Watching NYU senior Yasmin Williams perform is mesmerizing. Her music is gorgeously mellow and rhythmic, but the most captivating part of her performance is the way she plays the guitar. Williams holds the guitar horizontally, so the fretboard faces upwards and she hits the strings to sound the notes, a style called “lap-tapping.”
Lap-tapping is a method that is not unheard of in the history of guitar playing, but it has definitely become less mainstream over the last few decades. Williams uses the method to play the guitar in a far more rhythmic, percussive way than traditional strumming would allow.
Lap-tapping expands the possibilities for her music beyond what a more traditional guitarist would be able to play and Williams makes full use of these opportunities. Watching her perform, it almost seems as if you’re watching a keyboardist or a drummer rather than a guitarist.
Williams’ influences include Antoine Dufour, another guitarist who uses the tapping method; she also says she grew up listening to a lot of smooth jazz, which she accredits the mellowness of her music to. Growing up, Williams started playing clarinet in elementary school and later picked up the guitar in eighth grade.
Her journey to the guitar is an unbelievably familiar one: Williams says she was obsessed with “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” when she was a kid and after she beat the games, she decided to upgrade to a real guitar. She asked for a guitar for her birthday and got one — the rest is history.
Out of all of the middle schoolers who thought they could play guitar after playing “Guitar Hero” (which, let’s face it, was most of them), what set Williams apart? “I just stuck with it,” she says. Her commitment to the guitar has definitely paid off: watching her play, it’s hard not to marvel at the countless hours it must have taken to get this good with such an unconventional style of playing.
The song is definitely mellow, like much of Williams’ music, but there is also an excited, frantic energy about it conveyed through Williams’ use of many different percussive elements — from tapping on the fretboard, to striking the strings on the body of the guitar, to hitting the body of the guitar like a drum.
Since the creation of “Restless Heart,” Williams has gotten even more experimental, incorporating other instruments and even tap shoes into her songs. In one recent piece, aptly named “GuitKa,” Williams plays a guitar and kalimba lap-tapping duet. Williams says that she “just tries to come up with unique, interesting ways to play the guitar.”
Not everyone reacts well to lap-tapping, however: Williams has encountered a range of different reactions, including some people who are afraid she’s going to break the guitar. “I’ve gotten the occasional weird [reaction],” Williams says. “Like, ‘You’re not allowed to play it that way’ — well, no, I am, sorry.”
Most people, though, are a lot more receptive to the style because they’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s exactly this natural curiosity that makes Williams’ performances so interesting — but it’s not just the novelty of watching someone play the guitar horizontally that makes them special.
Williams notes that the guitar is really well suited to live playing because it projects and it can create a lot of different tones — and the lap-tapping technique expands the guitar’s range to even more tones.
The technique also allows Williams to play faster, more difficult passages and incorporate more percussive elements. This expansion of the guitar’s sonic territory makes lap-tapping not just interesting to watch, but also incredible to listen to.
Currently, Williams is in the process of releasing an album, which she says will be 10 – 12 solo acoustic guitar tracks, some of which will feature tap shoes and one that will feature a kalimba.
Williams’ immediate goal is to get more gigs, with the eventual goal being to go on tour. She also says that she would like to do the scoring for TV commercials since she is currently studying scoring and because she feels her music would be well suited for them.
Williams’ big takeaway, though, is this: “I think more people should play guitar,” she says, noting that a lot of her friends had quit because they felt it was too difficult. “But no, it’s not [too difficult]! Everyone should play it. It’s super fun.”
It’s exactly that sense of fun that Williams conveys in her music. Through the use of unconventional methods and experimentation, Williams’ music expands the sonic possibilities of the guitar.