Learn this essential guitar technique.
By Jeff Owens
In guitar tablature, a hammer-on is denoted by the letter “H” as seen in Figure 1 below, which starts with a hammer-on from the fifth fret to the eighth fret on the low E string.
Pull-offs are denoted by the letter “P” as seen in Figure 2 below, which starts with a pull-off on the eighth fret to the fifth fret of the high E string.
When you start learning to play guitar or bass, you’ll quickly discover that there are useful ways to sound notes other than just plucking them. Two of the most useful ways are those dexterous twins of fingering technique, the hammer-on and the pull-off.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs complement each other nicely, and are so instinctive and ever-present in guitar music that we wouldn’t even call them tricks. They’re just simply a part of how guitar is played, both acoustic and electric.
Physically, there’s nothing to it—when you’ve learned one, you’ve pretty much learned the other, too. So let’s begin with a simple hammer-on, and the pull-off will follow.
Hold a note down on a fret with your index finger. Any fret on any string. Pluck the note, and then tap your middle finger down sharply on the same string a fret or two up from the first fretted note. There—you’ve now sounded two notes even though you only plucked the string once. You’ve done a hammer-on. You, musical friend, have hammered on.
Now, it doesn’t matter which fingers you use—you can hammer-on with your index and middle fingers; index and ring fingers; middle finger and pinkie; whatever you need to do to get the job done. Nor does it matter how many frets apart the two notes are—you are bound only by the reach of the fingers of your fretting hand. Most hammer-ons are one, two or three frets apart, but if you can do several frets apart (easier on the upper frets), more power to you.
A pull-off is basically a hammer-on in reverse. Once you’ve done a hammer-on with your other finger on the other fret, now just pull that finger off the fret, pulling on the string a little with that finger as you do so and letting the note ring. There—you’ve pulled off a pull-off.
You can see from these basic instructions that it’s possible to sound a note, hammer-on and then pull-off, thus sounding three notes despite only plucking the string once. This musical seesawing can in theory go on indefinitely, as long as you can keep up sustain and volume (easier on electric guitar than acoustic) A rapid such series of hammer-ons and pull-offs between a single pair of notes is called a trill. A trill is denoted by the letters “tr” and a wavy line as seen in the last note of Figure 3 below. The note number in parentheses indicates the note to hammer-on and pull-off. If no note is shown in parentheses, just hammer-on and pull-off the note directly above in the given scale.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs let you tie notes together smoothly, cleanly and quickly, with no silence between them. Both are note articulation methods referred to in formal musical notation as legato (Italian for, literally, “tied together”).