"It enabled me to be the fastest gun in the west for about five minutes:" Steve Hackett, Eddie Van Halen, and the murky origins of finger tapping

Steve Hackett and Eddie Van Halen onstage
(Image credit: Steve Hackett: David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns | Eddie Van Halen: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music)

It's October 31, 1973. Genesis have wrapped up the first UK leg of a tour promoting the Selling England By The Pound album, and have made their way to the BBC's studios in Shepperton, west of London, to film a five song set for broadcast on television.

After opening with Watcher Of The Skies, Dancing With the Moonlit Knight and I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), the band play a song from two years earlier, The Musical Box. And, at 5'45", Steve Hackett does something that will make another guitarist famous. 

Hackett trills with his left hand, pulling on and off the strings, and then, inches away, in between the notes created by his left hand, he hits the strings with the fingers of his right, conjuring up a cascade of sounds from his guitar. 

Several years later, Eddie Van Halen would blow minds across the world using a similar technique. Eruption would become a new yardstick for technical brilliance, young guitarists would quake with fear, and everyone, from that day forth, would argue about who did it first.

"I was trying to play a tiny phrase from Toccata And Fugue by Bach," Hackett told Music Radar in 2012. "I was wondering how to do it, because you couldn't really do it across the strings. I figured that if I could do it on one string, then I'd be using the fretboard like a keyboard. There's a couple of techniques I took from Bach, like sweep-picking, which is akin to a violinist rocking the bow across the strings.

"I did it one day, the tapping, but I thought it was a little unwieldy at first because I couldn't play it in time. But then I could play it in time, and I started doing it live with Genesis. This was back in 1971, an awfully long time ago. It enabled me to be the fastest gun in the west for about five minutes, until somebody else came along and did it in a whole new way."

The "somebody else" was Eddie Van Halen, of course. And it appears that the late guitar whizz was happy to credit Hackett.

"He claimed he came up with his on the toilet while he was taking a shit," Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante told the Broken Record Podcast in 2022. "But he went backstage at a Steve Hackett show and told Steve Hackett that he got the idea from being at a Genesis show and saw him doing it.”

Of course, these things are never as clear-cut as that. In 2008, Van Halen told Guitar World, "I think I got the idea of tapping watching Jimmy Page do his Heartbreaker solo back in 1971. He was doing a pull-off to an open string, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, open string… pull off. I can do that, but what if I use my finger as the nut and move it around?’ I just kind of took it and ran with it."

Meanwhile, Joe Satriani has claimed that he was finger tapping before EVH, and was inspired to do so after watching one of Wishbone Ash's guitarists do the same on an early episode of Don Kirschner's Rock Concert.

And that's not all. History is littered with musicians who let both sets of fingers do the talking, from ukulele player Roy Smeck, a showman whose work was a highlight of the 1932 film Club House Party, to Emmett Chapman, who invented the Chapman Stick in 1969 to showcase his own ten-digit approach to playing.

Then there was to Vittorio Camardese, who demonstrated a fluid, two-handed technique on Italian TV as long ago as 1965. And Frank Zappa. And Canned Heat's Harvey Mandel. And Randy Resnick, who employed finger tapping when working with John Mayall in 1974. There are others. Lots of them.

But whoever did it first – and Hackett can certainly claim to have employed a technique that closely resembled Van Halen's – there isn't really any doubt that Eddie brought finger tapping to a much wider audience, so much so that he made it his own. And in doing so, he created a sound so explosive that almost all subsequent rock guitarists were obliged to pay attention. And that's real influence.  

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.