Guitar Tapping: The Art of the One-Man Show
Sometimes less is more. Around the world, music is comprised of a vast range of instruments, vocal and rhythmic patterns, and lyrics. A certain combination of these components can either make or break a song. For an artist, finding a pattern or certain sound that resonates with audiences can be taxing. Comparing what you think works versus what your audience wants to hear can make producing music a monumental task for many aspiring musicians. On top of actually composing and putting together the technical aspects of a song, being able to stand out is an issue in itself.
Music has been around for millennia, it’s hardly a new concept to put notes and vocals together to create a tune that people will hum along to. However, making something original has been increasingly difficult in recent years, as some singers have fallen into a pattern of creating music that is safe, strictly following the basic outline of being a pop anthem you hear in a grocery store. That’s not to say there aren’t artists who break through the mold and make a name for themselves, defining an entire genre from their own sound and creating a new style of music. However, it seems there are many artists out there afraid to step out of the secure bedroom-pop bubble and make music from the heart. However, this notion of unoriginality couldn’t be farther from the case for Erik Mongrain and Trace Bundy.
Tapping, also known as guitar tapping, is a musical technique that has been present for centuries. In essence, “tapping” is when an artist uses their instrument not only to strum its strings but to rhythmically tap the base of it to create a hollow, light sound alongside the acoustics. Roots of guitar tapping can be seen in the work of Niccolò Paganini, an Italian composer and violinist who rose to prominence during the 18th and early 19th centuries. While being widely known for his violin compositions, he considered himself to be a stronger guitar player, and some historians believe he may have originally written his compositions for the guitar before transcribing them for the violin, although there’s no confirmation for that to be the case. Still, it is known that he practiced and may have even begun the tapping technique.
Now, this isn’t the only way artists have utilized this method either, as it has evolved throughout time and many different cultures and genres of music have their own subsets of tapping that are also not limited to the acoustic guitar, such as the Turkish folk music instrument bağlama, or the harpejji, a keyboard-like instrument made to imitate the sounds of tapping from a guitar, that’s played like a piano. Some instruments throughout history have been made or modified to be specifically for tapping, such as the Chapman Stick, made by inventor Emmett Chapman in the early 1970s, or the Warr Guitar, made by musician Mark Warr in the early 1990s. The Warr Guitar was directly inspired by the Chapman Stick, although modified to fit on an entire guitar while the Chapman Stick was more or less just a larger version of a guitar’s neck without the body. Many artists throughout history have utilized these instruments because of their distinct sound, however for Erik Mongrain, Trace Bundy, and Michael Hedges, a simple acoustic guitar is all they need.
There is one thing that these three performers have in common: they test the limits of what a guitar can do, and they pride themselves on creating a one-man show with only a guitar, and their own rhythmic prowess. Interestingly, Erik Mongrain and Trace Bundy began producing music relatively around the same time, circa late 1990s early 2000’s. However, Michael Hedges began almost twenty years earlier, releasing his first few albums in the mid-1970s. It’s not confirmed to be true, but some believe Mongrain and Bundy were heavily influenced by the works of Hedges, replicating his fast-paced aggressive finger-tapping technique. After listening to some of their releases, it’s not hard to believe that to be the case. They all utilize the natural bravado of an acoustic guitar, highlighting it for its succulent sound, and pushing the latter of simply using it for its strings. Rather, they tug and strike the strings, almost creating an entirely new instrument. Listening to their music is a refreshing experience. At first, it sounds like a maelstrom of instrumentals, as though there’s a group of people quickly tapping and strumming to keep up with the intense tempo. But soon, you are forced to realize that it’s only the work of one man and one guitar. It’s difficult to believe when hearing some of these songs (like Hedges’ 1990 release, “The Rootwitch” from his album Taproot) that the song is only limited to one instrument. With the winding melodies and battling rhythms, it doesn’t sound like it’s coming from one source. “The Rootwitch” is a song Hedges performed live on multiple occasions, including an exuberant performance in West Hollywood in September of 1997, which would ultimately be one of his last performances. Sadly, Hedges passed away only months later due to a car crash in California. After he stopped producing music, two new artists stepped in to continue the underrated legacy of Hedges, and to introduce new and individual ideas under the same genre umbrella.
Erik Mongrain and Trace Bundy are guitarists from Montreal, Canada and Austin, Minnesota respectively. Both artists have storied careers that are focused solely on the art of guitar tapping, just like their predecessor. While they released music around the same time, they each brought their own spin on the technique that allowed them to stand out as individual talents, who just so happened to be using the same method.
Trace Bundy’s use of the guitar looks almost normal. In his live performances, he rests the guitar against his body as most guitarists do while playing. However, it’s how he utilizes the instrument’s strings that makes his style unique. Unlike using a pick and positioning his fingers on the frets, creating certain chords to strum, he instead slides individual fingers on each string and plucks them like keys, reminiscent of a keyboard. His most well-known song, “Dueling Ninjas” (from his album Adapt) is a prime example of his intense focus on and utilization of the entire guitar as his vessel to create sound. It’s also a showcase of his ability to tell a story without words. Interestingly, there is a story behind the song’s name, rather than it simply being a quirky name he chose to describe how the song sounds, it actually is exactly what the song is about. His left hand is supposed to be the light, quick, and agile ninja, while his right hand is the abrasive, powerful, and slightly slower ninja. The song sounds exactly like this story, it’s a dance, a back-and-forth between feuding forces, constantly trying to outsmart and overpower the other. It starts slowly, then swiftly enters the action. The song is tense, like a battle crescendoing into a final climactic brawl. In the latter half of the song, it slows down once more, both forces being equal in ability. The end of the song, while somewhat up to interpretation, is an admittal not of defeat but of equality. Both ninjas, capable in their own rights, come to the realization that neither of them is inherently better or more skillful than the other. The battle will never end because they match up against each other equally, there is no gap in ability or strength, and in the final minute of the song, their feuding melodies harmonize and work in tandem to finish off the song, and come together as a combined force, rather than two opposed, pitted against each other. This song is a metaphor for a yin-yang, like the dyad of two equal forces, neither one stronger or more overpowering than the other, and how while they are easily capable of standing on their own, their collaborative sound creates something even more special and objectively better.
Unlike Bundy, Erik Mongrain does something that on the surface, seems like it would be easy if you’re already a competent guitar player, however in reality, requires intense memorization skills and an insurmountable amount of practice. Of course, that isn’t to say that Michael Hedges and Trace Bundy weren’t spending countless days and nights perfecting their craft and polishing their acoustic skills, however, something Mongrain does differently is in how he positions his guitar while performing. Rather than the traditional positioning Hedges and Bundy use, Mongrain positions his guitar flat on his lap. Like a keyboard across his legs, he presses the strings like keys, smacks the wooden body of the guitar, and strains his hands to create chords, all at the same time. He does not leave one section of the guitar idle, he uses the instrument as a soundboard, working and pulling every inch of it to produce an echolalia of overlapping melodies and notes. In his most famous performance, a live broadcast of his song “PercusienFa” (from his 2007 album Fates), he leaves the surrounding audience in awe at the raw, rapid movement of his fingers as he works the guitar into a flawless piece of music.
This isn’t the only song he has performed live either, he’s actually toured through many cities in the early 2000s, playing “PercusienFa” and his other lesser-known tracks. A video for “Airtap!” is another he’s quite known for as the original broadcast recording of the performance was posted to his personal Youtube channel and has now reached over 7 million lifetime views. “Airtap!” hails from the same album as “PercusienFa,” yet acts as a distinctly different piece with a fuller sound. Instead of sounding like light string plucks and gentle taps on the guitar’s wooden base, “Airtap!” almost sounds like a traditional instrumental guitar piece. However, he’s using the exact same method as the other song, just in a higher key. Listening to the songs back-to-back makes it clear that there are many similarities, as they are both played at the same upbeat tempo and even have similar chords in some parts. However, Mongrain manages to make each song tell a completely different story. “Airtap!” is an intense symphony of contrasting beats, strums, and taps, like the auditory representation of a violent thunderstorm. Meanwhile “PercusienFa” is subtle, it builds in intensity as the song progresses, it’s a tumultuous story of ups and downs, how life isn’t always a smooth slope upwards. They may have similar sounds, but they also stand alone, each as an individual story of conflict and the uncertainty of life.
Tapping is not an impossible technique to learn. It’s a skill that anyone who owns a guitar can learn through rigorous practice and an abundance of time to focus. Even if you’re not the most proficient guitar player, tapping is a concept that isn’t limited to those of immeasurable skill. In fact, it’s a genre that is open for anyone to make their own interpretation of. Unlike other styles of playing guitar that are cut-throat and specific to one method, tapping is a style that allows for creativity and for the unique abilities of musicians to shine through. You can lay your guitar flat on your knees like a piano, or you can rest it comfortably across your chest like you typically would while playing. You can tap the body of the guitar for a deeper, more hollow sound, or tap closer to the neck for a quicker, lighter sound. You can tap the guitar with both hands or just one. Guitar tapping is a genre that allows artists to stretch the rules and make something of their own. That’s why it’s not a strictly defined genre: there’s no one method to it, just artists utilizing similar skills that are loosely categorized under the same umbrella.
The art of guitar tapping is niché. It’s not run-of-the-mill music. It’s a blend of unique percussion, quick tempos, and skillful hands that soulfully mesh into a soothing, awe-inspiring masterpiece for the ears. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and it may not be overly impressive to some, but it’s definitely underrated. Michael Hedges, Trace Bundy, and Erik Mongrain are all fantastic performers and masterful guitar players. They deserve much more recognition than their songs have. If the next time you’re on a long car ride, or you need some good instrumental study music, or you’re simply feeling adventurous, go to whatever music streaming platform you use and give these guys a listen. If you’ve already listened to the previous songs mentioned, here are some albums that are good places to start:
Michael Hedges: Aerial Boundaries, Taproot, and Breakfast In The Field
Trace Bundy: Elephant King, Missile Bell, Pt. 2, Adapt
Erik Mongrain: Tempo, Forward, Equilibrium, and Fates
Mia Ashby is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. She’s very invested in film and loves to write about anything in the film/music genre. She has a knack for poetry and dreams of publishing her own psychological horror novel. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of the station. Do you agree? Tell Mia by emailing her at email@example.com.
Written by: Emma Sedam
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