There’s one thing that’s at the forefront of every guitarist's mind – learning new techniques.
It seems like as soon as you learn a new trick you discover ten more that you need to master. In this article, we’ll discuss two of the most fundamental guitar techniques – hammer ons and pull offs.
Both of these techniques are found in every style and genre, whether you play acoustic or electric – there’s no escaping them – but why would you want to?
Here are a few benefits of mastering hammer ons and pull offs:
- Fast repeating notes
- Reduced strain on the picking hand
- Fluid licks and melodies
Not only that, but many advanced guitar techniques stem from these two, including:
- Selective picking
We’ll go through everything mentioned above and give you some practice exercises.
Sound good? Let’s get into it!
Hammer ons on guitar
🛑 STOP! Hammer time.
When we first pick up a guitar, we’re taught to sync up our left and right hands so we can fret and pluck notes simultaneously – solid method.
But then you’re watching one of your favorite guitarists play, and suddenly a string of notes comes flying out and their picking hand is doing nothing… WTH?!
So what is this sorcery? It’s one half of the hammer-on/pull-off partnership.
What is a hammer on?
A hammer on is pretty aptly named.
- We use a finger on our fretting hand to hammer down onto the fret.
- With the right amount of speed and force, you can make the string resonate without the help of your picking hand.
Usually, when using hammer ons it’s part of a sequence of notes, meaning that the string is already ringing from a previous note – this is much easier than a “hammer on from nowhere” (more on that later).
Beginner hammer-on technique
Let’s begin with a simple exercise on a single string.
Note: The ‘H’ on guitar TAB will always signify a hammer on.
- Start by holding down the 7th fret with your index finger.
- While the note is ringing, bring your ring finger down onto the 9th fret.
- You’ll need to experiment with the amount of force needed to make the second note ring out clearly.
When you feel comfortable with that, try moving to a different fret.
- Frets lower down the neck are further apart, so this may be slightly more difficult.
- If the stretch is uncomfortable, move higher up the neck where the frets are closer together.
Intermediate hammer-on technique
Oh too easy, huh? Let’s ramp up the difficulty a little bit.
- Hammer ons can also be used to spice up chords.
- Chord embellishments are a staple of rhythm guitar and can add a nice sense of movement.
In the exercise below we’ll lead into a Cmaj7 chord with a little hammer on. Here are the diagrams for the first chord shape.
- Middle finger on the 6th string
- Ring finger on the 4th string
- Index finger on the 3rd string
Now on the 3rd string, use your pinky finger to hammer on the note two frets above – you should end up with this Cmaj7 shape:
Practice this embellishment as many times as you need. Once you’re happy with it try playing the progression below.
This is tougher than it looks – don’t be disheartened if it takes a while to sound smooth.
Advanced technique: hammer on from nowhere
It’s worth briefly mentioning this, just so you know all your options.
Some shred virtuosos like to make certain runs sound as fluid as possible by completely avoiding picked notes.
- This is a very tricky technique to master and requires a lot of precision.
- To execute it properly, you need to strike the fret with force and accuracy while muting all the other strings – NOT easy!
Here are some guitarists worth checking out if you’re interested in this technique
- Greg Howe
- Rick Graham
- Tom Quayle
- Allan Holdsworth
For a more in-depth explanation with practice exercises, take a look at this article from Guitar World.
Pull offs on guitar
Now it’s time to get into the other half of guitar’s most popular power couple.
Again, kudos to whoever named this technique – it’s pretty self-explanatory.
What is a pull off?
To perform a pull off, use your fretting-hand finger to pluck the string and make the note below ring out.
- It’s kind of like a hammer on in reverse.
- You need to use slightly more force in your fretting hand than if you were to pick the string.
- Accuracy is key – be sure not to strike other strings as you pull off.
- Use both your left and right hand to mute the strings above and below.
Beginner pull-off technique
Let’s follow a similar path to how we practiced the hammer on.
- Start with your ring finger on the 9th fret of the G string.
- Place your index finger behind on the 7th fret of the same string.
- Now pick the G string and lift your ring finger away and down slightly (towards the floor).
- Make sure you’re not brushing other strings as you pull off.
It’s a very small movement but needs strength and accuracy to make the note ring out clearly.
Once you’ve mastered that, you can hammer on back to the 9th fret, then pull off to the 7th – creating a two-note loop that shouldn’t require any work from your picking hand. Cool, huh?!
Intermediate pull-off technique
It’s time for a little self-discovery…
- Take the chord embellishment sequence we learned for the hammer ons
- Play it in reverse!
- Instead of hammering on up to a note, pull off to the one below.
This is an important lesson to learn. You can use both these techniques as a way to mirror licks or phrases.
Take something like a minor pentatonic scale and play from the lowest note to the highest.
- Use hammer ons when going up
- Use pull offs when going down
- Only pick when you move onto a new string.
Combining hammer ons and pull offs like this is a great way to play fast repeating sequences.
Techniques that stem from hammer ons and pull offs
Guitar techniques tend to evolve over time. You’ll find that once you learn something new, it’ll open up a bunch of other pathways.
Think of it like a ‘technique tree’. There are all these different branches stemming from the trunk, then splitting off into smaller twigs. Let’s take a look at some ideas that grow from the hammer-on/pull-off branch.
What is legato?
Legato is all about creating a string of individual notes that flow into one another seamlessly.
If you pick every note, it creates a sharp attack in between – we don’t want that. So how do we play a long sequence of notes without picking?
You got it – hammer ons and pull offs!
Here’s an amazing demonstration from legato aficionado Tom Quayle:
What is selective picking?
This term was coined by Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders.
He describes selective picking as dividing up your right and left hands when playing a phrase.
- So instead of always picking the first note and then hammering on with your fretting hand, you may ‘hammer on from nowhere’ then pick the following notes.
- Sort of a back-to-front approach to the usual hammer-on technique.
- It will definitely feel a bit weird when you first try it – but stick with it!
- There are some really cool rhythmic opportunities once you get the hang of this technique.
Here’s a little demo from the man himself:
What is tapping on guitar?
Eddie Van Halen popularized tapping in the late 1970s and since then, many guitarists have added this technique to their arsenal.
Here’s the simplest way to think about tapping.
- You bring your picking hand away from the bridge and up to the neck.
- You then use the index or middle finger on your picking hand to hammer on and pull off notes.
Below is a basic two-handed tapping technique starting on the 12th fret
- ‘T’ indicates a tap – play this note with the middle finger of your picking hand.
- Similar to a hammer on you need to hit the string with some force to make it resonate.
- Then follow up by pulling off and down slightly with – as you would a normal pull off.
The rest of the sequence is done with your fretting hand using only hammer ons and pull offs.
To better understand how this technique looks – and its potential – here’s Eddie playing possibly the most famous tapping sequence of all time:
For a deeper dive into this technique, check out our article on tapping.
Learning new techniques like hammer ons and pull offs is crucial for any guitarist looking to increase their musical vocabulary.
There are loads of benefits to these fundamental techniques.
- They serve as a bedrock for any style or genre,
- give you more ways to express yourself; and
- lead on to more advanced concepts - like the ones we just touched on.
It’s always exciting to learn a new trick on the guitar – kinda feels like getting a new toy to play with. If you’re even feeling uninspired, find a technique you’re unfamiliar with and explore it. We guarantee it’ll get the creative juices flowing!
We’ve got tons of lessons covering a range of different topics, genres, and techniques. Whether you have something specific in mind or just want to level up your overall playing – we’ve got you covered.
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Author: Richard Spooner
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