Revolutionary Acoustic Guitarist Playing Double-Necked Guitar: Michael Hedges

Your weekly listen for October 7-14 is the legendary Michael Hedges. A trained classical multi-instrumentalist, he is best known for his percussive acoustic guitar style, and influenced musicians such noteworthy musicians as Pete Townsend, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Cosby, Stills and Nash. The techniques he used – alternative tunings, two-handed tapping, slap harmonics and use of unique guitars such as the harp guitar he plays here – all existed before in separate musical realms, but by bringing together these and other elements, he developed his own very unique style. Since his tragic and untimely death in 1997, a generation of acoustic guitarists have followed in his footsteps. Andy McKee and Jason Kertson, featured in last week’s blog post, were certainly both influenced by Michael Hedges. Had Michael lived longer, I’m sure his music and his name would be more widely known. As it is, he is legendary among guitarists and revered by a small but fiercely loyal fan base.

Let’s look at just one of Michael’s distinctive techniques: right-hand tapping. This is where the player takes the right hand, usually reserved for strumming and picking, and brings it up on the fretboard. This technique has existed for centuries in folk and classical music, and has also been explored in North America by guitar pioneers such as Dave Bunker, the developer of the Touch Guitar, and Emmett Chapman, who invented the “Chapman Stick” (both electric instruments). The right-hand tapping technique was later popularized in the heavy metal sphere by Eddie Van Halen. However, Michael Hedges was the first modern acoustic guitarist to utilize right-hand tapping extensively throughout his music, and he used it in a very different way. Heavy metal guitarists employ tapping mainly to get as many notes out as fast as possible. Michael used the technique to layer the music, playing bass (low notes) and melody (the tune) at the same time, which resulted in a much fuller and more complex musical tapestry. People have described Michael’s playing as being more like an “orchestra” than like one man playing a guitar.

I mentioned that right hand tapping had its origins in folk and classical music from centuries ago. Here is an example of a technique known as selpe on a Turkish instrument called the baglama. (The selpe starts about 1:15 in.) The artist is Kemal Alacayir. The style he plays is Turkish classical music, and as you can see, selpe is the exact same thing as the right hand tapping used by guitarists playing modern styles.

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