more comfortable for you. You don’t have to push the string down when you tap it either, you can also pull it up and the effect will be the same. You should be able to master the basic technique in a day or so, or even a few hours, it’s what you do with it next that counts.
If you’ve always wanted to play fast but can’t seem to get any speed going, or just blindly run up and down scales then tapping is a great antidote for your frustration. Tapping, by nature, makes anything sound cool, even a scale; as you can see below.
What you’re really doing here is playing the good old A minor pentatonic scale 3 notes per string but instead of stretching, you tap the third note on every string. It sounds cool even though you’re running up a scale; EVH does something similar in the intro to ‘Hot for Teacher’ but coming down the scale.
Breaking it down
We can break it down a little as shown in the diagram below which is a simple tapped A minor arpeggio. Okay… this one sounds a little cheesy but the point here is to get a taste for playing fast and know what you’re doing. Simply place your the first finger of your fretting hand on the 5, your third finger on the 8, and tap the 12 (+).
If you know that this is an A minor arpeggio then you can use it in your own music as oppose to learning a fast lick from say, a John Petrucci solo, but having no idea how it’s constructed, what it’s doing there or how to incorporate it into your own stuff; without this knowledge it’s merely a party piece, and of relatively little use.
If you move the whole thing to the B string then you have an E minor arpeggio, and going back and forth between the two sounds cool, although borderline cheesy. If you move it to the G string you have a C minor arpeggio and so on; as you’ve probably worked out, the root of this minor arpeggio pattern is dictated by the first finger of your fretting hand.
If you want an A major arpeggio instead of an A minor arpeggio simply make the C on the eighth fret into a C# on the ninth fret—you’ll probably need to change to your pinky to make the stretch. You can also move this pattern about accordingly.
What’s the Point?
As I mentioned above, the point here is to get a taste for playing fast and knowing what you’re doing. A lot of players make the mistake of building up technique and end up playing faster than they can think, which leads to mindlessly running up and down scales, and running out of ideas fast. You may have noticed the added confidence you felt while you were tapping and knowing exactly what you were playing. This is the feeling or state you want to achieve with your regular fast playing, which unlike tapping, comes from playing slow first, or rather not playing faster than you can think…
Check out the Scale Trainer to see this method in action for learning scales. It’ll take a while to build up speed but the results are worth it. Or if you've already mastered tapping and want to take your skills to the next level, check out Jean Marc Belkadi's Progressive Tapping Licks.