|Jimmie Webster: One of the first two-handed tappers; a great musician, teacher and instrument inventor from the 1950's and 60's. In this picture we see him using his "Touch System" technique to tap interweaving chords and tunes.|
As a Touch System guitarist, I have been researching Jimmie Webster for some time now. I first found out about him when a guitarist friend showed me Webster's book and record. My friend had found them at a garage sale. Little did I know that they would change my way of playing guitar. I wanted to make this web page to share what I know. When I looked on the net most of the information that I found seemed to be inaccurate, or missing key parts of the story.
But there are many who met him, and heard his music while he was alive. Many still use his method to make music. Many more are learning each year. Thanks to those nice people who shared their rememberances of Jimmie.
I'd also like to point out that 2002
marked 50 years of the "touch system", and 2008 will be the centennial
of his birth. E-mail me
if you have any stories to share about him.
|Jimmie Webster: Brief Biography
You're probably wondering where two handed tapping came from. It wasn't Van Halen, or any of the other California dreamers of the 70's. It was Jimmie Webster, a great musician and visionary. I'll tell his story here, mostly in his own words, and in the words of those who knew him.
James Donart Webster was born August 11, 1908 in Van Wert Ohio. He is a direct descendant of Daniel Webster on his father's side, and of John Quincy Adams on his mother's. In the picture below, he is seen with his sister Virginia on a piano bench when they both were young children. Virginia went on to become a jazz pianist herself.
Jimmie served in the war as a musician,
staioned in Iceland. He later lived in Toledo, Ohio, and on Long
Island, NY. His first wife was L'Ana Webster (later L'Ana Hyams),
who was well known as one of the first women band leaders. In the picture
below, taken before the war, Jimmie is pictured in her band, he is the
one with a guitar. L'Ana is also featured on the CD cover seen below
that "Forty years of Women in Jazz".
Jimmie Webster died April 11, 1978, on Long Island, NY. Thanks very much to Reid Gray, a great-nephew of Jimmie, who supplied the detailed biographical information and pictures.
He had a close associaiton with the Gretsch Musical Instrument Company for many years, until his death in the late 70's. He helped with some of their guitar designs and was responsible for much of their success after WW2. As I will discuss below, he had patents for some very novel, revolutionary, ahead-of-its-time guitar ideas. Word has it that he saw Harry DeArmond demonstrate some hammer-on techniques, in order to show off the sensitivity of DeArmond pickups. Jimmie took this idea and ran with it. He developed the technique into a far more orchestral concept: the guitar as a complete ensemble.
Jimmie is mostly rememebred as a pioneer of the two handed tapping, "tap-style", or "touch-style" technique. He called it "the Touch System", so "touch-style" would be the most accurate short abbreviation. Funny but I don't think Jimmie used the word "tap" at all in his book, though this is used interchangable with "touch" today.
He wrote a book in 1952 describing the technique. He would play chords on the lower frets of the instrument, just the way guitarists have for centuries. The thing that made it special is that he "hammered on" strongly enough so that plucking was not required. With this, then, he had a free right hand to play tunes with. He tapped with the right hand on the higher strings, and higher frets, to get the melody. Mostly, he only had the two or three highest strings to work with when he was tapping the melodies. But he was very adept at the technique. Listen, for instance, at his rendition of Ellington's Caravan, where he is able to get a full rhythm section sound with his left hand. At the same time, he plays the melody with the right hand.
In addition to many jazz standards, Jimmie Webster wrote some songs of his own like Scarlet Mood, and Fountain Mist that really showcased his Touch System. He must have been quite a showman as he travelled around America, promoting Gretsch Guitars and his own revolutionary playing system wherever he went.
Sadly, like many who are way ahead of their time, he died well remembered but without ever really getting his due.
In 1952, he wrote a method book to tell the world about his style, called "The Touch System for Electric and Amplified Spanish Guitar". It was published by the Wm. J. Smith Music Company. As advertised, if you used his method you could make your guitar sound like 2 or 3 guitars at once - and add the sound of the 'bass fiddle' and 'electric organ'. It's funny to hear him use these old-timey terms. keep in mind that he wrote the book on tapping, way back in 1952, before most of us were born! Bass guitar was in its infancy, and fancy keyboard devices were non existant.
The bass fiddle sounds that Jimmie refers to is a technique of using the right hand to tap just on the low e-string. That's the heaviest string on the guitar, and you can get a good bass sound there. The electric organ that he refers to is the sound that you get when you tap in two ocataves. For example, the highest string and the lowest string are both e strings, but tuned two octaves apart. Tap them both together and you can play a melody with another melody exactly two octaves below. I think it is this technique that he is using in the photograph at the top of this web page. Listen to the MP3 of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic "A Wonderful Guy" as an example. What a great sound that is, with a melody above and below a full accompanament, as you could do on a piano!
