You want to enhance your rhythm playing by adding hammer-ons and pull-offs to chords—an essential technique used in all styles on the acoustic guitar.
Brush up on your fretting-hand technique, using single notes as well as chords, before tackling some typical examples.
1. Start with Single Notes and Double Stops
Remember: To execute a hammer-on, first pick a fretted note or an open string. Then sound a higher note on the same string by fretting it with a hammering motion instead of picking it. To do a pull-off, simultaneously fret two notes on the same string. Pick the string and, keeping the finger on the lower fret in place, pull downward on the finger at the higher fret, causing the lower note to sound. (You can also pull off to an open string.) Whether you’re doing a hammer-on or pull-off, the goal is for both notes to sound smoothly articulated and at equal volume.
Try Example 1—a repeated hammer-on (as indicated by the curved line in notation and tablature) from the open A string to the third-fret C. Fret the C with your third finger, and make sure not to accidentally sound any of the adjacent strings in the process. Once you’ve got that down, move on to Example 2, which adds a second note, E, best fretted with your first finger. With a bit of careful practice, you should be able to play these hammer-ons at the exact same time.
2. Add Some Chords
Things get a little trickier with three-note chords. In Example 3, hammer on a C/G chord with your second, third, and first fingers on strings 6, 5, and 4, respectively. The concept is extended up and down strings 6–4 in Example 4. Take it very slowly at first and gradually increase the tempo as you gain confidence. Hammer on the major chords (C/G, F/C, and G/D) with the same shape you used in Ex. 3; for the minor chords (Dm/A and Em/B), use your third, fourth, and first fingers, lowest note to highest.
3. Repeat the Process Using Pull-Offs
Like a hammer-on, a pull-off is also notated with a curved line connecting two or more notes. In bar 1 of Example 5, repeatedly pull off the third-fret C to the open A string. Use your third finger to fret the C. Be sure to avoid yanking the string sharp as you execute the pull-off, and remember to strive for smoothness. In the following measure, add the second-fret E with your first finger, and then in Example 6 add the third-fret G with your second finger. Example 7 advances the pull-offs through the same basic chord progression as Ex. 4. Be sure to keep steady time as you work through this one; use a metronome if needed. Also, heads-up on the last bar, which contains a combination pull-off/hammer-on. Pick only the first beat of this measure.
4. Put It All in Context
Now try some more context-based examples of chords decorated with hammer-ons and pull-offs. Example 8 illustrates the common progression of A–D/F#—the sort of embellishment heard often in songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock.” On the A chord, bar strings 5–2 with your index finger, and keep it held as you hammer on the third and fourth frets with your second and third fingers. Similarly, Example 9 toggles between C and G chords. Fret the C chord with fingers 3, 2, 1, and 4 on strings 5, 4, 2, and 1, and the hammer-ons with fingers 1 and 2 on strings 2 and 4.
Example 10 demonstrates soulful embellishments on a single chord, Em7—an idea used often in R&B. Fret the Em7 with your first finger barring fret 7 across strings 5–1, and hammer on the eighth- and ninth-fret notes with your second and third fingers. Example 11 develops these variations further by adding single-note embellishments over the ringing Em7 chord. Keeping the barre held in place at the seventh fret, use your fourth finger to hammer on and pull off the 10th-fret D and your third finger for the ninth-fret notes.
Once you’re familiar with these basics, try adding hammer-ons and pull-offs to spruce up your favorite chords and progressions.
Jeff Gunn is author of Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar series, guitarist/musical director for Emmanuel Jal, and composer of All the Roads We Take (2017). jeffgunn.ca.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.