What are Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs, and other Slurs on the Guitar?
What are Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs, and other Slurs on the Guitar?
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are performed by hitting or pulling the string with the left hand so that right hand does not need to pick. When played well, slurs add a smoothness or legato to the sound. From Vivaldi's Concerto For Lute in D or Pearl Jam's Yellow Ledbetter, slurs are integral to the sound of some of the greatest music written.
Even while writing this article, I know that I'm going to be correcting this common mistake for as long as I teach lessons. Most guitar students have no idea how to play slurs. Among guitarists, slurs are more commonly labeled as one of the following: hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides.
So many guitarists struggle with slurs! So many things can go wrong until you know what to do. Let's tackle this beast.
1) They're called "hammer-ons" for a reason.
Let's do a hammer-on together to get started. With the index finger of your left hand, play the 5th fret of the 1st string. While holding that note, lift the 3rd finger (ring) out from the neck. Without doing anything else with the right hand, bring the 3rd finger hard down onto the 7th fret of the 1st string. If performed well, the note B should ring out clearly after the hammer. If the note didn't sound or if it was quiet you might have some work to do.
When you're hammering an actual nail, the distance your hammer travels before hitting the nail is correlated with how far the nail gets pushed into the wood. The same is true in guitar. Don't feel bad about bringing your hammering finger far away from the neck. That space allows time for the finger to build momentum. Most people need to spend some time developing accuracy, but it will come. With just a little practice, most people hit slurs consistently.
I often joke with my students that I want them to break the neck of the guitar by hammering-on. I say, "I challenge you to actually break through the neck with your finger. If you can do it, I'll give you ten dollars."
Notice how far the left hand finger is away from the fretboard. This extreme position will set you up to play phenomenal hammers!
Students often voice concerns that allowing the fingers to travel so far away from the fretboard will slow them down or cause them to do extra work.
It's counterintuitive, but by allowing the hammering finger to move far and freely above the fretboard, the fingers can move with less tension. Thus, the fingers will actually move faster.
Check out the guy in the picture below. Notice that his third finger is far above the fretboard prepared to slam a solid hammer-on. He knows whats going on!
One more quick note about hammer-ons: the finger holding down the first note in the two note sequence should remain down until the hammering finger has firmly landed on the new note. Many beginners trying this for the first time will lift that finger too soon.
This has two consequences:
(1) The hammering finger loses leverage to do a strong strike on the string. Thus, it is unable to "hammer."
(2) This also causes the initial note to end too soon. Thus, the phrase loses its legato.
2) Okay, you've got distance, but is your hammer made of rubber?
Set up the left hand by making sure that your hammering finger has an equal bend in each joint before hitting the string. When the finger lands, make sure that none of these joints collapse.
For beginners, it is common for either the tip joint or the middle joint of a finger to "go flat" when the fingertip hits the fretboard.
This dissipates the pressure and the hammered note will not ring loud or at all.
3) What are the first 5 most important elements of music? (1) Rhythm (2) rhythm (3) rhythm (4) rhythm (5) everything else.
Okay! You can play a strong hammer-on! Now just one more thing... Are you playing it evenly? Let's find out.
Turn on a metronome to 60 Bpm. Play the initial note on a click and then play the hammer on the next click. Most people are so involved in making the slur happen at all that they short the first note. Through careful practice with the metronome, a hammer can be landed on the fret right in time with the metronome.
Many people find timing slurs like this to be quite difficult! Don't give up. If you've never worked on rhythm like this before, there's no way that you'll be able to play with the metronome immediately. With careful regular practice, your sense of rhythm will develop and you will be able to play even slurs.
Commit to playing with the metronome everyday for 6 months. If you can show up everyday and do 15 to 30 minutes of practice with a metronome your rhythm will improve dramatically! And this will improve literally everything else that you play.
If you don't have rhythm, you don't have anything.
Check out the VGG definition of hammer on.
4) It's a "pull-off" not a "let-off."
Let's do a "pull-off" together. Place your 1st finger (index) on the 5th fret of the first string and your 3rd finger (ring) on the 7th fret. Pluck the 7th fret note, then curl or pull your third finger toward the floor. This left hand motion will restrike the string causing the 5th fret note to ring.
Often, new guitarists will simply lift the finger directly off of the string and wonder why nothing happened! When a pull off is done correctly, the left hand literally plucks the note.
The next question frequently asked is, "what about the string below if I'm pulling off on a string other than 1?" The answer is simple: just let that pulling finger land on that string.
Most of the time, the higher pitched string won't be ringing anyway. If the rare situation comes up that a higher string is ringing above a slur, you can train your hand to do the same movement without bumping that string.
As with the hammer on, do this work with a metronome and even out the rhythm. Commonly, the first note of the pull of gets cheated.
Check out a "pull off" video here: Pull-off
5) The electric slide...
Sometimes a more convenient slur is a "slide." Play the 4th fret on the 1st string. With a forceful motion slide the finger up so that it comes to rest on the fifth fret.
Let's try a descending slide. Play the 5th fret on the 1st string and slide the finger so that it comes to rest right behind the 4th fret. Now, try a big slide. Play the 12th fret on the first string and slide down to the 5th fret on the first string. A big slide like this is called a portamento- click the link to see the definition of that word.
Descending slides are slightly more difficult than the ascending. The trick is to maintain pressure on the string directly behind the fret where your finger stops moving.
I have to say it.... Practice these with a metronome. Play them evenly!