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Hammer-ons and pull-offs
The next important aspect of playing the guitar is pressing individual fingers down. We do this when we play scales and licks, and a great way to strengthen your left hand is to work on hammer-ons. A hammer-on is the action where you pick the first note, but not the second. Instead, your left-hand finger presses down into the fret with enough force to make the note sound. It requires some skill and strength, but you end up with a different sound because instead of a pick plucking the string near the bridge, you’re going to generate the sound from the fret itself. To illustrate this, Fig. 8 takes the basic pentatonic scale and uses a hammer-on for the second note on each string.
Not only does this sound different, but it can enable you to play faster than you normally would because you don’t have to worry about your pick following along, since it only has to strike the string every other note. Now, I’d really love you to use the fourth finger in Fig. 8. It’s so easy to play pentatonic scales with your third finger stretched out for both the three- and four-fret spans, but the goal here is to make your hands work better, and you need to involve the fourth finger. You’ll thank me for it.
Fig. 9 takes the same idea and applies it to a 3-note-per-string G major scale shape. It’s a nice fluid way to ascend the strings and because you don’t have the hard attack of the pick, it sounds much smoother.
The key to getting a good, clean hammer-on is striking the string just hard enough to make it sound. There’s no need to hit it too hard, as it won’t make it any louder or clearer. Experiment a bit and see if you can control your left hand to hit only as hard as you need. Note: You’ll find that the more distortion you have on, the easier you can hammer and still get a good sounding note.
The opposite of a hammer-on is a pull-off, where you pick the first note, but then pull-off from a higher finger to a lower finger. Hammer-ons are for ascending notes, and pull-offs are for descending notes. With that in mind, we can apply this to a pentatonic scale and get the sister lick to Fig. 8 as we descend the pentatonic scale in Fig. 10.
Now, it you combine the two, you can flow up an A minor pentatonic with hammer-ons and down it with pull-offs, like in Fig. 11.
The key to getting a good pull-off is to use an anchor finger. In order to make a pull-of sound good, you’re essentially using the higher finger to pull the note and release it with a snap. The snap is enough to make the note sound, because you’re essentially plucking the string with the higher finger. In order to really get a good snap, your lower finger has to hold the string tightly. It’s impossible to get a good pull-off unless the lower finger (also called the anchor finger) isn’t holding the string down hard enough to stop it from moving. If the top finger doesn’t have a taught or tight string to snap against, you’re not going to get a good sound. Make sure that as you practice pulling-off, you do it with a tight anchor finger.
In Fig. 12 each finger gets to be an anchor finger (except the fourth). When pulling off the fourth, the third finger is the anchor, when the third finger pulls off, the second finger is the anchor, and so on. The example looks easy on paper, but it’s harder than it looks. Just like hammering-on, pulling-off uses your pick less often, and has a unique sound that’s more fluid.