Parallel Hands

Celebrating 35 years of the Free Hands Two-Handed Tapping Method

By Jim Reilly

It was 35 years ago, August 26, 1969, that Emmett Chapman first aligned both hands in fingering positions parallel to each other on his guitar neck, reached each hand around from opposite sides and tapped. An innocuous beginning. Merely a musician woodshedding by himself. Lost in the moment. Struck by a flash of creative energy. The moment could have been lost. Emmett could have said, "Hey that was cool," and gone back to picking and strumming, but he didn't.

It really happened just that fast. In an instant and without knowing why, Emmett brought his right hand up from its normal position picking the strings and began to tap. In the next instant he shifted the nine-string guitar, which he built himself and continually modified, from horizontal to almost vertical. Perhaps if he hadn't done that, if he hadn't brought his guitar upright, more in line with the player, he wouldn't have realized the full potential of his surprise discovery.

"It felt like an old, familiar sensation of encountering something extra in the equation," Emmett says. "Something I wasn't looking for, an extra finger or toe, a conceptually new approach that transforms the game."

You see, when one taps on guitar strings holding the guitar the way you normally hold it, the left hand is in the guitarist's normal fingering position but the right hand lines up parallel to the strings, not the frets. The guitar is oriented perpendicular to the left hand. You can roll your fingers quickly from string to string or hunt and peck individual notes by moving the whole arm at the shoulder, but the technique Emmett discovered 35 years ago offers much more.

While he didn't now it at the time, Emmett wasn't the first to tap guitar strings. Harry DeArmond, Jimmy Webster, Dave Bunker and others tapped before Emmett, but they all held their guitars the way you're supposed to hold your guitar - horizontally. When Emmett changed the angle, moved his hands parallel to the neck and came around from opposite sides, his fingers fell very naturally in a straight line, a straight line of attack along the strings. Suddenly scales, chord shapes, melodies fell quickly and easily right under all of his fingers. "It felt like flying," he says.

Today string tapping has become a required tool in the modern guitar and bassist's toolbox. Better and better technologies both in instrument manufacturing and sound reproduction allows for even the most inexpensive of instruments and the most novice of players to experiment with tapping on strings. While many musicians tap with no knowledge of The Stick or of Emmett directly, the influence of both the instrument and the man are undeniable. Many guitarists and bassists even use Emmett's method of parallel hands on their own instruments. Stanley Jordan perhaps best demonstrates what can be achieved with a dedicated two-handed tapping technique on a guitar. Clinics and concerts Emmett gave across the U.S. exposed countless musicians to two-handed tapping. One clinic at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood inspired G.I.T. grads Steve Lynch and Jennifer Batten to incorporate, adapt and integrate parallel two-handed tapping into their arsenals.

First for Emmett-then for anyone else so inclined-this 35-year-old method of parallel hand string tapping has proven that tapping is an all encompassing, complete technique: rhythm, harmony and melody all falling under the fingers. The two hands combine to open a universe of music, a world of polyphony, harmony and counterpoint previously only available to keyboardists.

Now, only 35 years later, a short time in the world of musical instruments, I think were just beginning to see the potential of Emmett's technique. It's like we've just looked up and noticed the midnight stars, never mind even comprehending that one day we may actually travel there. As audiences begin to understand just what it is we're doing, as more players tap and the music keeps getting better and better, the road this technique can take us down will prove to be one of endless creativity.

Congratulations Emmett on 35 years of string tapping. Thank you for taking your original discovery to the next level and creating The Stick, the perfect instrument to realize your technique. Thank you to Yuta and Grace and the rest at Stick Enterprises for getting these instruments into our hands. I can't wait to hear what's going to come out from under fingers of all the great Stick players playing now and those to come over the next 35 years.

Jim Reilly
Kamloops B.C.,
Aug. 21, 04

For more information on the history of Emmett's two-handed tapping method and the history of The Stick, check out: