What is 'Touch-Style"?
By: Traktor Topaz
Twenty years ago, Alvin Toffler's book "Future Shock", described a "demographic wave", which means a fundamental shift within a culture which changes the way we live.
For example, "personal" computers have changed the way we work and live and play, forever. Toffler also predicted that more of us would work at home. Many laughed at this prediction, but now lots of folks work from home.
The musical community is witnessing a major demographic wave in the spontaneous evolution of "Touch -Style" music, meaning to play an amplified stringed instrument by tapping the strings with both hands, making two-handed play possible.
A demographic wave evolves due to underlying shifts in the culture. In our case, improvements in amplification and instrument construction, and also changes in popular music. Emergence of guitar and bass as primary instruments since the Big-Band era, with consequent diversity in guitar and bass music have caused a phenomenon:
The spontaneous discovery, by many different musicians, of the tapping approach — the spontaneous eruption and evolution of Touch-Style music within different genres and upon different instruments.
There have been pioneers, and this is the history of those pioneers and developments which led to the Touch-Style technique.
In 1952, Jimmie Webster described his new way to play guitar in a book called "Touch System". There were pioneers Merle Travis and Mark Laughlin, and then Dave Bunker, all playing with two-handed tapping.
Simultaneously, guitarists and bass-players have discovered many systems of Touch-Style play. Touch-Style systems exist in speed-metal, rock and roll, funk bass, and even upon acoustic instruments. Notable guitarists include Stanley Jordan, Steve Vai, Allan Holdsworth, Eddie Van Halen, Victor Wooten, Michael Manring, Michael Hedges, and others.
Numerous specialty instruments have also been developed: Webster's split-pickup guitar, the Biaxe, the TrebleBass, the Hammatar, the Warr guitar, the Megatar bass and others.
The word "TouchStyle" was coined by Frank Jolliffe, using variations as trademarks to describe his company, "TouchStyle Publications", and his products, such as the "TouchStyle Quarterly" newsletter. The word Touch-Style was adapted from the guitar term "fingerstyle" (which describes a method of finger picking). Jolliffe routinely grants permission for others to use variants, such as "Touch-Style" or "touchstyle", so that we may all have a generic label for the method of playing stringed instruments by two-handed tapping.
The 'Touch-Style' label then is an appellation for any and all methods of two-handed tapping, including those popularized by Webster, Bunker, Chapman, Van Halen, Jordan, Culbertson, Wooten and others, and including any two-handed tapping method yet to be discovered.
And when you play by tapping on your guitar (or megatar, or bass), you're part of an emerging community of players worldwide, part of a new method, a new approach, a new future. You have been picked up by a demographic wave.
We think it's the Wave of the Future.
And you're riding it.
Ride 'em, Cowboy!
Changes in the Music World
Evolution of Electric Guitar
Hundreds of years ago, guitars evolved as one of the more generally useful stringed instruments — more portable than a concert harp, easier to tune than a piano.
Popular music then wandered through the classical period and into the 20th century and in the war years the dance-band grew into the big-band, riding the popularity of that newly popular idiom called "Jazz".
During the hardships of these years, popular entertainment focused primarily on propaganda movies and on movies showing elegant life. These movies tended to feature big-band music.
But as the US economy returned to normal, economics and popular taste began to downsize the bands. In the '50s, television began competing with live entertainment and with the movies, and during this same time, Mr. Les Paul's new electric amplifier for guitar was coming into greater use among combos. The rise of "rhythm & blues", and its adoption by the mainstream white community as "rock & roll" was accelerated as radio abandoned drama as a lost cause and began to focus on musical programs.
And the result?
A singer, plus what was originally the "rhythm section" of the big band — bass, guitar (now amplified), and drums — became the whole band. The economics were right, the popular taste was right, and the radio desperately needed material. Big-bands disappeared; Elvis and then the Stones took over.
Electric guitar design adapted to amplification, dropping the (now unneeded) resonant sound-box, and acoustic basses adapted in the same way. Since a guitar-player could often sing while playing, the bands got very compact.
So in a way, as we will see, Touch-Style music evolved from the small combo, and in particular, the electric guitar of the rock band!
The pioneer of modern two-handed tapping is Dave Bunker. On his website, which can be found at www.conceptsnet.com/~bunker/, he describes how two-handed tapping began. As he was there, and saw it with his own eyes, this is probably the most accurate report we have.
Here's what he says:
"Lots of controversy exists over who did what and when on the Touch Method of play. Well, here it is. And this is right:
"Actually Merle Travis was one of the first artists to play using two hands [tapping] on the fingerboard. The first artist to really bring it out and do something with it was Jimmy Webster, who wrote the first Touch System method book for a single neck type electric guitar played with two hand tapping.