This is a close-up from the cover to the book:
|Much of the book consists of useful
exercises for the beginner in the touch system. These are just the
first stages of the technique. Maybe he was limited in how long the
book was supposed to be. What I mean is that he concnetrates on first
getting the D7 and G chords with the left hand. A lot of the exercises
show you how to do melodic exercises with the right hand while the left
hand plays patterns built on the D7 and G chords. With practice I
have found it is possible to go way past this, but you have to start somewhere.
Likewise with the right hand. He gives us melodic exercises. Most of these are contained within a grid four strings wide and three frets long. Of course in actual play Jimmie went outside this box but the beginner needs to work on getting a good sound from the notes that fall under the hand. There are exercises that use the thumb to help with the melodies and also exercises in playing melodies that are harmonized in fourths, by playing multiple strings with the right hand.
Like some well known touch system method books today, the book uses diagramatic pictograms to teach the technique. There is no sheet music, but the learned guitarist could have, and still can adapt this to a style of written sheet music. The wallpaper of this very web page is made out of one of the lessons!
Throughout the book, at the bottom of many of the pages, Jimmie gives us this printed advice, like a mantra. He knew from experience the importnace (as all touch system players know today) of having a solid touch to get a good sound from tap technique:
|In his book, it is clear that Jimmie knew he was onto something big, maybe bigger than the man himself. He spoke of this in the forward to the book:|
| When electronics were introduced in the guitar field,
many new styles appeared on the scene. Electronics brought out the
hidden voices and tonal effects which had been lying dormant in the guitar
for centuries, it was like finding many buried treasures. These new
voices and effects have brought amazing results and each day brings new
The most startling discovery in the electronic field is the "TOUCH SYSTEM". This new revolutionary school of playing is the most modern, far reaching system to reach the guitarist since the inception of the guitar itself.
"TOUCH SYSTEM" is so new, there are just a few players in the field at the present time, that only a small segment of the country's guitarist have been priveleged to hear an actual performance.
However, these few have been so electrified, thrilled, and enthused, with the "TOUCH SYSTEM" that its universal adoption by guitarist everywhere is simply a question of time.
|He elaborates on the theory some more in the first chapter, called "What is Touch System?":|
| "TOUCH SYSTEM" in short means playing the guitar like
a piano. Both hands are employed to reproduce musical tones much
in the same fashion as you would play a piano or accordian.
[...] Just by pressing down on chords with the fingers of the left hand, you create a fine accompanying background for right hand solo work.
The solo part for the right hand will respond by striking the strings, at the higher frets, with the finger tips as you would strike a piano key. By combining the left and right hand, you can obtain the results of two and three guitars playing together with bass fiddle effects added in many cases.
The scope of the "TOUCH SYSTEM" is so great, that many classics beyond the reach of other systems, now have a chance to become part of the guitar library. Also, wheras it is most arduous to execute a simple scale with the "TOUCH SYSTEM", some of the most difficult passages for pick and finger style can be played with the greatest of ease. This point has been proven many times over.
"TOUCH SYSTEM" creates a complete orchestra unto itself, with effects ranging from bass fiddle to electric organ. Those who have seen and heard demonstrations of the "TOUCH SYSTEM" are completely overwhelmed. No one has doubted that it is the greatest step forward for the guitar in decades"
|In the feature article that Guitar Player magazine ran on Jimmie, he sums up the challenge of touch system:|
| "It's like patting your head and rubbing your stomach
at the same time. "
You must teach your hands to independant of each other. First, you've got to develop your left hand well, and learn the fundamentals of music; then you're ready to play the melody, or right hand.
|While acknowledging some of the limitations
of the Touch System in his book, he seems to have unbridled enthusiasm
for its future. As we will see below, by the time he would record
with his method (six years later), he had overcame these limitations, and
he was well on the way to bringing the Touch System to fullfilling the
full potential he had predicted.
Though not mentioned in the book, he talks about his "Octobass" arrangement for tuning a guitar in the feature article in Guitar Player magazine. Octobass means that you tune the lowest E string down an octave. This gives you a true bass string, completing the touchstyle orchestra. It's like a simpler version of the special touchstyle guitars out there today.
As the GP article said: "bass rhythm, and lead all at one time. Something like the piano". No doubt, by the time this article was written in the late 60's, the technique had taken a few leaps and bounds beyond where it was in 1952. But more on that below!-.
|Webster's Guitar Inventions
Webster worked for a number of years at Gretsch, one of America's premiere guitar companies. He played a great "White Falcon" hollowbody electric guitar. No doubt this helped him get a good sound from his tapped notes, because it combined the resonance of a large body with the sensitivity of magnetic pickups - essential for the touch system.
