Learning to play hammer-ons is essential to your progression as a guitarist.
Along with pull-offs, slides and bends, these types of slurs will make your playing instantly quicker, smoother and more professional-sounding.
When you hear a guitarist playing blazing fast lead lines, they are often using slurs to facilitate their movements instead of picking each note. Top-notch hammer-ons will enhance your speed and help your playing sound legato, or connected – two things most players strive for.
Almost all guitarists use a mixed bag of picked notes and slurs. Some world-class players – Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, and Allan Holdsworth immediately come to mind – have even built their entire style on copious amounts of hammering, pulling, bending and sliding. Whereas picking gives your notes more attack, slurs make your lines sound a little looser and groovier, less rigid.
In The Definitive Lesson: Hammer-ons, you’ll learn proper hammer-on techniques that will immediately take your lead playing up a notch. Let’s rock!
Two (or More) For One
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Kill two birds with one stone.”
That’s the concept behind slurring; you generate two or more notes in the fretting hand with only one pluck of the string.
[Note: The following video will demonstrate all of the techniques and exercises explained in this lesson. Rather than embed multiple short clips, I combined all of the clips into one video, so you may need to pause the video periodically to read the corresponding text.]
Typically, the easiest slur to learn is the hammer-on. Simply fret one note, pluck the string, and play a second note with the left hand, by “hammering” on another finger, as the name implies. It’s pretty straightforward.
Let’s check out an example step by step:
1 – Fret the A note on string 1/fret 5 with finger 1.
2 – Pluck the string with the pick or your thumb.
3 – While the string is ringing, “hammer” onto a Bb note by slamming the tip of finger 2 onto fret 6.
It’s important that you “seesaw” your fingers as you execute this technique; that is, as finger 2 hammers down, you release finger 1 from the string.
Although some teachers like to demonstrate the hammer-on with an anchored finger 1, I think this is the wrong approach. Many times you are going to be traveling to a new string after the hammer-on, so you’ll need finger 1 released from the string and free to move. I think it’s good to practice that idea from the start.
I coined this move the “seesaw” because it’s an easy cue to visualize; when the hammering finger is timed properly with the releasing finger, it resembles the up-and-down action of a seesaw.
[Tweet “Good hammer-on technique should resemble the up-and-down action of a seesaw”]
[Technique Contradiction Note: Having said all that, there will be some occasions when you WILL anchor finger 1, but that typically happens when you are performing a hammer-on immediately followed by a pull-off. You can find that information in the trills section in The Definitive Lesson: Pull-offs.]
Equality for All
Although your dominant fingers (1 and 2) will always feel most coordinated, it’s important to build fine motor control in each of your fretting fingers. So make sure to practice hammer-ons using every finger combination.
The easiest combos begin with finger 1:
Now we’ll add the combos that begin with fingers 2 and 3:
Those final three combos will feel more awkward, especially the pinky (finger 4) hammers. Be patient and keep at it. With consistent, quality practice, you’ll gain confidence in all of your left-hand fingers, including the pinky.
THE “SWEET SPOT”
The most important part of hammering effectively is finding the “sweet spot” on your fingertip.
This is the part of the tip that makes the most solid contact and, therefore, the best sound. It’s no different than the sweet spot on a tennis racket or baseball bat; there is one spot that always makes the best contact with the ball.
But since we’re dealing with six different strings across the fretboard, you’ll find that the sweet spot will change on the same fingertip depending on the string you’re playing.
[Tweet “Finding the “sweet spot” on each fingertip and for each string is the key to great hammer-ons”]
The lower strings – 6, 5 and 4 – will require you to “lay down” more on the strings, as your thumb rotates back behind the neck. This means that, on the lower strings, the sweet spot is on the part of your fingertip closest to the pad. This will make a pretty shallow angle on the strings.
The higher strings – 3, 2 and 1 – will allow you to rise up more on your fingertips, as your thumb rides up the side of the neck to its default position. This forces a steeper angle between your fingertips and string. Therefore, on the higher strings, the sweet spot is more on the tip.
The pinky finger presents a bit of a special case. Because of our anatomy, most folks’ pinky fingers will angle inward toward the other fingers when playing a note. This means the pinky’s sweet spot is more to the side of the fingertip.
No matter which finger we are hammering, it’s imperative that you practice as many times as necessary until you can hammer each finger and hit the sweet spot with consistency. You’ll know it when you’ve nailed it: the note will sound clean and clear, with no buzzing or muting.
Although the above method is for hammering a fretted note to another fretted note, you can also hammer onto an open string with any finger. Here’s an example:
1 – Pluck the open string 1.
2 – Hammer onto fret 3 with finger 1.
Make sure to practice the open string hammer for each string and with each finger.
Bring the Hammer Down
No matter how you choose to hammer, keep in mind that your finger has to generate some power in order for that hammer to be heard.
Checking in with
our physics class Wikipedia for a moment, we find out that power is the rate at which energy is transferred, or work is performed. More simply put, it’s force x velocity. This means that your hammering power is dependent on the velocity of your finger as it moves to the string.
It’s hard to generate much velocity if you’re too close to the string to begin with; you need to cover some ground and gain some momentum. So don’t be shy about reaching back and bringing down the hammer!
As you get better at gauging how much power it takes to make the note sound strong and clear, you can start shortening your distance – your body will “remember” the velocity it needs and compensate for the shorter distance. Check out The One Inch Punch for more on this.
QUESTION: How good is your hammer-on technique? Are you able to find the sweet spot and generate power on each finger? How does it compare to your other slurs, like pull-offs or bends? Leave me a comment below!