"I was the first to build and patent [a specialty tapping instrument] that you could tap on two necks , and also wrote and copyrighted the first double neck method book.
"One of the earlier great contributors has been Emmett Chapman and the Stick® design, which is probably the best known of the touch type instruments. Some great artists followed such as Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan."
There you have it, straight from the source. Perhaps this will clear up some misunderstandings about the origin of touch-style and two-handed tapping! And now let's visit these pioneers of touch-style --
According to the website of the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame, which can be found at www.songs.org/~nsf/frame-hof.html, Merle Travis (1917-1983) is generally credited with designing the first solid-body electric guitar (electric Fender). He brought a banjo-style fingerpicking to guitar, using thumb to play accompaniment while the forefinger plays the melody on the higher-pitched strings. Seven gold records and 12 BMI awards for top songs, including "Sixteen Tons" and "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette!"
According to Dave Bunker, Travis was the first to employ two-handed tapping on guitar.
And as Bunker describes, in the '50s, a pioneer named Jimmie Webster also noticed that, with an amplifier, you could turn up the volume and play notes just by tapping the string to a fret. It was no longer necessary to strum or pick a string. (Strumming or picking on acoustic guitars is necessary in order to vibrate the string strongly enough to set up sympathetic resonance within the sound-box, which then results in a sound loud enough to be heard by an audience.)
Webster developed and taught a complete system of two-handed tapping, and in 1952 he wrote a book about his technique, called "The Illustrated Touch Method."
In 1960, he obtained U.S. Patent # 2,964,985 on a pickup design which separated out the "bass" and the "melody" strings. Both sets of strings were on one neck, but the magnetic pickup fed the bass strings out to one amplifier and the melody strings out to a separate amplifier. This patent was assigned to Gretsch guitars.
Webster had a sponsorship from Gretsch Guitars. He toured and visited music stores, selling the Gretsch line, and even had a signature instrument named after him. However, specialty guitars with his pickup and his new method only attracted a few visible players, and did not survive into the age of Rock & Roll.
Guitarist Chet Atkins produced some of Webster's recordings, which can still be occasionally found in specialty shops.
This musician was also popular, around the same time as Webster, and Laughlin also played with a two -handed tapping technique, but we have so far not located any information about Laughlin and his technique or recordings. We would welcome any information.
In the 50's guitarist and luthier Dave Bunker first began to experiment with the design of an instrument designed especially for the two-handed tapping technique. Unlike Webster's approach, which was to play with two hands on the neck of a single instrument, Bunker's designs led to his double-necked instrument "The Touch Guitar." ™
The first Touch Guitar was called the 'Duo-Lectar' ™ and was built by Dave and his father Joe Bunker in 1955, later receiving a U.S. Patent # 2,989,884 in 1961. On Bunker's website he describes how they lacked money to buy proper fret wire so they had to make the frets out of an old chain saw blade!
The Duo-Lectar was the first touch-style instrument to use a manual mute on the strings, such as a strip of felt or other soft and spongy material under the strings between the nut and the first fret. Most tapping instruments ever since have used the manual mute, although Bunker has gone on to engineer an electronic mute (U.S. Patent # 5,162,603) which improves upon the manual mute, providing equal muting for all strings.
Bunker has received several other patents for his Touch Guitar and other guitar models, including U.S. Patents # 5,431,079 (Improved Tremolo Guitar Mechanism), # 5,018,423 (Anti-Torque Neck Adjustment Device), and # 4,201,108 (The Wedge, an electric guitar design with removable body parts), and others! He designed the first headless guitars (with tuners at base of instrument), the first bodiless instruments (built in the 1950's), the first individual-string through-the-body bridge, the reflection shield (a metal connector transmitting highs from the bridge to the neck), early individual-string pickups, early fine -tuners applied to guitar, and more!
The Touch Guitar has an upper neck with a standard guitar scale of about 24 inches but with a super -wide neck so that the strings can be played with the fingers parallel or perpendicular to the strings, and in Bunker's method of two-handed tapping the guitar hand can be used in either orientation.
The upper neck (melody) can be played as a two-handed instrument, though the instrument has a second, lower neck normally used for bass, which is tuned as a standard 4-string bass. The bass neck is a 32 -inch scale bass neck, played in a traditional position, but by tapping with the left hand. Bunker's 'Touch Guitar' method book shows much more detail about the method of playing the instrument.
Bunker's Touch Guitar contains his patented "Electro-Mute" electronic system that silences the sound from open (unfretted) strings during tapping play. The Touch Guitar contains a large number of pickups and electronic filtering, so that it can emulate almost any known guitar sound.
Bunker resides in Washington state and builds some of the finest guitars in the world.
Two-Handed Tapping: Later Contributors
In the '70s, a guitarist named Emmett Chapman discovered a technique for two-handed tapping on guitar, when one day he realized that if he raised the tuners high, so that the fretboard was nearly vertical, then both hands could more easily approach the fretboard with fingers reaching across the strings. This minor-sounding change makes playing more fluent, and this playing position has become popular among musicians making two-handed tapping music.
Chapman made a specialty instrument for himself, with five melody and four bass strings. Musicians were intrigued with the unusual-looking instrument and the two-handed tapping method of play. Chapman began manufacturing and selling his instrument, now called The Stick®, or The Chapman Stick®, and bearing ten strings.
In the 1970's, Chapman filed patents for: (a) the method of play [two-handed tapping on the guitar]; (b) his instrument construction including the split-pickup design; and (c) his system of tuning the strings [melody in fourths, & bass strings tuned in inverted fifths]. The Patent and Trademark Office granted the patents, and Chapman "owned" not only his particular instrument and his particular tuning, but two-handed tapping in general!
However, a few years later the Patent Office threw out Chapman's claim to have invented two-handed tapping as invalid, because they became aware of the similarity to the two-handed tapping method shown in Dave Bunker's earlier patent (June 1961), which reveals a stringed musical instrument in which the "frets are essentially horizontal and the fingers of each of the performer's hands are disposed essentially parallel to the individual frets during tapping" [Stanley J. Witkowski, Primary Examiner, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office]; and also because the Patent Office became aware of Jimmie Webster's method book 'Illustrated Touch System for Electric and Amplified Spanish Guitar.' [Copyright in 1952 by the William J. Smith Music Company in New York].
Chapman appealed, but lost the battle. But even though Chapman wasn't the first in the world to invent a method of two-hand tapping, there is no question that the unique tapping on guitar method which he devised has been popular ever since, and the result is that Chapman has probably done more to popularize the two-handed method of play than any other individual.
The Chapman Stick instrument was a unique synthesis and a creative rethinking of the guitar. His instrument made unusual use of the belthook, along with new fret-markings, minimalist design, two string-groupings on one fretboard, and a new design of upper strap to maintain correct vertical positioning. All of the Stick features were radical departures from standard guitar practice, producing an instrument with great playability, and unique visual appeal. Further, many tappers worldwide have discovered that his unusual 'inverted fifths' tuning of the bass strings provides access to a new set of chording possibilities and ways of thinking about string relationships.
The Emmett Chapman method book ('Free Hands') is quite good. It grew from typed pages with penciled graphs to a compact encyclopedia of two-handed tapping technique. This book was normally included with the Stick instruments that he sold, and as he steadily sold instruments all over the world, this excellent book has helped propagate Chapman's two-handed tapping techniques to the world of music.
Emmett Chapman's contributions -- often overlooked in arguments about 'who was first to tap' -- are extensive, and he has surely earned a unique position of respect in the Touch-Style Hall of Fame.
In the early 80's, Charles ("Churchman") Soupios in New York designed a dual instrument called the "Biaxe," on which he obtained patent #5,315,910. The instrument was a combination of a normal guitar and a stick-like instrument joined together, designed so that the musician could play upon one or the other, or both, using a two-handed tapping technique which Soupios called "String Percussion."
However, the Biaxe is no longer in commercial production.
Sergio Santucci was a musician working on cruise ships. In this job, the musician must often double on different musical instruments, which for Santucci meant guitar and bass. In order to make the transition easier, he developed an instrument called the "TrebleBass," which combined the strings of a 4-string bass and a 6-string guitar on one neck, with separate pickups for each set of strings. The TrebleBass was awarded U.S. Patent # 4,377,101 in 1983.
The TrebleBass was sold from Santucci's offices in New York and Rome, and has been endorsed by internationally famous tapper Stanley Jordan (who can be seen here demonstrating his tapping technique on Santucci's TrebleBass).
Although the TrebleBass was originally intended as a 'do-all' instrument to be played with traditional fingerstyle and picking methods, it has since been popularized as a tapping instrument by political street-musician Robert Turley. Turley, known as R.O.B. (Robb on Bass) has demonstrated his amazing two -handed funk tapping technique in New York and in Japan, and on television shows such as Donahue.
Pictures of the TrebleBass will be seen in the 'Players' Section of this website.
What does it all mean?
Two hand tapping is starting to be big and getting bigger; and with your interest in learning this innovative style, you're riding an expanding demographic shift in our popular-music culture.
There will come a day in the near future when tapping will be as common as picking and strumming, and instruments like Warr or Megatar instruments or the Chapman Stick will be as common as bass or guitar. Fender and Gibson will someday jump on the bandwagon and you'll see specialty tapping instruments on the wall of any music store in the world. MTV will have tappers inventing wild gyrations while tapping out new and interesting pop rhythms.
And you're part of it.