Celebrating 40 Years of the "Free Hands" parallel two-handed tapping method
We'd like to thank all the musicians who have taken up this new method of playing on strings. Your interest in The Stick, the Free Hands method and the music you make have been a source of great satisfaction to Yuta and me over many years, and the best possible reward for what became our life's work.
All the Best,
Forty Years of Emmett's "Free Hands" Method
article by Greg Howard
August 26, 2009, marks the 40th anniversary of Emmett's discovery of his two-handed parallel tapping method known as Free Hands. Stick Enterprises is celebrating this milestone with a new Free Hands logo.
Until that date forty years ago only a few electric guitarists, beginning in the 1940s, had explored two-handed tapping. The first of these was pickup designer Harry DeArmond, who taught Jimmie Webster, who in turn inspired guitarist and luthier Dave Bunker to build a double neck guitar with features specifically designed for string tapping, including the first under-string damper. The three of them referred to their two-handed tapping technique as the "Touch" system.
Their tapping techniques had one thing in common, the right hand was held at a conventional playing angle, with the fingers lined up substantially parallel to the strings, not parallel to the frets as with the left hand. This involved the whole right arm moving at the shoulder joint in order to play consecutive scale notes along the strings. All three pioneering guitarists developed this approach to a fluent performing level, and Bunker continues to make two-handed tapping music and instruments to this day.
Emmett had never tapped on strings before August 26, 1969, and knew nothing about these earlier tapping musicians, whose work remained largely unknown to guitarists and to the general public. Inspired by the complex harmonies of pianist McCoy Tyner, the explosive soloing of saxophonist John Coltrane, and the distorted blues rock of Jimi Hendrix, Emmett was constantly redesigning and adding devices to his guitar - more strings and frets to expand the range, even a gear-shift lever to operate a "wild string" with his right elbow.
His one innovation that would forever change how the guitar could be played had nothing to do with devices, however. Emmett's discovery, on his homemade nine-string "Freedom Guitar", was to
tap the strings independently with each hand's fingers lining up parallel to the frets, coming from opposite sides of the board. The whole thing happened in an instant. He began tapping, and almost immediately raised up the neck, making both hands "true equals" on the fretboard for the first time, with the right hand equally capable of fretting chords and complex melodic lines just like a guitarist's left hand.
Emmett discussed the musical implications of his discovery in his video Hands Across The Board: (1987)
Almost immediately Emmett began performing with his new method around Los Angeles with established jazz musicians including guitarist Barney Kessel and drummer Les DeMerle. He even toured for two years with singer Tim Buckley. He also performed live on the nationally broadcast TV show "What's My Line". Requests for Sticks eventually lead him to found Stick Enterprises in 1974. That year he began publishing his method book, Free Hands: a New Discipline of Fingers on Strings. Since then thousands of musicians around the world have taken up this approach, most of them on Chapman Sticks, but also on their own guitars, electric basses and other specialty instruments inspired by Emmett's Free Hands method.
Emmett with Barney Kessel at Donte's in North Hollywood, 1970
With Free Hands, the fingers of the hands are parallel to the frets,
and to each other.
More about Free Hands
For more on Emmett's moment of discovery, please see Jim Reilly's 2004 article: "Parallel Hands"
If you'd like to use this logo in your promotions, please let us know. It may be used freely for non-commercial purposes as outlined in the Creative Commons license cited above. The method name of Free Hands is not copyrighted, so please feel free to use the term when referring to the method of tapping with parallel hands invented by Emmett in 1969.
Emmett on "What's My Line" (1974).
Video of Dave Bunker using the "Touch System" (1960).
In the Touch System, the right hand fingers are parallel to the strings.
Free Hands Emmett's parallel two-handed tapping method book, has been in print since the mid 1970s, sent out with over 5000 instruments.
A few words about "Touchstyle"
Touchstyle is a marketing term coined in the mid 1990s by a Stick
player and teacher, and former student of mine. This term has been
adapted by several businesses as a way to market tapping instruments
based on several of my concepts, especially the Free Hands playing
method, without crediting me for the discovery or for having
taught it directly to each of them.
Their usual claim is that Touchstyle is a broader term that covers
all string tapping, but in fact, their instruments are designed
precisely for the parallel hand orientation of Free Hands (both hands
at right angles to the strings and approaching the fretboard from
opposite sides). This hand orientation is also reflected in each of
their playing styles and those of their customers.
I have never used the term "Touchstyle" but have always called the method "Free Hands" and "two-handed tapping". There is no need to rename my method or re-write the history of string tapping just to market similar instruments. I don't object to commercial competition, but the line of cultural succession should always be acknowledged and carried forward in any creative community.