STANLEY JORDAN has employed this revolutionary approach to guitar since 1976.
This article is an updated version of "Stanley Jordan On Two-Handed Tapping," which
appeared in the July 1984 issue of Guitar Player Magazine

Getting Started with the Touch Technique
by Stanley Jordan

THE TOUCH, OR TWO-HANDED TAPPING TECHNIQUE can provide limitless possibilities for exploration on the guitar. The earliest documented guitarist using this approach was Jimmy Webster in the 1950s. It has now begun to enjoy considerable use among guitarists. The essence of tapping is this: By hammering the string against the fretboard with your finger, you can produce a note with one hand. You don't need to pluck or strum, because the impact of the string hitting the fret causes the string to vibrate. Either hand works, and you can even use both hands tapping simultaneously on the fingerboard, performing independent parts.

Producing the sound in this way is easy. But mastering its awesome and unexpected possibilities is another matter! It gives you a level of musical and orchestral complexity previously possible only on keyboard instruments. You can create bass and chord accompaniment to your own leads as a self-contained soloist. You can also perform complex counterpoint, such as Bach two and three-part inventions. With a band, you can use your hands together to play leads with undreamed-of speed and agility.

Many of your first experiments are likely to be expansions of what you already do on the guitar, and adaptations of pianistic possibilities. But you'll soon learn that you hold in your hands a whole new instrument with its own unique and unlimited potentials.

Chances are, you can apply the touch technique to your own guitar with just a few minor adjustments. I have used it successfully on Fender Stratocasters, Gibson Les Pauls and ES-175s, Travis Beans, and others. I have even used it on various brands of acoustic steel-and nylon-string guitars. Ideally, an instrument used for touch playing should be an electric with an accurate neck, frets in good condition, strong pickups, and good sustain. Of all these characteristics, the neck and frets are the most critical.

The lack of proper adjustment is the main reason people say to me, "I tried it on my guitar, and it didn't work." The most important single factor is low action; the strings should practically touch the frets. This is absolutely crucial for ease of playing, clarity, and sustain. If you have tried tapping with normal action, you probably heard a weak, dull tone, because a large portion of the attack was the sound of the finger hitting the string. But with low action, a very light tap unites string and fret immediately, giving you a crisp tone.

How low must you set your action ? Extremely low! If the distance between a string and the 12th fret is greater than the thickness of a penny, it is probably too high. After you become more proficient with tapping, you may decide to bring your action back up a bit for a fuller sound. But for now, get it as low as possible.

The fingerboard and the height and contour of the frets must be accurate to get the required action without buzzing at certain points. If you have a problem, sight along the neck to check the straightness. The instrument may need a truss rod adjustment. [Ed. Note: If you aren't sure how to adjust a truss rod, take your instrument to a repair person. Incorrect adjustment can result in permanent damage to your guitar.] However, electric guitars have an advantage, because some buzzes aren't picked up and therefore don't reach the amp. Check the condition of your frets; if they are unevenly worn, you won't be able to get the required action. Consider getting a fret job. If the frets are worn, it may be a good idea anyway--regardless of how you play. It could make all the difference in the world for setting your guitar up for the touch technique. If you decide to get a fret job, ask around to find out who does the best work in your area. Then explain to the repair person about your special requirements, because this fret job must be more accurate than usual. Set the action where you want it, take your instrument to the shop, and say, "I'd like to be able to tap with my action this low without buzzing."

There is an advantage to having a bridge with individual height-adjustable saddles for all six strings: It allows you to set each string where you want it, to compensate for differences in string tension and volume. (There is also an advantage to the bridge with just two height adjustments, one at each end: It allows you to change your action quickly, facilitating a single guitar's use should you employ both conventional and touch techniques on the same gig.)

Intonation is also critical because your new freedom allows you to play at opposite ends of the neck simultaneously, thereby spotlighting any inaccuracies in the intonation. Your two-handed harmonies will sound much sweeter and the voices of your chords will sing more clearly if the intonation is properly adjusted.