In his book he elaborated on the requirements for building a tapping guitar. These are some excerpts from the chapter on guitar set-up:
| Most important to the "TOUCH SYSTEM" is a good electric
Spanish Guitar, or if you have a regular guitar, make every effort to obtain
the finest pick-up available.
A new type of bridge recently developed with adjustable string saddles is highly recommended. This bridge enables the player to tune his guitar accurately on every fret, which is very important to the "TOUCH SYSTEM".
The "TOUCH SYSTEM" requires a very low action because touch playing at times will take the player to the top fret of the fingerboard.
The pickup should not be too far away from the strings.
|It's notable that today, these principles
are still used by the premiere builders of guitars that are especially
made for tapping. I do believe that when he said "Spanish Guitar",
he was referring to hollow body electrics, like the great Gretsh White
Falcon he used to play. And Jimmie would know, since he designed
this guitar. This also makes him the first tapping guitar builder,
in addition to being the first tapper.
One of his biggest achievements was a patent (US 2,964,985) on a guitar that had separate pickups for different strings. This "Project-o-Sonic" stereo guitar would be important for the LP record he would make later. He devised a guitar that could send the music from the top three strings into one amplifier, and the other three strings into a second amplifier. Here is a drawing of it from the US patent (click to g to the Patent and Trademark Office):
|Figure 1 is the key. This looks
forward to most of the tapping guitars and instruments in use today: two
outpus give greater interdependance. Let's give Jimmie the credit
he deserves for blazing the way for all the touch and tap type gizmos
that we see today! This model went into production as the model 6137 Stereo
Project-o-sonic White Falcon, in the 1950's and 60's. This was the original
In 1959, he released a record for RCA
Called Webster's Un'a-Bridged (RCA LPM-1942). Guitar legend Chet
Atkins produced this record. Unfortunately, it is only available
as a used vinyl LP. A CD reissue is long overdue, but you
may be able to get a burned CD from CD
Bar-b-que. See below, the album cover, where he stands between
the two amps that he uses to accurately amplify melody, chords, and bass
all at the same time. Below is a recent review of it by Jesse Gress
(noted Guitar journalist and also a member of Todd Rundgren's and Tony
Listening" by Jesse Gress
Web'ster's Un'a-bridged': Jimmie Webster's Stereo Guitar [RCA]
is a real find. The cover features Jimmie and his specially designed Gretsch
Project-O-Sonic stereo guitar flanked by a pair of Gretsch stereo amps.
A close look reveals three bass-string polepieces on the neck pickup and
three on the bridge pickup for the treble strings. Bass lines came out
of one amp, melodies the other. Cool enough considering the 12/30/58 recording
date, but here's the punch line: Webster taps everything Chapman Stick/Stanley
Jordan/Van Halen-style -a good decade before the birth of progressive rock!
With his self-proclaimed "touch system", Webster could play simultaneous
melody and accompaniment and produce string bass, bongo, and tom-tom
effects, all in real time without overdubs.
his ten fingers - no pick - Jimmie creates sound by depressing the guitar
strings with his fingertips in much the same fashion used to play piano.
because he has the same independant control of both hands which a pianist
enjoys, the resulting music sounds like an entire quartet of guitars being
"The virtuosity is all directly produced by Jimmie's famous "Touch System" of playing, which has long been the envy of professional guitarists."
"...you will hear bass fiddle, bongo, and tom-tom effects - all produced on the guitar"
- from the liner notes.
|In this recording, Jimmie shows us that
his technique had really blossomed since the 1952 book. Or it might
be that in the book he was showing us the most basic elements of the technique.
Maybe he was saving the advanced parts for a later volume.
As the liner notes attest, the folks at RCA records (with no less than
Chet Atkins at the controls!) saw the potential of the Webster technique
- four guitars, bass fiddle, and drumss, all at once!
His right hand, in particular seems to have free reign over the higher notes of the guitar. Not confined to just a few frets (like the exercises in the book) he plays elaborate right hand arpeggios in Fountain Mist. He hammers out the melody in Caravan with percussive clarity. In Scarlet Mood he shows that he can generate 2 part counterpoint between a tapped steady bass line and a melody.
Check out these MP3 files taken from the record. There are so many great songs on the album, I wish I had the web space to provide more examples! Unfortunately these are in mono to save space. The original record was panned with the three melody strings all the way to the right and the harmony strings all the way to the left. These are just short excerpts:
See the links below for a web page with a track by track review of the LP.
