The best thing about two-hand tapping is that it’s easy to do, and it sounds cool to boot.
If you’ve already developed a bit of a comfort level with basic lead guitar techniques, then you’re ready to give it a try. If not, then you may want to spend some time working on your hammer-ons and pull-offs before attempting what follows.
So if you’re locked and loaded, let’s get into some two-hand tapping!
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What Is Two-Hand Tapping?
Guitarists in the 60s and 70s were starting to figure out that they could use not just their fretting hand, but also their picking hand on the fretboard of their guitars. This meant that they could play impossibly fast licks. Listeners had never heard anything like it, and they were blown away.
Eddie Van Halen is largely seen as the guitarist to popularize tapping techniques, but even prior to that, Frank Zappa had also been doing something similar. But where Eddie used his index finger from his picking hand to tap, Frank used a pick to “tap” higher notes on the fretboard.
It’s entirely possible that there was a guitarist that figured out a similar technique prior to this time. Even Van Halen said he took hints from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.
But as you can probably guess from the name, two-hand tapping involves “tapping” with both your right hand and your left hand. Your fretting hand needs to be strong so that you can easily perform rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs (also known as trills). And you also need to be able to use at least one finger from your picking hand to access higher notes on the fretboard.
Let’s take a closer look at how this works.
Your First Tapping Guitar Lick
Two-hand tapping might sound complex and impressive, but that doesn’t mean we have to use exotic scales to make the most of it. The pentatonic scale works just fine, and you’ll find that many guitarists using this technique don’t necessarily opt for more complicated scales either.
So the examples I’m about to show you all use the B minor pentatonic scale. I just thought you might want to know in case you decide to try it at your next jam session.
I would suggest using your index finger on your fretting hand to tap the higher notes. This can be a little tricky when you’re holding a pick and you want to quickly transition into a tapping lick from a picked part. I’ve learned to quickly move my pick from my index to my middle finger (using my thumb), and then I curl my middle finger to squeeze the pick between my joints. This gives me easy access to my index finger.
If that sounds too complicated, either discard your pick for now, or try using your middle finger instead. This can be relatively convenient, since your middle finger should be free to use even while you’re holding a pick.
First, we’re going to “tap” the 12th fret of the first string with your picking hand, but make sure the index finger on your fretting hand is already positioned at the 7th fret of the first string beforehand. So you’re going to hammer down your picking hand finger to get the 12th fret (E) to sound, and then pull-off, so you can hear the 7th fret (B). Finally, you’re going to hammer-on at the 10th fret (D) with your ring finger. This is how it looks on paper:
Repeat the lick several times for best effect. Remember – your fingers are doing all the work here. You don’t get to pick the notes, so you’ll need to use a bit of force with each of your fingers. A little distortion or overdrive can go a long way too.
Taking It A Step Further
There are a number of ways to embellish the lick we just worked on, and they each add a layer of complexity. But don’t be too intimidated – this is still fairly basic as far as tapping is concerned.
First, let’s try tapping a second note with our picking hand. The lick is exactly the same is before, except that we’re going to alternate between the 12th fret and the 14th fret. Here’s how it looks:
That extra note makes the lick sound a little more interesting, right?
Now we’re going to mix up the order of the notes a little bit. So instead of tapping the 12th fret and pulling off to the 7th fret, I want you to pull off to the 10th fret first, then pull off to the 7th fret, and then hammer back onto the 10th fret. Take a look:
Although it sounds a lot like the first example we tried, this lick requires a little more fretting hand strength and coordination.
Here’s one last variation, and this is probably the hardest. Nothing really changes with our right hand and left hand, but this time we’re going to pull off all the way to the open string, and then hammer back on from there. This lick requires the most hand strength of any we’ve tried so far. Here’s what to do:
Now you’ve learned three different variations on one lick, and you should be ready to attempt just about any tapping lick out there. But don’t rush into anything too difficult. Practice the above examples until you feel comfortable with them, and gradually up the difficulty from there.
As with anything on guitar, it’s important to come up with your own ideas and variations on techniques. That helps you internalize it. Two-hand tapping is closely associated with Eddie Van Halen, and probably always will be. Eddie is considered an innovator because his overall contribution to guitar amounts to more than just tapping.
So I would encourage you to innovate too, especially as you begin to get a good feel for the technique. It’s a good idea to learn from the masters and take what we can, but that’s no place to park. We should be focusing on taking things to the next level.
Don’t just be an imitator – be an innovator.