As if there weren't enough to think about already, here is yet another problem to overcome. With "normal" techniques, you rely on the energy from right-hand plucking or strumming to sound the notes, while your left hand merely holds down strings. You probably employ left-hand fingers to mute strings not in use, preventing accidental extraneous sounds. But with the touch technique, that can be hard to do. Because of the low action, you can easily hit notes on strings you don't want to play: All it really takes is a touch. I recommend bringing the fingers straight down, trying to touch only the strings you want to play.

Even with clean, direct fingering, you will still get sympathetic vibrations in the strings you're not touching, so you will probably need some kind of damper near the nut to prevent vibrations in the untouched  strings. On the stick, for example, this is accomplished by a strip of felt permanently attached to the fingerboard, lying under the strings at the 1st fret. You may want to experiment with a similar attachment, or if you want something quicker and less permanent, you can put a loose-fitting capo at the 1st fret to act as a damper. Not just any capo will work, though, because you must be able to put it on without pushing the strings all the way to the frets. I get good results with Jim Dunlop 14 FD and 14 CD capos, as well as the Golden Gate GC-8. Also, you might get good results with the George van Eps or Kleen-Axe String Dampers. When choosing a capo, it must match the contour of your fingerboard, so take note whether it's curved or flat. Incidentally, if you do happen to use an acoustic, the damper is essential to prevent string vibrations between your finger and the nut.

Before you try the touch technique, change your strings; old ones can be more debilitating with touch than with other techniques. Prepare to increase your budget for strings. They must always be clean and true to tuning. As far as their gauges are concerned, use some discretion. When I first started, I used .008 and .009 high E's. Now I use .010s on my Travis Bean and .009s on my Vigier. Sometimes I'll take a set of .009s but replace the .009 with a .010 for more punch and sustain in my leads. There is a tradeoff here, because lighter strings and lower action make the technique easier, but the sound is less full and the dynamic range is reduced.

It is also a good idea to wash your hands and trim your fingernails before playing. When your fingers come straight down onto the strings, fingernails really get in the way. I recommend warming up with conventional techniques before attempting touch, and if you happen to be a keyboardist, it may help to do a keyboard warmup. Naturally, the spacings are different, but the strength and agility you develop playing keyboards can be a big help. Since the touch system results in a certain amount of volume loss, electric guitars tend to be more suitable; strong pickups are also helpful. Turn up your volume, and learn to play sensitively in order to increase your range of dynamic control. If your pickups have pole pieces, screw them in, and/or move the pickups as close to the strings as possible for maximum sensitivity.

So, here you are with your guitar set up for the touch technique. Your strings are adjusted and your hands are clean. You're ready to get down. How should you hold the guitar? Start with whatever you're used to, whatever feels most comfortable. You can stand up, sit down with the guitar on your left or right leg, or you could even set the guitar on a stand. A very important thing to remember: Stay relaxed, especially in your hands. The key to relaxing your hands is keeping your thumbs loose. Both hands are stabilized on the neck by means of the thumbs. However, in time you will learn to not always stabilize your right hand in this way, depending on what you're playing.

Your fingers should come down between the frets in the same places they would using normal techniques. Your right hand is more nearly perpendicular to the neck, and therefore you may want to hold the guitar with the nut tipped up so that you don't have to bend your right wrist too much. Moving your right elbow forward a few inches can help straighten your right wrist. To avoid tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, try not to bend your right wrist more than about 10 degrees. Make sure to keep your right shoulder down to minimize shoulder tension and to keep your overall posture in balance.

The basic finger action to sound a note is tap and hold. Your finger comes straight down and taps the string against the fret, holding it there for as long as you want the note to last. To cut off the note, lightly pull your finger straight off the string with as little side-to-side motion as possible. This movement must be very light. You barely even try to release your finger; mainly relax it, and let the string push it back up.

