Decorating Open Chords with Hammer-ons and Pull-offs

This basic lesson focuses on using hammer-ons and pull-offs with open chords—creating classic sounds heard throughout roots, country, and rock guitar styles.

Once you’ve got a good handle on the basic open chords and holding a steady rhythm, a great way to level up your accompaniment is using chord embellishments—adding notes or figures over the familiar chord shapes. These kinds of small variations take you beyond continuously strumming block chords and add a touch of melody to your accompaniment. If you develop them further, chord embellishments can be the building blocks of riffs or even passages of chord melody.

This lesson kicks off a Basics series on chord embellishments, and in this installment we’ll focus on using hammer-ons and pull-offs with open chords—creating classic sounds heard throughout roots, country, and rock guitar styles.

Two Notes in One

First, a word about hammer-ons and pull-offs, both of which are ways to sound notes using your fretting fingers. (Hat tip to Pete Seeger for coining these terms in his pioneering book How to Play the 5-String Banjo back in the 1940s.) In a hammer-on, you pick a note and then sound a higher note on the same string by dropping your fretting finger onto the fingerboard—without using your flatpick (or picking finger) for the second note. In a pull-off, you do the opposite: you pick a note and then sound a lower note on the same string by pulling your fretting finger off the string with a little downward tug. 

Hammers and pulls are helpful for speed, since they allow you to sound two (or more) notes with a single picking stroke. But more than that, they create a slur—a smoother and more connected sound than you get when picking every note. As an illustration, check out the short phrase in Example 1. Play it first by picking every note, as shown in measure 1, and then in measure 2 by using hammer-ons for the first two pairs of notes—the curved lines indicate the slurs. The notes are the same, but the articulation is very different.

Hammer-ons with Chords

Now let’s incorporate hammer-ons with some open chords. In Example 2, hold down a C shape and, on the first two beats, play a bass note and strum. Then, while maintaining the shape, lift up your second finger, play the fourth string open, and hammer onto the second fret. On the last beat, add a light strum on the high strings.


Example 3 applies the same basic pattern to G, A, D, and E chords. With the A, D, and E shapes, the note you are hammering onto is the fifth of the chord, while with the C and G shapes, you are hammering onto the third of the chord. So the sound of the embellishment is a bit different, but the underlying technique is the same.

If you take the E pattern from Ex. 3 and flip it around so the hammer-on falls on the first beat, you get Example 4, which may sound familiar: it’s the riff Willie Nelson uses in “On the Road Again.” You could apply the same sort of pattern to a song like Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

A hammer-on like this also works nicely on an F chord, if you skip the barre and play a reduced voicing on the middle four strings—an F/C. This fingering makes it easy to hammer onto the third string with your second finger, as shown in Example 5

Since you’re holding down chord shapes in these examples, you can thicken the embellishment by adding in strings above or below the hammer-on. In Example 6, play double-stops (two notes simultaneously) with the hammered notes. On the C chord in measure 1, play the third string along with the fourth-string hammer-on; in measure 2, play the fifth string with the hammer-on. Continuing with the example, try similar double-stop embellishments on Am and G. You can apply this idea to any of the other chord shapes as well. 

So far we’ve been hammering onto notes on the lower end of the chord shapes. You can also hammer onto higher notes, as with the D and A embellishments in Example 7. On the D chord, start off with the first string open, then hammer onto the second fret. On the A, start with the second string open and then hammer onto the second fret. (Note that this won’t work with a barre fingering for A; use the fingerings X01230 or X02130.) 

Similarly, in Example 8, hammer onto the first string in a Dm shape and the second string in an Am, this time placing the hammer on beat 1. 


Pull-offs with Chords

Next, check out some pull-off embellishments, in which you’re pulling off one of your fretting fingers to sound the open string below. In this case, the pull-off sounds a note that is not part of the chord, so often it’s combined with a hammer-on that resolves to the chord tone. That’s what happens in Example 9

On the C, play a pull-off in measure 1 to sound the open D string; and in measure 2, hammer back onto the second fret. In measures 3 and 4, apply the same pattern to G. 

On the D and A (the first two measures on page 43), play a different pattern with an alternating bass. Take these slowly at first and note the alternating pick directions: downstrokes on the beats and upstrokes on the offbeats.

String Chords Together

These embellishments really come to life when you start using them in chord progressions. Here are a few examples based on chord patterns in classic songs.

Example 10 uses the beginning of the verse progression from John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (capo at the second fret to match the original key). The hammer-on pattern on G, C, and Em is the same one we practiced in Ex. 3. On the D, play a hammer-on on the top string in measure 5, then at the end of measure 6, leave the top string open (a Dsus2) to smooth the transition to the C. 


The progression in Example 11 comes from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The hammer-on embellishment is similar to the last example. In measure 7, use a pull-off to create a bass line that carries you from G back to Am.

Finally, Example 12, inspired by Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers,” uses different rhythms but the same basic hammer/pull technique. On the F/C and C chords (capoed at the fifth fret), play hammer-ons as grace notes on the downbeats. On F/C, for instance, strum the chord with the third string open and quickly hammer onto the second fret. Do the same on the C, initially leaving the fourth string open and hammering onto the second fret. Also, at the end of measure 2, pull off the fourth string—giving you a lead-in to the G chord that follows.

Try adding these types of embellishments to other songs in your repertoire: hammering onto, or pulling off of, one of the notes in a chord shape. If you’re singing, the pause between vocal lines is an especially good time to step in with an embellishment.

The Basics - Decorating Chords with Hammer-ons and Pull-offs musical notation and guitar tablature (page 1)


The Basics - Decorating Chords with Hammer-ons and Pull-offs musical notation and guitar tablature (page 2)
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 347

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, founding editor of Acoustic Guitar, is a grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, Beyond Strumming, and other books and videos for musicians. In addition to his ongoing work with AG, he offers live workshops for guitarists and songwriters, plus video lessons, song charts, and tab, on Patreon.

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