Eight Finger Tapping

Welcome to this lesson concerning tapping with 4 fingers from your picking hand. Throw your picks away, and we'll begin…

Firstly, let's consider how to tap with eight fingers. Your standard picking hand position will probably need some adjustments before being suitable. Essentially, it should function as an upside-down version of your fretting hand. I recommend anchoring your picking hand thumb to the neck – this gives you a point of reference with the fingerboard, helping your accuracy. Each finger should be spaced across the frets, rather than across individual strings. If you space the fingers across the strings, it helps playing chords, but doesn't allow you to play lead lines with as much stretch, so for now, one finger-per-fret, please.

Actually, now might be a good time to discuss what to do with the pick when you're tapping. Personally, I tap mainly with my middle finger (adding the ring finger for extra notes), with the pick held by the thumb and index finger. If I'm playing an extended tapping section, I'll put the pick in my mouth. If I don't have time, or the lick's very short, I'll hold the pick in the crook of my thumb (this does work!) – Paul Gilbert does this with his middle finger, by the way.

Now we need to build strength and independence in your tapping hand. Unless you've played a lot of piano, you probably haven't developed the necessary muscles and co-ordination required, so here are some exercises to that effect.

Now here's one which requires more control – a D major scale, again, all played with your tapping hand. This features different fingering permutations, so will feel more challenging at first. Persevere, and make sure the notes are consistent in volume and clean.

Remember, as with all aspects of playing, all these examples should be mastered at as slow a tempo as possible, before being sped up. This is crucial for building accurate muscle memory.

String noise will be a problem at first, so I recommend using your fretting hands first finger to lightly touch the strings behind your picking hand. This avoids open strings ringing out like crazy, but still giving you full use of your other 3 fretting fingers. You can vary which finger mutes depending on necessity. Most eight-finger tappers employ some form of string dampener device, ranging from full-metal monstrosities attached to the headstock, to subtler hairbands or socks across the nut. While these are undoubtedly useful (especially when recording), I feel it's better to develop your technique to the point where you can comfortably switch between regular playing and eight-finger-tapping without having to rely on outside help. Incidentally, all the recorded examples were performed without any string muting device, but live I sometimes use a hairband.

Extended scales
Now that you're beginning to build strength in your tapping hand, let's look at some more advanced scalar ideas. This first lick is a C major scale, using string skipping. Remember, no notes are picked – all the fretting hand notes are hammered-on (even the first note of each string).

Here's an extended chromatic scale, which when played cleanly, sounds so smooth as to be silly. I use it occasionally to emulate the ridiculous clarinet portamento at the start of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Arpeggios and wider intervals
It's possible to play pentatonic scales in a totally unpredictable manner. If you stack a pentatonic scale with another a perfect 5th above it (e.g. Bminor and F#minor pentatonic in the example), you get a very atypical intervallic idea. An ideal way to sound different (in a good way!).

Cascading arpeggios
Here's a lick which uses all 8 fretting fingers (finally!), to play a cascading arpeggio idea. I must mention the incredible Guthrie Govan, who was the inspiration for this exercise, especially his track “Sevens” which features a very (very) similar idea in 7/4. Each group of two is played with consecutive fingers – i.e. fingers 4 and 3 of your tapping hand, then 4 and 3 of your fretting hand. Then 3 and 2, etc. This involves moving your tapping hand so that the fingers align themselves with separate strings, as you're essentially playing chords with both hands. Notice that by moving the tapping hand down one fret, you turn the major7 arpeggio into a minor7 – this is very helpful for expanding your fretboard knowledge!

With all these examples, I've played them as slowly as I could bear, so that you can hear how to practice them. I prefer this method to just bombarding listeners with a meaningless barrage of notes – here you can appreciate the unusual sounds of these licks.

I think this is probably the best place to mention the context of 8-finger tapping. Like all techniques, it's only a means to an end. No-one wants to listen to your music, and hear the change from alternate picking to tapping, for instance – it should just be music, rather than a technical showcase. In other words, try and integrate tapping into your vocabulary so that it sounds completely natural, and not like a party trick. Probably the best exponent of this philosophy is Shaun Baxter, who uses 8-finger tapping a lot, but you couldn't tell from hearing him play – get hold of his live albums with Carl Palmer (Working Live vols 1 & 2), and you'll see what I mean. His playing is so fluid you can't tell which techniques he's using, and that's a lofty and admirable goal for all of us!

Further listening
If this lesson sparks your interest in 8-finger tapping, you owe it to yourself to check out some of the exponents of the technique. I wholeheartedly recommend the aforementioned Guthrie Govan, Ron Thal, TJ Helmerich (who has ditched 'standard' playing for tapping exclusively – check out his phenomenal fusion recordings with Brett Garsed and be amazed!), Steve Lynch (who literally wrote the book on the technique), Stephen Ross and Stanley Jordan (his music sounds like a band). Other players don't always use the full eight-fingers, instead opting for 2 fingers from their picking hand (as shown in some of the examples) – Derryl Gabel, Reb Beach and Steve Vai are good examples of this approach.

I hope you found this informative – if you have any questions about this article, or any aspect of my playing, feel free to drop me an e-mail at; or for more information, video and audio clips, please visit

Article, music and audio copyright John Gregson 2004.