By Ron Jackson
While acoustic-guitar masters from Andrés Segovia to Django Reinhardt are celebrated for their pick-hand prowess, they also made the most of fret-hand techniques and such effects as slurs, vibrato, and harmonics—subtle details that added great expression to their music.
Whatever style you prefer—and regardless of whether you’re more of a soloist or accompanist—you should learn how to get these techniques under your fingers. Feel free to use the following examples as springboards for your own exercises, and practice everything rigorously until you find yourself using these techniques without even thinking about them.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are types of slurs—groups of two or more notes played without separation, indicated in notation and tab by curved lines connecting the notes. Start this week with a series of hammer-on exercises. Throughout these figures, use your first, second, third, and fourth fingers on frets 1, 2, 3, and 4, respectively.
To play Ex. 1a, start with your first finger on the first-fret F. Pick the F; then, without picking the string again, use your fret-hand’s second finger to sound the second-fret F# with a hammering motion. Repeat the process, using your third finger for the hammer-on to the third-fret G and your fourth for the fourth-fret G#. After you’ve gotten the hang of the pattern, transfer it to the five remaining strings and to higher frets as well. Do the same for all of the other examples in this workout.
Ex. 1b and c are based on the same concept as Ex. 1, but using different finger combinations to keep you limber. Ex. 1b introduces an open string, which requires good finger strength to cleanly execute. Take things slowly, making sure that the hammered-on notes ring clearly, at equal volume to the picked notes.
The bar is raised in Ex. 2a and b, which incorporate consecutive or double hammer-ons. To play Ex. 2a, start with your first finger on fret 1 and hammer-on with your second; then add your third finger, arriving at the note G. Keep each fretting finger held in place after it performs its hammer-on. For Ex. 2b repeat the process, adding the G# with your fourth finger.
In Ex. 3a–c, work on some pull-offs. To play the first one, on beat 1, simultaneously depress the third-fret G and fourth-fret Ab with your third and fourth fingers, respectively. Pick string 1, then; 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.
Ex. 4a and b have you tackling consecutive pull-offs. To play Ex. 4a, first place your first, second, and third fingers down on frets 1, 2, and 3, respectively. Pick string 1, and starting with your third finger, pull off one note at a time until only your first finger remains on the string. Use a similar approach, adding your fourth finger on the fourth-fret Ab, to play Ex. 4b.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are often played together within the same musical phrase to create very cool sounds. For Ex. 5a, keep your first finger stationed on the first-fret F, hammer on to G, then pull off to the F before hammering on the fourth fret G#. Use a similar approach in navigating the slurs in Ex. 5b.
A legato slide is another type of slur, indicated in notation by an arch in conjunction with a slanted line. You can execute this articulation by picking a note and then, without lifting your fretting finger(s) from the string, moving into another note(s).
To play the first slide in Ex. 6a, fret the F note with your first finger, pick it, and then slide right up to the F#, making sure you maintain pressure on the string. Repeat this process for the rest of the measure, and try playing the slides with other fret-hand fingers as well. Use the same approach in working through Ex. 6b–d, designed to get you more accustomed to the legato slide.
Once you’re comfortable sliding about, move on to Ex. 7a–d, finger-busters combining slides with hammer-ons and pull-offs. Take these exercises as slowly as you need in order to play them cleanly and evenly; for maximum efficiency, use the suggested fret-hand fingerings. And don’t forget to practice these exercises on all six strings.
Vibrato is a technique involving small fluctuations in pitch, adding expressiveness to single notes or chords.
On the steel-string acoustic guitar, vibrato is typically rendered by using the fret hand’s wrist to rapidly bend the string back and forth in a rocking motion, while on the nylon-string guitar, fret-hand pressure is typically applied parallel to the string.
Regardless of how a vibrato is produced, the technique is indicated with a squiggly horizontal line.
It’s generally a little harder to add vibrato to notes in low positions, so Ex. 8 is situated in the middle of the fretboard, in seventh position, across all six strings. Experiment with different vibration speeds and pitch ranges, and be careful not to stray too far from the main pitch of each note. Practice vibrato in all of the other areas of the neck as well.
You don’t have to be an electric guitarist with a whammy bar to add vibrato to chords. In Ex. 9, you’ll find a series of diminished-seventh chords with roots on strings 4, 5, and 6. Play the chords up and down the neck, using all four fingers to add vibrato. Then, try applying vibrato to some of your favorite closed-position voicings.
Though electric guitarists generally make far more extensive use of string bending than acoustic players, you can definitely add the technique to your arsenal. Ex. 10a depicts the sort of bends you’ll find all over the place in blues and rock. Where you see the 1/4 or quarter-step-sharp indication, nudge the string toward to floor so that its pitch is slightly raised. Try quarter-step bends elsewhere on the neck as well.
Demonstrated in Ex. 10b are some wider bends, of a half step (the equivalent of one fret). Fret each of these bends with your third finger, reinforced by your first and second fingers on the string behind it.
Target the pitch that’s one fret higher than the note being bent. For instance, in the first bend you will be going from C to C#. Play the C# at the sixth fret, to get your ear acclimated, then go back to C and bend up to the C#.
The natural harmonics are chime-like sounds that are produced by touching a string lightly above the fretwire, as opposed to fretting it conventionally. Harmonics are most commonly played at the 12th, seventh, and fifth frets. A harmonic at the 12th fret has the same pitch as its fretted counterpart; that at the seventh fret is an octave higher; and at the fifth fret, an octave plus a fifth higher.
Ex. 11a demonstrates the harmonics at the 12th fret—the easiest ones to produce. Start by placing your first finger right above the fretwire at the 12th fret/first string, then pick the string and remove that finger. Once you’ve mastered that move and can cleanly play harmonics on all six strings, try barring the 12th-fret harmonics to play all of Ex. 11a. Then, take a stab at the trickier harmonics at the seventh and fifth frets, shown in Ex. 11b and c.
Close things out with Ex. 12, in which a series of harmonics at frets 12, 7, and 5, arranged in a symmetrical pattern, makes a nice E-minor melody. Play this one slowly, using your fourth, third, and first fingers to produce the chiming notes.
Once you’re comfortable playing natural harmonics and other fret-hand techniques, be sure to experiment with combining them in ways not depicted in this lesson, and use them to take your music to new places.
Ron Jackson is a New York City master jazz guitarist, composer, arranger, producer, and educator who’s played with Taj Mahal, Jimmy McGriff, Randy Weston, Ron Carter, and many others. Learn more at practicejazzguitar.com.