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On Bass: The Reluctant Tapper

On Bass: The Reluctant Tapper
A tapping tip courtesy of Billy Sheehan: Increasing the attack of the right hand by adding the middle finger on top of the index finger helps get the volume of a tapped note close to the level of a plucked one by doubling the strength of the hand.

Victor Brodén navigates the uncharted waters of a technique he’s long avoided.

One of the great things about living in Nashville is during the off-season when most tours slow down or stop completely, touring musicians are able to hang out socially and play music together. We don’t often get to see each other at festivals and out-of-town gigs, so this is our chance to put on in-town shows with players we normally don’t play with. We get to cover songs from any genre or difficulty level just for the fun of it.

A few months ago, a friend suggested we perform “Shyboy” from David Lee Roth’s debut solo album, Eat ’Em and Smile. The classic song is a musician backbreaker and involves a lot of bass tapping. If you read my columns regularly, you know there’s a clear pattern of me admiring “song guys” who support the music with simple, non-egocentric bass patterns—not necessarily bass lines that might land them on the covers of magazines. This means that in my 30-year career, tapping is not something I’ve focused on, at all. I love low notes and that’s why I decided to play bass in the first place.

The song in question features Billy Sheehan on bass and Steve Vai on guitar. While Sheehan was one of my absolute biggest influences growing up, I focused on completely different aspects of his playing, like his tone with sub lows and really crisp highs co-existing, even when distorted. Most of all, I thought his attitude and the slight vibrato he applied to his most fundamental, low-bass lines on verses were worthy of awe. Still, all the bass magazines at the time featured transcriptions of his tapping sections and solos. I enjoyed listening to these things, but I wasn’t inspired to learn them.

My gut reaction was to say no to playing the song since I didn’t think I’d be able to do it justice. I’ve spent decades working on my fingerstyle technique, so how could using a technique I’ve never practiced possibly sound good? The voice of reason, however, is also the voice of fear, so the other side of me stepped in and accused the voice of reason of being a coward. So, the long preparation began. I spent a couple hours tapping a few days a week for a month.

This is, unfortunately, a bit of a trend with younger musicians pursuing YouTube fame.

The first step in learning the song was slowing it down on the computer to better hear the flurry of notes. The interesting thing was discovering that a lot of the unison lines between Sheehan and Vai­—or at least what I thought were unison lines—had slight discrepancies in them. At those insane speeds, sliding across several frets or performing hammer-ons and pull-offs in unison is bound to sound less, well, unison. Discovering that even these beasts have moments of humanity was my first encouraging sign that learning the song might be doable.

The second step was going on YouTube to investigate other players who’d attempted to tame this beast of a song. There was something to learn from each of their approaches, even if they made fairly serious mistakes in exact note selection. What was interesting is that I found quite a few players who pretty much nailed the tapping part—which I considered to be a huge mountain to climb—but struggled with the actual groove part of the song. Playing eighth-notes on the root of every chord was apparently less enticing to them than learning the high-register tapping parts. (This is, unfortunately, a bit of a trend with younger musicians pursuing YouTube fame.)

I also found a video of Sheehan explaining his part at a clinic. He was so used to playing it at speed, it actually took him a while to break it down. Sheehan showed how the ending part of the tapping section uses a five-over-four feel, and having that information made the last third of the “impossible” section much easier. The biggest discovery was hearing him perform the tapping section without his signature distortion. His attack and sheer volume when tapping match his fingerstyle volume, making both techniques sound like one statement. This is an important result of most technical practicing.

The third step was looking at available tabs online. Different sites have different versions of the tab, and while I didn’t find one I considered to be 100 percent correct, I picked up a few crucial passages from searching around. Ultimately, each of the learning approaches I used helped me with details that the others lacked.

The whole experience both enabled and inspired me to get out of my comfort zone in a big way. When we fail to challenge ourselves technically as bassists, it just might help to hop on some licks from our guitarist brethren. Now I’m thinking that since I haven’t dabbled in Latin bass since college, tackling some of those lines that sounded quite impossible a few years ago might be a good idea. I have some newfound hand strength from tapping—of all things—that might come in handy.