Get to grips with eight-finger tapping with this lesson on master guitarist TJ Helmerich

Two-handed tapping
(Image credit: Stefano Madrigali/Getty)

Todd Joseph Helmerich, better known as TJ is a renowned LA based guitarist, vocalist, producer and teacher at Musicians Institute Hollywood.

TJ is well known for his partnership with Brett Garsed, with whom he recorded a trio of rock fusion albums throughout the 90s: Quid Pro Quo, Exempt and Under The Lash Of Gravity. Each album is a masterpiece of improvised jazz-fusion lines coupled with the smoothest guitar technique imaginable; progenies of the Holdsworth school of playing. TJ’s lines are often more akin to synth players with his characteristic chromatic note choice and legato delivery.

Helmerich’s technique is unique as far as he plays solos using almost exclusively eight-fingered tapping. Unless he is riffing, or playing chords you will see both his hands on the fretboard of his Steinberger.

The concept of picking-hand tapping is usually limited to utilising one finger in a Van Halen fashion, but for TJ style tapping a different hand position is required. Keep your hand steady by resting your thumb on the top of the neck and angle the wrist so the fingers are essentially parallel with the frets. Practise moving each finger independently and try playing some hammer-ons and pull-offs without moving your hand too much. 

Finger control, accuracy and good tone will take time and patience, much like the first time your fretting hand was asked to perform these tasks. A good start is to try tapping some Pentatonic shapes and some three-notes-per-string fragments, to get used to finding the strings and frets.

You may need to rely on using touch to feel the strings more useful than sight, since the hand portion can obscure the fingers, depending on how high or low you prefer to position your guitar. Example 1 is designed to help with hammer-on and pull-off accuracy from both hands. Start very slowly and focus on creating a clean, pure note. 

Example 2 is a more legato, flowing exercise which connects the two hands and gets them working almost as one. The key here is to keep the notes as even as possible so the listener cannot tell which hand is playing which note.

The next thing to consider is using fretting-hand muting to keep the open strings silent. The underside of your first finger placed in a resting position on the treble strings as well as the fingertip to stub up against the adjacent string, should take care of most string noise, but be prepared to use any spare piece of flesh on either hand as a string mute to ensure a clean, synth-like tone, like Helmerich’s.

TJ also uses tapped string bending to great effect and uses an interesting method. Rather than pulling the string with the tapping hand, keep the tapping finger locked on the fret and use the fretting hand to bend the string. This will stretch the string and bend the pitch cleanly and efficiently. In the final two examples we introduce a tone bend and a semitone bend to give you a chance to practice both. 

Play each example very slowly at first and focus on accuracy rather than speed as you introduce your hands to this new technique.  

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 7, Bass 6, Middle 7, Treble 7, Reverb 3

TJ Helmerich uses a thick and gainy tone that’s also velvet smooth in order to create his death-defying legato streams of notes. Rather than turn your guitar amp’s gain up full, get it singing ‘classic rock’ style with the above settings, then add a creamy overdrive pedal to lend even more fatness and sustain. A splash of reverb will also help carry the notes along. 

Example 1

This is a tapping warm-up for both hands based in the chromatic scale. Start by tapping the 15th fret with the fourth finger of your picking hand, then pull-off to the fourth finger of your fretting hand at the 8th fret. Descend through the scale using all eight fingers while alternating between hands.

Example 2

Use your four fretting-hand fingers to hammer on four chromatic notes, then use your four tapping fingers of your picking hand to add four more chromatic notes for a total of eight notes per string. Focus on keeping each note equal in length and volume.

Example 3

This sus4 arpeggio based lick is played with the first and fourth fingers of each hand. Start the lick by tapping the 20th fret with the fourth finger of your picking hand, then pull-off to the first finger at the 20th fret. Next pull off from 13th to 8th fret with your fretting hand and continue by moving the shape down through the strings.

Example 4

This lick is played predominantly with picking-hand tapping and legato using all four fingers to articulate the notes. Use the first finger of your picking hand to lightly touch the open strings in order to keep them muted (a technique you’ll definitely need when playing this style).

Example 5

This lick uses the chromatic scale in the fretting hand and the diminished scale in the picking hand for a colourful triplet lick (tappers often have different harmonic  zones with their two hands). For the final bend hold the string with the fourth finger of your picking hand and use your fretting hand to bend the string at the 7th fret. 

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Charlie Griffiths

Charlie Griffiths plays guitar in acclaimed prog-metal outfit Haken, and has a wealth of experience handling corporate and session gigs for genres as diverse as rock, heavy metal and pop. He has been a regular contributor to Total Guitar, Guitar Techniques, and Guitar World for over a decade, and released his debut solo album Tiktaalika in 2022.