This hammering action should come primarily from your fingers--not your wrists. If you get into the habit of using your wrists too much, your fingers may get stiff and you will never develop much speed. You can use all four fingers on both hands. You can even use your right thumb, but I recommend starting with just the fingers.

And now for a big surprise: The words "tap" and "touch" are oversimplifications, because we're really talking about a whole cluster of related techniques. You'll need other techniques to make your articulation more interesting and to add some real expression to your music. One useful technique is the "slide," which is used to create glissandi (glides between notes on a single string; see bar 11 in the A section of "Touch Of Blue," which follows). Tap the string and slide your finger along it while holding it down. Make sure your finger comes straight down on the string, avoiding adjacent strings.

Slurs and legato lines (hammers and pulls) are easiest when all the notes are on the same string (example: the opening figure of two sixteenth-notes and a quarter-note in the first bar of the A section of "Touch Of Blue"). To play an ascending line, tap the first note normally, but after that, tap each note without releasing your finger from the previous note. Just hammer each note in turn, leaving all the fingers on the string.

To descend along a string, use pulloffs. Again, the first note is tapped normally, but before you release it, have the finger for the next note already down. Then pull the releasing finger off sideways, so that it plucks the string on its way off. Generally, right-hand fingers pull off toward the sixth string, and left hand fingers toward the first string. As always, be careful not to hit adjacent strings.

When crossing from one string to another, whether ascending or descending, release the first note late so that it overlaps the next one for an instant (see bar 3, first beat, part A). This eliminates gaps of silence between notes, and blurs differences in timbre and volume between strings. The overlapping technique takes practice. After all, it's hard to make perfectly seamless legato runs, because crossing strings is still different from playing along a single string. For a legato run to be as smooth as possible, all of the notes must be located on the same string.

The lower your action, the less you need the overlapping technique, because differences between strings are reduced and there is less time between hitting the string and hearing the sound. This reduces the likelihood of gaps between the notes, and single-string legato techniques become easier. When your strings are really down low, you can play runs with great speed and fluidity.

If a legato run involves more than four notes in either direction or contains wide interval skips, you can use both hands together, "handing off" the series from one hand to the other or back and forth, as necessary. This opens up a wealth of cool possibilities.

One more thing before we start playing: Although you can use the touch technique with any tuning you please, most guitarists will probably want to start with standard tuning. However, I usually  tune in fourths: E A D G C F, low to high. The first and second strings are raised a half-step higher than standard tuning. Thus, any pair of adjacent strings is a perfect fourth apart. I find that this simplifies the fingerboard and makes it more logical--an advantage that can really be appreciated when you have two hands going all over the neck. The exercise and song that follow are written in standard tuning, but as you'll see, it is easy to convert to the fourths tuning if you are feeling adventurous.

There is a lot more to the touch technique, but now you know the basics. The exercise should get your hands working. Both hands play the same thing an octave apart. Practice the exercise until you feel comfortable with it and are producing clear tones with even dynamics.

A few words on notation: The exercise and song are written at actual pitch on double staves employing both the treble and bass clefs, in order to accommodate the extended range facilitated by the technique. (Most guitar music is written an octave higher than it sounds.) The top staff is for the right hand, while the lower staff is for the left hand. Numbers next to the notes indicate fingerings using standard Arabic numbering for both hands. The numbers in parentheses show the fingerings you would use in fourths tuning.

Under the double staves is a tablature staff written for standard tuning. If you want to try the fourths tuning, simply retune your first and second strings up a half-step and play one fret lower on those strings (subtract one from all the numbers on the top two tablature lines). The exercise demonstrates the advantage of the fourths tuning, since both hands play exactly the same patterns, merely transposed to a different part of the neck.

The song is a transcription of a composition of mine called "Touch Of Blue" [Touch Sensitive].

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© 2009 Manifold Music