1. The response of the first dorsal interosseous (1DI) muscle to non-invasive magnetic and scalp electrical stimulation of the brain have been investigated during performance of different manual tasks. 2. The six tasks tested required activation of the 1DI muscle, either in isolation (during abduction of the index finger) or as part of a more complex pattern of muscle synergies (e.g. during power grip). The level of 1DI EMG activity across tasks was kept constant by providing subjects with visual feedback of their muscle activity. 3. In every subject (n = 14) magnetic stimulation produced larger responses during performance of complex tasks than during the simple index abduction task. The pooled results from all subjects showed that four of the five complex tasks were associated with significantly larger 1DI responses (paired t test, P < 0.05). 4. These results were confirmed at the single motor unit level for nine motor units recorded from six subjects. Subjects were requested to produce a steady discharge of the same motor unit during performance of different tasks. The probability of motor unit discharge in response to magnetic stimulation was significantly greater during complex tasks (rotation or pincer grips) than during abduction. 5. Scalp electrical stimulation was performed in three subjects with the cathode at the vertex and the anode over the contralateral motor cortex. The pattern of response amplitudes in the different tasks tended to parallel that obtained for magnetic stimulation, but the task-related differences were smaller. 6. These results suggest that during performance of the different tasks, the corticospinal volleys evoked by magnetic stimulation may vary in amplitude. The task-related cortical mechanisms that may contribute to this variability are discussed.