Sarah Longfield favors a pair of Strandberg Boden Metal models, including this 8-string with a custom finish and Fishman Fluence pickups. She also plays a 6-string version and has a signature model in development. Photo by Ken Susi

One of the many things 8-string-guitar virtuoso Sarah Longfield is known for is her breathtaking tapping technique. But unlike previous generations of shredders, this twentysomething guitar sensation has never really listened to Eddie Van Halen, the undisputed godfather of tapping. She’s more likely to take influence from Animals as Leaders’ “CAFO” than Van Halen’s “Eruption.”

While that might seem like sacrilege to the old guard, looking at tapping through a new lens has allowed Longfield to create a unique style. You won’t hear her play the clichéd, repeating three-note tapped arpeggio shapes that defined tapping—the ones that virtually every single shredder copped from EVH, regurgitated ad nauseam, and didn’t have the imagination to see beyond. Longfield’s multifaceted approach treats the guitar like a piano. That’s apt, since she studied piano as a child. She’ll use multiple tapping fingers to play melodies over sustained left-hand chords or integrate sweeps with tapping to facilitate lightning-fast, cascading multi-octave arpeggios and linear scale sequences.

Amazingly, tapping and the many other shred techniques she’s mastered reflect only a tiny fraction of what Longfield is about. She is a multi-instrumentalist who can sing, play drums, and write and arrange in dense orchestral layers. Her production skills are also top notch.

But talent alone can only get you so far, and like many of her millennial peers, Longfield has rewritten the music-career rulebook using internet marketing to propel herself into hyper-drive. She picked up the guitar at 12, and by age 14 she had put up her first YouTube guitar video. Her videos are insanely varied and feature her playing all instruments—on “1 Woman Prog Metal Band” along with covers of everything from Meshuggah’s “Bleed” to Rihanna’s “Stay” to Animals as Leaders’ ultra-complex “Tempting Time” (for which she’s posted a drum cover, although most drummers wouldn’t dare attempt playing this one).

Through YouTube, Longfield amassed a huge following and industry people soon took notice. Guitar heroes like Matt Heafy and John 5 have given her their seal of approval online. And today, Longfield has found her way into the upper echelons of the shred guitar world—even opening for Steve Vai in Sweden.

Led by her strong DIY ethos, Longfield has sold her music online through various platforms like Bandcamp and DistroKid. Recently she signed to France-based metal label Season of Mist Records, and with their support is now reaching out to a broader audience. Her latest release, Disparity, reveals a shift away from heavier styles to a sound more influenced by electronica. Of course, there are heavy doses of guitar pyrotechnics, as you’d expect.

Premier Guitar caught up with Longfield, fresh off a clinic tour in Taiwan, to discuss Disparity and her shift to a mellower style, why guitar lessons never worked for her, what it’s like being one of only a handful of high-profile females in a genre dominated by males, and what pop act she’d join if the opportunity arose.

How would you describe your music?
I usually say prog-rock because I don’t feel like I’m super metal anymore.

Disparity almost has a new-age vibe. It’s ethereal and atmospheric.
Yeah, and that’s totally what I’m trying to move towards. I love metal and I did it for a really long time, but I think my sound is developing into something a bit different, and definitely a lot lighter.

What led to this stylistic shift?
I’ve been listening to a ton of electronic music, which is the opposite of metal. It’s like those two genres blending into something a bit mellower than what I was doing when I was younger. I’ve kind of mellowed out as I’ve gotten older, which is cool, and that reflects in my music.

How do you structure your songs? They’re not in obvious forms like intro-verse-chorus.
I’m still working on that, because I feel like I suck at song structure.

“The tapping thing for me was a quicker way to play what I wanted to play, because I wasn’t very good at picking yet.”

It seems to work. They all feel like cohesive pieces from beginning to end.
Yay! Well, that’s definitely good. That’s what I’m going for. When I’m writing, I write everything at the same time. I won’t write just the guitar part. I’ll write eight bars of guitar, eight bars of bass, eight bars of drums, eight bars of synths, and then maybe I’ll put the vocals in there. Then I’ll finish that chunk, and then write the next chunk.

So you’re composing in mini sections?
Yep. I just do it chunk by chunk, then I try to reorganize it in my DAW, and then I'll re-track everything.

The guitar isn’t necessarily the focal point on numbers like “Embracing Solace.” Do you feel like you don’t have to prove yourself anymore?
Yeah. I kind of wanted to step away. I feel like I’ve done a lot of guitar stuff. I don’t feel like I need to use that to reach my audience anymore. It’s really freeing as an artist when you get to that point. Everyone knows me for guitar stuff, but I’m at a point where I’m like, “I can do other stuff too.”

Are you self-taught?
I’m self-taught on guitar. I did have piano lessons when I was a kid. I tried to have guitar teachers but, I don’t know, it never really made any sense to me. So it felt kind of weird to keep paying guitar teachers because I wasn’t really learning how to play guitar. I ended up using YouTube as a reference, and watching people play, and kind of like, “monkey see, monkey do.”

TIDBIT: Longfield produced and mixed her label debut to be sure it matched her vision of lush, textured sounds when it was completed. Early on, she got production tips from Keith Merrow, who, she says, “changed my life.”

Did you have teachers that wanted to teach you, say, Eric Clapton licks when you might have had different interests?
I’ve had people try to teach me everything, even up to last year. When I was living in Boston, I was looking into teachers that taught everything from super fancy jazz stuff to metal, and I can’t figure it out. I don’t know.

Do you understand music theory?
I would like to learn someday, if I could. Just so I could jam with people. I mean, I could jam but I don’t really know what I’m doing at all. So I feel kind of stupid when I’m in a room full of Berklee students and stuff. [Laughs.]

Though you say you don’t know what you’re doing, you use harmonically advanced sounds like major 7#5 chords and arpeggios.
I blame piano for that. I got a lot of connections between notes and scales in my head when I was a kid.

Tosin Abasi also uses those types of sounds.
Yeah, he’s a huge inspiration, so that’s there for sure.

Tell us about your lesson with Tosin in 2011.
That was a really cool day. I was a tech death player and just wanted to be Necrophagist, and I never used the clean channel even once, I think. We sat down on the bus and we were just plugged into an audio box into the PA. I was so nervous, like “I have to play on the clean channel … I’m gonna suck.” He just showed me how to play some stuff on the clean channel that was with a pick using a sweep arpeggio, then stuff that was tapping but moving all the way up and down the fretboard. I don’t even really remember because I was so nervous. It definitely changed a lot of things, because that was the first time I’d ever been like, “Oh, you can shred, but on the clean channel.” I wanted to expand on that.

What is your practice routine?
I don’t really have a practice routine. I should probably have one. I’m at a point where I just like to make music a lot, so three or four times a week, I just sit down and write music with my guitar. Then I’ll play what I’m writing.

How do you maintain your chops?
It’s just muscle memory. I think once I learn how to do a thing, as long as I don’t overthink it, my muscles just kind of remember how to do the thing. Before a tour or something, I’ll run through material with the guys for a week or so, and we’ll go on the road, and chops definitely get better when you’re on tour. I don’t think any of my stuff is too demanding, you know.