As I have shown here, Jimmie Webster was the first "touch-style" player to play simultaneous melody, chords, and bass. He was also the first to wrote a method book for it, design specialty instruments for the style, and record an LP record. In fact, not only was he first, but to this day, he is the only touch-style player to ever design his own patented touch-style instrument and make a record for a major label (RCA). He demonstrated his technique around the country, and his method was "the envy of professional guitarists".
Who carried the torch for his original method after he was gone? Why are there so many tappers today? We do know that Jimmie demonstrated his technique, as a promo man for Gretsch, for many years. He showed other guitarists how to play this way, all over the country. He was seen at the California NAMM trade show in the mid 60's. About this time, two handed tapping started to catch on big in California, especially in the San Jose area, where there was at least one Webster "tribute" act in the early 70's. According to the Guitar Player magazine article, there were fanatics who followed him on tour for hundreds of miles in order to learn the technique by watching him play!
Because of their enthusiasm, he firmly believed that the Touch System would one day take its place as an accepted method of playing the guitar electronically. It wasn't back then, but it sure is today.
Early on in this continuing story, another
man named Dave Bunker began to play this way. Here is an account
from a feature story in the Seattle Times, describing how he first came
to know Jimmie's method:
|from "Why Dave Bunker is Not Singing the Blues" by Richard Seven
In 1955, he [Dave Bunker] went to see a guitarist from England [? - J.G.] named Jimmy Webster play aat the University of Washington. Webster played by tapping fingers from both hands on a guitar neck, like jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan does today. Bunker was mesmerized by Webster, but having been raised by tinkerers, he wondered what it would be like to play that way on two necks at once. Seemed to him, two necks would offer freer movement and more versatile sound.
- Seattle Times, 6/25/00<
|After Dave saw Jimmie play, Dave started
building guitars of his own, with some improvements. he called them
"Touch Guitars(tm)". He made a double neck guitar with ten or more
strings, in order to make the two hands more independant. This, he
called "Duo Lectar(tm)". He also developed a mute, for tapping.
This is a piece of cloth across the first fret that's used to make the
open strings silent (Gretsch experts have informed me that Webster also
used a mute- J.G.). Dave also invented an electronic version
of this later on, which are exclusively found in Bunker Guitars.
The manual mute that Dave invented, or a reworked version of it, is seen
on many tapping guitars and other tapping instruments in use today.
The double neck gave the instrument two regions - one for each hand. This two region concept was a revolutionary idea that is still seen in most of the touchstyle instruments in use today. It allows each hand to operate independantly of each other without bumping into the other hand. The "two region" invention and the mute are probably the two greatest innovations in touchstyle after the Touch System itself, and we all owe a lot to Dave for his contributions to the evolution of the art.
Dave Bunker's two necked Touch Guitars went into production in the 1960's. Dave played them, as did many of his students and customers. There were many performances in Vegas and Nashville, and other "Show Biz" places. He is still making them today so check it out if you can, and keep alive the unbroken link to Jimmie Webster!:)
One of the best known six string tappers is Stanley Jordan. In an internet post, he said how Chet Atkins gave him a copy of Jimmy Webster's LP, which he treasures. Stanley has really done an awful lot bringing acceptance to tapping for guitarists today.
There are other special guitars being built today. These include the Santucci TrebleBass and the Solene. These use a single, wide, neck to apply the Touch System. These usually have 10 strings. These wide single-neck instruments are like a Bunker Touch Guitar with its two necks stuck together as one. The six string limit that Jimmie faced is gone. The right hand has more breathing room. Stanley Jordan has been seen playing the TrebleBass and I hope to buy one someday.
Many others who tap, or touch, the guitar strings to make music may not have heard of him. Some discovered this method on their own independantly. Others learned it through the grapevine, from people who had seen Jimmie on tour in the 50's. Then more guitarists got it third hand, or from recordings by players like Stanley Jordan. It is a never ending chain.
Write to me if you have any personal remembrances of Jimmie.
Links to Other Places of Interest
review of Jimmie Webster's Album
Non Musical Links:
This is one of my first projects on the internet. Our next is going to be the history of football in Oklahoma. My son Josh helped me, for his school project. I am still looking for personal stories from those who knew him, and also any of the motion picture footage which is rumored to be out there. If it can be made into a video, I would LOVE to get this. If you have feedback, send e-mail to me, Jean German.
Thanks for visiting, and keep in touch, -Jeannie
This text is copyright 1999 - 2001, J. German, Enid, OK. Pictures, news clippings, and words and sound files by Jimmie Webster are included for their educational purpose, and no infringement of copyright is intended.