How to Play and Perfect Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs on Guitar

What are hammer-ons and pull-offs?

Hammer-ons and Pull-offs are among the first techniques you should learn as a new guitarist. They’re a way to switch from one note to another without plucking the same string twice.

These are beneficial for a couple of reasons. First of all, they provide a smooth transition from one note to another. While playing one string and then another has a choppier feel to it, hammer-ons and pull-offs create a more fluid sound. In music, this smooth quality is referred to as legato.

Secondly, they allow you to play more notes in quick succession without increasing your picking speed. Picking fast sections of songs can be tricky, but with hammer-ons or pull-offs you can theoretically halve the amount of picking strokes you need to make, since you’re only picking once per two notes.

Bear in mind, though, that this is rarely the case. These techniques require both notes to be on the same string, so if you’re moving between different strings you won’t always be able to utilize hammer-ons or pull-offs.

How to play hammer-ons on guitar

Hammering-on is fairly simple, but there are a couple of rules you must keep in mind:

  • The second note (the hammer-on) must be played on the same string as the first note.
  • The second note (the hammer-on) must be played on a higher fret than the first note.

You can hammer-on beginning with an open string or anywhere on the fretboard, as long as there’s a fret further down (e.g. if you have a 22-fret Stratocaster you can’t hammer-on starting at the 22nd fret, as there’s nowhere to go from there).

Play the first note, then rapidly drive your finger onto the second note. It will sound out, even though you didn’t pick the string again, since it’s still vibrating from the first note.

What fingers should you use for hammer-ons?

You can use any finger to play the second note, however there are some common conventions for hammer-ons:

  • If the first note is an open string, it’s most common to use your index finger to hammer-on.
  • If the notes are on adjacent frets (for instance, a 5th-to-6th-fret hammer-on), it’s most common to use your index finger for the first note and your middle finger for the second.
  • If the notes are two frets apart (5th-to-7th-fret hammer-on, for example), it’s most common to use your index finger for the first note and ring finger for the second.
  • If the notes are more than two frets apart, you should typically use your index finger and pinky for the first and second notes, respectively.
Hammer-ons in the ocean by Led Zeppelin
Hammer-ons

In the example above, from the first measure of The Ocean, guitarists almost always use their second finger on the fifth fret and their ring finger on the seventh fret.

How to play pull-offs on guitar

Pull-offs are played nearly identically to hammer-ons, but in reverse. In other words, instead of playing the first note on a lower fret and then hammering onto a higher fret, the first note is played on a higher fret and then “pulled off,” hence the name.

Like hammer-ons, pull-offs must follow two rules:

  • The second note must be played on the same string as the first note.
  • The second note must be played on a lower fret than the first note.

To play a pull-off, make sure that both notes are fretted. For instance, if you’re trying to play the section below from Heartbreaker, make sure that you’re fretting both the fifth-fret and second-fret G string.

Pull-offs

Now pluck the G string, then remove your finger from the fifth fret. Now, the second-fret note will ring out. In the example above, it’s actually a three-note pull-off; to play it correctly you must play the fifth-fret note, then the second-fret, then pull off to let the open G ring out.

What fingers should you use for hammer-ons?

Pull-offs follow the same general rules as hammer-ons in terms of fingering, but reversed:

  • If the second note is an open string, it’s most common to play the first note with your index finger.
  • If the notes are on adjacent frets (a 6th-to-5th-fret pull-off, for instance), it’s most common to use your index and middle finger.
  • If the notes are two frets apart (7th-to-5th-fret, for example), it’s most common to use your index and ring finger.
  • If the notes are three or more frets apart, you should typically use your index and pinky fingers.

How to practice hammer-ons and pull-offs

It’s easy to practice hammer-ons and pull-offs. Just sit down with your guitar and begin to play them at different locations and strings on the fretboard.

Practice different variations. Use these techniques on close-together frets and try to play farther-stretching ones. Practice them starting or ending with open strings.

Many songs make use of these techniques, so once you have the basic hang of them you should begin to use them in actual songs.

What songs use hammer-ons and pull-offs?

Here are a few songs that use hammer-ons and pull-offs:

Garrison Bates
Garrison Bates loves music. He started playing and learning piano at age four and guitar at eleven. He began studying music theory when he was young and especially enjoys rock 'n' roll, old country, and folk music.
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