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Sarah Longfield: Tapper’s Delight

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

An emerging guitar star brings two-handed tapping into a brave new world of melody and texture. And yes, she shreds, too.

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 everysingle 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.

In the male-dominated world of shred, Longfield’s technique draws a crowd’s attention everywhere—from opening concerts for Steve Vai in Sweden to the NAMM Show floor, where she’s wielding a 6-string Strandberg in this photo. Photo by Derek Sampson

How did you get into tapping?
The tapping thing wasn’t intentional. I love when people ask that because I finally get to elaborate. I couldn’t play guitar the way I wanted to. I would listen to music and would want to learn how to play it, but I wasn’t being taught, so I didn’t know how to play it. I didn’t know what the natural progression was. So I was doing a lot of stuff by ear, because in the beginning I didn’t know tabs existed. 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.

I’m willing to bet that Eddie Van Halen was not an influence on you.
Not really. I didn’t listen to a ton of guitar players. I probably should because that’s probably what you should do, but when I was younger and trying to learn stuff, it was just from the knowledge that I had from previous instruments.

What about Stanley Jordan? His tapping style is closer to yours than Van Halen’s.
I’ve had a lot of people tell me about him. I listened to some of his music. He’s really good.

What are you using for string mutes?
I used to make my own mutes out of foam and faux suede, and I put Velcro on them because I could never find a mute that I really liked. Then I lost all of the mutes that I made. Now I just use a sock. If the sock is too big, I’ll cut the sock down, but usually I can find an ankle sock and tie it around. Or I’ll cut up a pair of tights or something. Those work really well, too.

You also devote a lot of time to production and have mentioned that you took production lessons with Keith Merrow in 2011.
Keith Merrow is like the best dude. He changed my life. I had no idea how to make music or record music, and it was so frustrating for me to try to overcome the learning curve of a DAW that I just wouldn’t write music on a guitar. I would program everything in MIDI rolls that wasn’t even guitar music, in SONAR Home Studio 6. It was really bad. Then I met him and he was like, “You need to do this,” and he kind of taught me the basics, “This is an EQ. This is a compressor. This is what they do.” I sucked at that like four or five years and now I’m kind of figuring it out.

Did you produce Disparity yourself?
Yeah. I wanted to mix it myself because my songs have so many tracks with really subtle synth stuff that I didn’t know if I could send it off to someone and feel good about it.

“I wanted to mix it myself because my songs have so many tracks with really subtle synth stuff that I didn’t know if I could send it off to someone and feel good about it.”

Would you consider a career as a producer?
Yeah, I would love to do that. That’s like totally one of my end games. I think mixing and mastering is so fun. It’s a whole separate art and it’s like being a part of the whole process—writing, recording, mixing, and mastering. It’s so fun to me. I love the whole process, just seeing it come to life.

Let’s talk gear. How did your relationship with Strandberg begin?
It was kind of an accident. It was 2011 or 2012, and I ordered a custom guitar from a company that I can’t name right now, but, basically, there was a miscommunication and the guitar got messed up. They were doing a couple of demo production runs for Strandberg at the time in the U.S., so they were like, “We kind of messed up but we can give you a discount on one of these Strandbergs we’ve got lying around.” I was like, “Oh yeah, that would be sweet.” And I got that and I made some videos with it, and Ola [Strandberg] saw it and was like, “We should work together. Your style fits my brand.” And I was like, “Cool, because your guitars fit my style.” It’s been great. We’re working on a signature guitar right now, which I’m so stoked about.

You’ve said that you don’t like the dirt from the Axe-Fx.
Yeah, I don’t. I want to so bad, because I have so many cool effects, and you can make space noises and stuff, but I really just hate the distortion tones on it. I don’t know why. People have sent me patches, but I just can’t make it work. They did just come out with the Axe-Fx III, so maybe someday when I save up ... hopefully the distortion on the new one is a little different. It sounds good. It just doesn’t feel the same. I actually prefer to use amps live. I hate to be that person, but I really do like the way they feel. I use an ENGL Powerball II and an Orange 2x12 cab. That’s what I prefer, but because I fly so much, sometimes it’s just easier to fly with the Axe-Fx.

