Open Secrets: Vicki Genfan Shows You the Techniques that Helped Crown Her GP’s 2008 GUITAR SUPERSTAR

ON THE NIGHT OF SEPTEMBER 13TH, 2008, AFTER WITNESSING HER mind-blowing performance of an original composition entitled “Atomic Reshuffle,” a panel of guitardom’s elite dubbed Vicki Genfan Guitar Player’s 2008 Guitar Superstar. Contained within the 3:57 acoustic tour-de-force was a combination of playing techniques that produced not just chords and melodies, but also bell-like harmonics and percussive rhythms. Genfan’s approaches to composition and playing stem from her desire to capture dense harmonic ingredients, her affinity for open tunings, and her dream to groove like Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White. Dedicating the last 30 years to cultivating an individual style, Genfan has emerged with a playing technique she calls “slap tap,” which features alternative means of producing harmonics and groove-approved thumb slaps. This approach integrates nicely with her sizable collection of open-tunings, which currently includes over 30 variations (see sidebar on this
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As with many guitarists, it was the music of Joni Mitchell that got Genfan started down the road of altered tunings. “Trying to play those beautiful 9th and sus4 voicings I heard on Joni’s records with my tiny 11-year-old hands was really hard,” she recalls, “so once I learned that you could choose a chord and just tune to it, I began experimenting. From there, I discovered I could get a lot of mileage by combining open chords with harmonics and ideas played on the bass strings.” The following examples are based on a D7sus4 tuning (D, A, D, G, C, D low to high), so grab an acoustic guitar and get ready to give your playing a reshuffle of atomic proportions.


“I began to incorporate my own version of a thumb slap to satisfy this urge I had to play bass. I keep my hand in a handshake position and use my entire forearm while striking the string with the bottom portion of my thumb near the first knuckle,” says Genfan as she demonstrates Ex. 1a. To give the notes the tight, crunchy tone Genfan is going for, don’t be shy about applying a slight, cylindrical whipping motion that derives power from both your wrist and elbow. Once you have a grasp on the basic technique, it’s time to develop some hand/eye coordination and aim for other strings, while incorporating some fretting-hand action such as the hammer- ons in Ex. 1b.


Starting to add harmonics to the picture, Genfan shows off Ex. 2a, which incorporates the fretting-hand 2nd finger gently tapping directly above the 12th fret following open sixth-string thumb slaps. This succession of eighth-notes conveys an interesting octave-displacement effect courtesy of the alternating timbres of open slapped notes and tapped harmonics.

Turning to the triplet feel heard throughout her song “Kali Dreams,” Genfan drops Ex. 2b, which features an alternating slap/tap technique. That’s followed by a radiant example of 12th-fret harmonics played on all six strings. For a subtle, yet very cool modulation effect, Genfan will sometimes grab the headstock and push and pull the neck while anchoring her picking hand on the guitar’s top near the cutaway.

Taking the cue from Ex. 2b, which is the first bar of “Kali Dreams,” Genfan carefully plays the repeating section of the intro to the tune [Ex. 3]. In addition to the 12th fret harmonics, Genfan hits them at the 9th and 7th frets as well. At the final eighth-note of bar 3 going into the downbeat of bar 4, Genfan introduces her take on a hallmark alterna- tive acoustic guitar technique—body slaps. “I used to call it ‘body percussion’, but somehow I got into calling this technique ‘body slapping,’ which sounds a little bit dirty,” states Genfan, who uses both right and left hands to make use of nearly every slap-able part of the guitar. “I always wanted to be a hand percussionist, and the rhythmic aspect of music always came easy to me, so I started to experiment with different ways to get that across in my playing.” She alternates between striking the guitar with the entire bottom of her picking hand, using just the thumb, making use of a ring, or bringing over the fretting hand for a whack, as demonstrated here.


When slapping, Genfan usually makes contact with the strings on the neck, close to the 12th fret, and there are many instances in her technique where single-note harmonic tapping is used. These harmonics are produced by tapping a string precisely on top of the fret, 12 frets (or seven or five) above either a fretted or open note. “I usually tap with my 1st and 2nd fingers, but more so with the 2nd,” says Genfan as she plays Ex. 4, letting all the tones ring into one another creating a collage of crystal clear overtones. If you’ve ever tried to cop the intro to Van Halen’s “Women in Love,” you’ll have an idea how to approach this.

For a variation on the theme we heard in Ex. 2a (where a slapped open sixth string was followed by a fretting-hand tapped harmonic), Genfan demonstrates this idea in reverse with single-note tapped harmonics followed by fretted notes that are hammered-on as seen in Examples 5a and 5b. If your sense of EVH déjà vu is tingling, that’s because this approach is similar to another Van Halen track, “Mean Street.” To get this technique going, or any of the aforementioned ideas for that matter, Genfan has this advice: “I always try to put new playing techniques I’m developing immediately into ideas [Ex. 6] that catch my ear. That way I can play them over and over again and not fall asleep.”


“In the harmonic tapping world, this is known as polygamy,” jokes Genfan as she proceeds to put her picking-hand 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers together and harmonic tap the top three strings, producing the vibrant Gsus4 chord of Ex. 7, which is reminiscent of the tapped harmonic chordal blasts heard from Eric Johnson and Tuck Andress. Going back to her original notion of “an open chord combined with harmonics and ideas played on the bass strings,” Genfan plays Ex. 8 where you have ghost hammered root-fifth chords combined with 12th and 7th fret “group taps” as Genfan calls them. Ex. 9 takes the thumb slap/hammer-on combination from Examples 5a and 5b and adds a top-three-string group tap.

Genfan plays the cleverly arranged vamp in 5/4 seen in Ex. 10, filled with a cascade of varying tapped harmonics. This four-bar, up-tempo passage has Genfan combining several of her signature techniques starting with a thumb slap to activate the open sixth string that is followed by 12th fret harmonic tap on the fifth string A, both of which are followed by 3rd fret hammers on the sixth and fifth strings respectively. “It doesn’t matter if you hit a targeted group of notes exactly,” she says. “That’s one of the joys of being in an open tuning.”