By Pete Madsen
One of the best ways to add an expressive character to your playing is through the use of slurs (slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs), bends, and vibrato. So much of the vocal quality guitar players like to emulate comes from the fret-hand manipulation of the strings. In this lesson, you’ll take the A minor pentatonic scale and use it to create musical phrases that allow you to manipulate the strings using these various techniques.
In Ex. 1, find the scale that you’ll use for producing a series of licks, diagrammed in fifth position. As its name suggests, the minor pentatonic is a five-note scale—produced here in two octaves—built from the formula of 1 b3 4 5 b7 (A C D E G in the key of A minor). My general rule of thumb when practicing scales is to dedicate one finger per fret. So, when playing this particular pattern, use your index finger for all the fifth-fret notes, your pinky for those at the eighth fret, and your third finger for the seventh-fret notes. Take a moment to play through the scale using alternate (down/up) picking—this will come in useful for one of the later exercises.
In Ex. 2, practice sliding between two notes of the scale on each string. Start by using your first finger. Then pick the sixth string at the fifth fret and slide up to the eighth fret without picking the string again. Make sure to maintain pressure as you slide. You can practice this movement slowly and then work up your speed without sacrificing accuracy. Repeat this process on each string. Then extend the exercise by using your second, third, and fourth fingers to perform the slides.
Ex. 3 shows hammer-ons that are produced when one fretted note is picked then immediately followed by a different finger striking the string in a hammer-like action. In order to get a good sound with the hammer-ons make sure you have a solid grip on the fifth-fret notes prior to the hammered-on note, and then “flick” your third finger to produce the slur.
The opposite of the hammer-on is the pull-off. To play the first two beats of Ex. 4, simultaneously fret the seventh-fret D with your third finger and the fifth-fret C with your index. Then pick the third string and pull your finger off of the string and away from the fretboard, sounding the lower note. I find that the action is more of a pull-down-and-off, which produces a better sound than simply lifting your finger from the string.
Variations on the hammer-on and pull-off techniques are shown in Ex. 5 and 6. For the triplet (three notes in the space normally occupied by two) hammer-on, bar the first and second strings with your index finger; pick the second string with a downstroke, hammer on with your fourth finger, and then pick the fifth-fret A with an upstroke. This can be a little tricky in that you have to keep your fourth finger from touching the first string to sound the last note of the triplet. For the pull-off triplet, keep the first string barred; pick down on the fifth-fret E, and then pick up on the eighth-fret C.
String Bending & Vibrato
String bending is another great tool for expression. It’s a bit harder to do on an acoustic guitar than an electric, so you’ll work with small interval bends. In Ex. 7, fret the second-string G and bend the string to G#. It will help to reinforce your third finger with your first and second fingers on the same string. I’ve stepped away from the one-finger-per fret rule here because the tandem of the first, second and third fingers works best to produce the bend.
The key to getting a good-sounding bend—and a good vibrato, as well—is to use your wrist, not your fingers, to push the string. Try holding your guitar neck with the first knuckle of your first finger (closet to wrist) anchored on the bottom of the neck around the fifth fret, while you fret the note at the eighth fret with your third finger. You can now use your knuckle as a fulcrum, rotating your wrist upward— towards you—to push the string up. You can test to see how accurate your bend is by fretting the note at the ninth fret and listening to hear if it is the same pitch as your bend.
The emotive content of your bend can be measured by the duration of the bend. In Ex. 7, you played an eighth-note bend. In Ex. 7a, you’ll do a quarter-note bend; in 7b, a half-note. Shorter durations can reflect urgency, while longer durations give your playing a commanding sound.
In Ex. 8, bend the sixth string at the eighth fret. Notice the 1/4 marking for this bend. This is a microtonal bend—a note smaller than a semitone—and the 1/4, or quarter-step marking, is more of an estimate than an actual pitch. You can think of these bends more like a vibrato.
The description of the half-step bend in Ex. 7 also relates to the physical movement of a rock or blues-based vibrato. Critical to the sound of a good vibrato is the idea of tension and release. If you adopt the same hand position of Ex. 7 and push the second-string G up a microtone by rotating your wrist, you must then relax your hand and allow the string to return to its original position—not by pulling or pushing the note, but by letting your fret hand return naturally to its original position. Repeating the process faster or slower will produce the desired effect. Try the vibrato in Ex. 9.
Ex. 10 gives you a four-bar solo to try out your slurs, bends, and vibrato. Start out with a triplet pull-off, then proceed to a triplet bend and release—the note should be picked, then bent and returned to the original pitch without picking the string again. In the second measure of this example, you perform a quick slide on the third string to the seventh from the fifth fret, then walk down to the fourth string and finish with a hammer-on and vibrato. The third measure starts with a pull-off and a walk down to the sixth string with a microtonal bend. The last bar uses two triplet hammer-ons and ends with a quick slide and long vibrato.
You can also combine techniques. For instance, you could bend a note, release, and pull-off to another note; or slide into a note, then perform a series of extended pull-offs. Try expanding these techniques to other scales and string runs.
Taking your time to develop your slurring abilities will pay off by making you an expressive player that people will really want to listen to.
Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area-based author, instructor, and performing guitarist. Learn more at learnbluesguitarnow.com.