At times, your clean sound is reminiscent of a harp.
Yeah, I love that. It’s the Fishman Fluence pickups. I use one of the second voicings and it’s like a coil-tap, almost, and you can get this harp-like, tinnier, thinner, but really attack-y sound. It’s almost like the pickups are compressed, so I don’t really use a compressor. Though I got a compressor for the first time a few weeks ago—the Darkglass Hyper Luminal Compressor—and I have been using it. It’s awesome, especially for cleans.

Are you able to support yourself through the creators’ platform Patreon?
Patreon is huge. I was living off album sales for about a year, which is really cool.

Strandberg Boden Metal (6- and 8-string models)

Engl Powerball II
Orange 2x12 cabinet
Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II

Darkglass Hyper Luminal Hybrid Compressor

Strings and Picks
D’Addario (.009–.042 for 6-string; .009–.080 for 8-string)
Dunlop Tortex .50 mm

Wow, that’s awesome.
Yeah, right? I was selling albums on Bandcamp and then I eventually got Distrokid, and I was doing a little bit of promotion on YouTube and stuff. The YouTube ad revenue checks are absolutely garbage. I think I made like $100 last month and I got like 400,000 views. They pay absolute trash. So I was relying completely on album sales, and then I signed to a label and was like, “Oh shit, what am I going to do?”

Are there pros and cons to being signed to a label?
I think it’s a tradeoff. I was making money completely independently off my CD sales, and I was really comfortable doing that. But the PR that the label has is incredible. A lot of people don’t take you seriously until you have representation. I’ve been denied tours because they're like, “you don’t have representation” or “well, we’re gonna see who the label wants to bring on first before we reach out to any independent artists.” I think there’s a level of validation with that, and the PR is incredible, so I’m really happy with it. But I was like, “Oh shit, how am I gonna pay rent? I don’t have a job right now.” So I started the Patreon thing and that’s been great to help me kind of supplement.

Does having to deal with internet trolls or check comments make you anxious?
It’s tough to say. Every artist is a little bit affected by that, but I was such a weird kid, and I was bullied so much for being so strange when I was younger. I couldn’t wear jeans because I felt they hurt. I wore weird clothes and I had short hair because I didn’t like the feeling of my hair tickling my neck. I was super sensitive and weird looking [laughs], so people just made fun of me. So when I got to the internet, I was like, “Yo, you can’t hurt me.” I’m not really affected by that kind of thing. I just think it’s kind of funny.

Being a female in a genre that’s dominated by males, did you deal with sexism or harassment in the industry? You’re on the road with mostly guys.
That’s kind of how it’s always been, with prog-metal stuff. When I was younger I was super naïve to it. Especially because, like I said, I was so weird. I had no frame of reference for how to do really anything, and I think there were a lot of people that tried to take advantage of that. People in bands would plus one me to shows and stuff because they saw a video on YouTube or something, and then I’d be like, “Oh cool, I love this band.” Then I’d go there and realize after like two hours of being there why they actually wanted me to be there. I thought they just wanted to hang out and talk about guitar stuff. Nope. [Laughs.]

They’re not all like that. I’ve met a ton of people in the industry that are super chill and are genuinely just like, “Aw man, I love what you do.” But I didn’t know how to distinguish that when I was younger. I thought everybody just had good intentions. Then you realize that’s totally not the case. Now I think it’s so much better because, A, I know, I can tell now. I have more experience with it. And, B, honestly, I have more power, so people don’t try to do that anymore because they’re scared that if they do anything, I’m gonna say something. I have an audience, so they’re a lot more respectful.

It’s not just low-hanging fruit. You meet people at the top in companies that are like that, and you’re like, “whoa!” [Laughs.] “Holy shit, you can’t be like that. That’s not cool.” But yeah, I can see it now, so it’s not a threat anymore.

If you could join a major pop act would you?
Oh, 100 percent. I would love to play guitar for a pop act. That’s one of my absolute end goals.

Which pop act would your fans be surprised you’d want to join?
It’s not really a band. I guess, honestly, if I could play live with anybody, it would be Post Malone. [Laughs.] He’s so good. I love his music. I love his albums. But, yeah, I think that would be my top pop star. Maybe Ellie Goulding. She’s incredible, too. Maybe someday.

Sarah Longfield’s tapping abilities go beyond the stereotypical moves. Here, performing “Illuminate” from her 2017 album Collapse//Expand, she uses the technique to play melodically, percussively, and to just flat-out shred.