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Lesson Series

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Sam Bell - Rock Improvisation Part 4: Tapping Technique

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 38 **

Hello fellow Guitar Interactive Readers. Welcome to my fourth installment of my Rock Improvisation column. So far we have learnt about basic phrasing within the minor pentatonic scale and how to navigate around the guitar neck using five patterns of the pentatonic scale, last issue we took a look at ways of sliding between these shapes in order to create extended patterns. If you have been following the column for some time whilst putting the work in, we should be getting some nice results, maybe a feeling of a bit more freedom from our initial pentatonic box we all start out with. In this month's column I wanted to look at some basic techniques that you can apply to the minor pentatonic scale and its extended patterns, these techniques should give you even more ways to phrase with the scale and will also give you some fresh modern sounding ideas. We are going to take our first step into the wonderful world of tapping!

Tapping Technique:

For those who are unfamiliar with the tapping technique, it's simply a means of extending the range of playable notes on a string by using a finger from the picking hand to tap notes higher up the neck. I personally use my middle finger on my picking hand to tap the notes, this way I can still keep hold of the pick between my thumb and index finger. This helps me switch between techniques whilst I am soloing. You can also tap with the index finger by either dropping the pick or holding the pick in the crook of your middle finger whilst tapping. Tapping should be performed by ‘hammering’ the note down from above the string making a solid connection with the fret in order to get a clean sounding tapped note.

There is a small problem with tapping and that is the world of muting. The art of keeping unwanted strings from ringing out is a much explored subject. Some people use a string mute in the form of a sock, hairband or a fashionable muting accessory that lives behind the nut of the guitar which can be slid over the first fret to keep the other strings from ringing out. This is a great way to keep things nice and clean sounding, however it doesn’t hide sloppy technique, so we really need to learn how to mute with our hands as well. I use the fleshy underside of my picking hand to mute the low strings whilst tapping, and I keep my fretting hand index finger nice and flat in order to keep any strings above muted. The tip of my index finger will also sometimes slightly touch the string above it in order to keep that one muted as well. Experiment and I am sure you will find a way that is most comfortable for you using some of these formulas.

In this column we have three tapping concepts for you to try with the tapping technique, let’s take a look at them:

Single String:

One really common way of tapping, popularised by Eddie Van Halen, was to take notes on a single string playing two notes with the fretting hand and one note with the tapping hand. In my example I use the 12th and 15th fret on the high E string followed by a tap on the 19th fret. This example uses pentatonic box 1 on the fretting hand and pentatonic box 3 on the tapping side. Using this basic concept we can dream up many single string tapping licks by visualising our pentatonic boxes across the guitar neck in this fashion. The sequence starts with a tapped note pulling off with the tapped note to the 12th fret which should be held down already by the index finger of the fretting hand, followed shortly by the 3rd or 4th fretting hand finger on the 15th fret. Rinse and repeat for full effect!

Multi string tapping:

In my next example I take our single string idea and extend it by playing it through the entire pattern whilst tapping the 19th fret on each string. This really makes the pentatonic scale sound almost alien and modern sounding rather than the bluesy sound that it is often associated with. Try expanding on this by visualizing different box shapes and moving them around during the lick, you can create some amazing almost keyboard sounding licks by tapping the pentatonic scale this way, have fun!

Sequenced Multi-String Tapping:

This final lick is very much in the style of the amazing Greg Howe. We are visualising box 1 of the minor pentatonic in the fretting hand and box 3 in the right hand, we are doing a descending pattern using a triplet rhythm much like the first single string lick, however we are playing of each note to create a cascading flow of notes which when played up to speed should sound very bubbly and fast! Be sure to start slow and make sure you have the basic sequence under your fingers on 2 strings before tackling the full 6 (or 8!) strings.


Hopefully some of these tapping ideas have you thinking of new ways of navigating the neck in your soloing. Please keep in mind two things from this lesson whilst making your own phrases. The first thing is that it doesn’t have to be fast, speed is fun, but make sure you can play the notes accurately. You don’t have to play these ideas fast for them to sound good, the very nature of tapping gives the notes a unique sound in themselves so play around with it making slow melodies as well. The second thing I want to mention is that if you plan on throwing some of the fast licks into an improvised solo, make sure you spend time moving them around and practicing them in different areas of the neck so you can be more versatile. Not all Blues jams are in the key of E contrary to popular belief! Lots of players such as myself, Andy James and Guthrie Govan have a whole arsenal of tapping ideas they can pull out of the bag ready for their improvised solos, it would be well worth having your own bag at the ready next time you jam! Have fun and I shall see you next time!

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