In this lesson we’re going to work on two foundational techniques of guitar playing, hammer-ons and pull-offs. At first these techniques may feel a bit difficult and awkward, but with focused practice they’ll become an integral part of your playing.
These exercises can be a bit taxing, particularly if you’re a beginner player. So not only will the exercises in this lesson help you develop your hammer-on/pull-off technique, they’re also sure to give you quite a workout and help strengthen your fingers in the process.
What are hammer-ons and pull-offs?
Before we get into the exercises, let’s define what these techniques are and what they can do for your playing.
A hammer-on is a fretting hand technique where you forcefully “hammer” your finger onto the string to make the note sound. It works as an alternative to picking every note and creates a smoother transition from note to note. Also, because these notes aren’t picked, they can often be played faster than if they were picked.
In guitar tab, hammer-ons are notated with an H above before the note being played as a hammer-on, as you can see in the example guitar tab. In the tab you would pick the note on the first fret of the 6th string and hammer-on the 2nd fret note.
Pull-offs are just the opposite of hammer-ons. Instead of hammering your finger onto the string, you pull the finger off the string to make the note sound. Similar to hammer-ons, pull-offs also make for smooth transitions between notes and can be played faster than if picking the note.
Pull-offs are notated similar to hammer-ons in guitar tab. The only different is the letter P is used in place of the H. In this tab example, you would pick the note on the 2nd fret of the 6th string and pull-off to sound the note on the 1st fret.
First we’ll start with some basic hammer-on exercises that progress from single string to multiple strings incorporating chromatic patterns and scale patterns.
For each exercise, you want to be forceful with the hammer-on, but be sure to be clean as well. This will help build strength and ensure the note doesn’t sound muted when played.
Quick note before you begin the exercises. Because hammer-ons and pull-offs require a good bit of finger strength, you’ll find keeping them in time will be a challenge, particularly at first. Because some fingers are stronger than others, it’s easy to lose tempo when using different fingers or switching between fingers. I highly recommend using a metronome for all exercises to ensure a consistent tempo is kept throughout the exercises.
Hammer-on Exercise 1
In this first exercise, we’re going to concentrate on one finger at a time and perform four hammer-ons each. The index finger stays in place while you work through your middle, ring, and pinky fingers. This exercise should be practiced all over the neck. You can move up the fretboard fret by fret, with your index finger starting on fret 1, fret 2, etc. You should also move it vertically across the fretboard and practice it across all six strings.
Hammer-on Exercise 2
This exercise builds on the first one and is a bit more challenging. In this exercise, each hammer-on is only one fret away from the fretted note. This takes away some of the extra hand movement that could be utilized in the previous exercise and puts more focused attention on the finger that is performing the hammer-on, forcing it to work harder. This will help with both strength and coordination.
Similar to the hammer-on exercises above, we’ll start pretty basic with the pull-off exercises and progress to more challenging and integrated exercises. Note that when performing pull-offs, they need to be played with some force, almost as a flick of the finger, in order to get them to sound cleanly. However, they can’t be performed in a sloppy manner. The movement needs to be controlled so you don’t unintentionally sound adjacent strings.
Pull-off Exercise 1
Similar to the first hammer-on exercise, this pull-off exercise focuses on each finger individually, performing four pull-offs per finger. This exercise should be performed up and down the fretboard as well as across all strings.
Pull-off Exercise 2
With this exercise we’re basically just doing the opposite of hammer-on exercise two. Again, with each note just a fret away, it forces the fingers to work a bit harder by taking away any extra movement that can be used when the notes are two or more frets away.
Combining Hammer-on and Pull-off Exercises
The previous exercises worked in isolation to focus attention on each technique. The following exercises utilize both hammer-ons and pull-offs, which helps you integrate the movements more naturally into your playing.
Chromatic Hammer-on/Pull-off Exercise
With this exercise, we’re going to ascend vertically across the fretboard using chromatic hammer-ons. We’ll then descend using chromatic pull-offs.
Chromatic Hammer-on/Pull-off Exercise 2
This exercise combines both hammer-ons and pull-offs on the same string so you’re moving fluently from one technique to the next. You’ll pick the first note for each technique and use hammer-ons or pull-offs to play the rest.
With this exercise, you can climb the fretboard horizontally by moving the index finger up one fret after each set of hammer-ons and pull-offs. Repeat this across all strings.
Chromatic Hammer-on/Pull-off Exercise 3
With this exercise, you pick only the first note and continue the rest of the pattern using only hammer-ons and pull-offs. As stated before, be sure to use a metronome to keep time. As fatigue sets in it’ll be easy to lose your timing.
Integrating Hammer-on and Pull-off Exercises into Scales
With foundational technique and integrated hammer-on and pull-off exercises under your belt, let’s move into scale applications for the techniques. The exercises below are applied to the pentatonic and major scales, but they can be used for the minor scale, harmonic minor, or any other scale pattern.
Hammer-on/Pull-off Pentatonic Exercise 1
Ascending you’re going to use hammer-ons, picking only the low note on the string and hammering on to the higher note. Descending you’re going to use pull-offs, this time picking the higher note on the string and pulling off to the lower note for each string.
Hammer-on/Pull-off Pentatonic Exercise 2
This exercise is similar to the previous, only with this one you’ll be stuttering between ascending and descending movements while playing vertically across the fretboard. On the ascending stutter you’re going to stick with hammer-ons and on the descending stutter you’ll stick with pull-offs.
Hammer-on/Pull-off Major Scale Exercise
The following exercise applies hammer-ons and pull-offs to the major scale. This exercise can be a little tricky at first, so take your time and get the pattern down so it can be played cleanly.
You’re going to find that you’ll need to pick a few notes when transitioning from string to string. It’s really important to use a metronome for this type of exercise as it’s really easy to lose your timing when going between strings in this manner.
You can apply this exercise to all major scale patterns.
Guitar hammer-ons and pull-offs are foundational techniques that need focused time and attention to master. It’s easy to fall into the trap of lazily getting by with poor technique, particularly for these techniques. Utilizing the exercises in this lesson and putting in the effort to play them correctly and in time will do wonders for your playing.
Cheat Sheet: Hammer-on Pull-off Exercises
Download the cheat sheet for this lesson: