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How to Improve Guitar Pull-offs & Hammers (Legato)

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How to practice legato for fast improvement!

You too can soon have strong, clean legato technique like a guitar pro with just a few simple ideas twinned with a little effort, applied of course the Taplature way!

Getting better at pull-offs and hammers on guitar is another undercovered topic that's all too often only addressed with the tired old advice, "keep doing it and you'll get it". That may work for some but keep reading for the method that's guaranteed to work for all!

Click to View This Lesson's Companion Video

Legato 101: What a Pull-off Isn't!

Executing a pull-off correctly on guitar is not just a matter of lifting a finger from the fretboard and hoping that the string it leaves behind makes a sound.

It's a common mistake though! Check out these 3 wave forms of the same two notes alternated (both picked and using hammer-ons and pull-offs). One is picked throughout, one is performed using solid pull-off technique and the other using weak pull-off technique. Which do you think is which?

Visual representation waveforms of good and bad legato on guitar
Waveforms showing difference between good and bad pulloffs on guitar

What a Good Pull-off Is!

For a pro-level pull-off we'll need to ensure the string is moved enough to give us a good note ... as loud as if we'd picked it! That isn't about vertical movement away from the string. We need a horizontal movement across the string which actively plucks it! Here's an easy way to view just what's required:

1) Hold down fret 5 of the B string with your fretting hand index finger

2) Take your picking hand thumb and touch the B string above fret 8, ready to pick it downwards.

3) Use your thumb to pick the B string, sounding the fret 5 note held down by the index finger. Click here for demonstration

See how little effort you need to get a solid note? Remember that for the next step!

To the Real Battle!

Now let's do the same but using a fretting hand finger to pluck the fret 5 index finger note (a "pull-off"). The following single beat contains all that's required:

Pull-off example on guitar presented in Taplature
A "simple" pull-off on guitar ... how good are yours?

After picking the note at fret 8 (I've used finger 4 but you can use finger 3 instead if you prefer) we'll replace the picking hand thumb from above with the fretting-hand pinky. All that's actually needed to play a solid note is to curl the pinky in towards the fretting hand palm a couple of mm. Aim to move only the pinky and avoid moving the whole hand. Remember how little force from the thumb was needed to get a good note before? This is one of the big secrets of good pull-offs:

Although you'll need to press hard with the index finger, the pulling finger doesn't actually need to do a lot of work. It's the finger we're pulling to that takes the strain (we don't want that to move)!

Power Practice for Pull-offs (and Hammers)!

The best way I've found to improve pull-off technique is to actually get the finger performing the pull-off to land on the fretboard. This gives a real workout to the relevant muscles and ensures that our practice will be harder work than when we come to use the same pull-off in our playing (see Principle 3 - Exaggerated Practice here).

Practise like a trooper but play like a hippy!

In our example that means landing the pulling finger on the fretboard right in-between the B and high E strings. We'll then need a method to get the finger back out from that awkward position so we can use it again and we'll add in a hammer-on with the recycled finger before pulling-off again. We can pack it all into a beautifully concise 2-beat pattern:

Example using both hammer-on and pull-off on guitar
Cycling pull-offs and hammers for focus

The full Taplature instructions to execute this sequence perfectly are as follows (you can replace finger 4 with finger 3 if you prefer). We'll keep the index finger of the fretting hand held down at fret 5 of the B string throughout. At each of the 4 stages, all of the requirements listed are to be performed at the same time.

1) Pick fret 8 of the B string held down with finger 4. Tap your foot. Say "One" out loud. 2) Curl your fretting-hand pinky towards the palm until it plucks the B string.

Ensure the pinky lands on the fretboard between the B and high E strings.

Lift your foot.

Say "and" out loud.

3) Lift your pinky from the fretboard.

Uncurl it slightly so it aims directly back at the B string.

Tap your foot.

Say "Two" out loud.

4) Hammer your pinky to fret 8 of the B string.

Lift your foot.

Say "and" out loud.

That's a lot of instructions for just 4 notes but practising with the out-loud count and foot tap as recommended ensures that everything is executed robotically and that you understand fully every detail of what is required. This will literally program these perfect, efficient movements into you so that they happen without thought when switching off the conscious mind and simply playing.

Monitor Progress - See Yourself Improving!

Because we're always executing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way we now have something consistent we can measure: the top speed at which we can perform the example perfectly. That lets us know when we are getting better and just as importantly ... when we're not! (see here for more on this topic)

Legato example with boxes to measure progress
Measuring allows us to see out improvement .. .or otherwise!

One student's recent progress from a standing start with the example at hand

I've added some practice/benchmarking sheets for the examples in this article (along with all their building blocks) to the free download "Discover Taplature" sent to all subscribers to this website (click here to subscribe). You can use them to keep track of your progress as you improve.

If anything's truly off limits right now then make a note of the date and write in "XXX" (can't do it!) as your measurement for today. When you can do it, even at 10bpm, you'll have improved and that improvement will have knock-on effects in many other areas of your playing. What's more, once you can do it, progress (making it easier and therefore faster) will remain steady with regular focus.

One Size Fits All!

This same approach will allow you to efficiently examine and solve any problem with pull-offs and hammers you'll ever encounter! Below we'll take a look at how to use the same method with a couple of more complex examples:

Improving Any Double Pull-off (3 fingers per string)!

3 finger per string pull-off blues scale example
Finger strength and independence put to the test!

A very usable blues scale lick in A minor!

Although obviously more challenging than the examples we've seen so far we can break this one down into its component parts and address each individually in similar fashion. The toughest part is likely to be the pull-off from finger 4 to finger 3. Focusing on that movement alone and plugging it into the recommended practice loop gives:

4th finger pull-off example on guitar
Breaking it down into smaller legato challenges!

If you've never tried this particular pull-off before then it may feel impossible to begin. Focusing on the pressure required from finger 3 should help and remember, the pinky still just needs to curl towards the palm a couple of mm, as in the example above! Perhaps it's out of reach for today but keep coming back with some zero miles per hour, deliberate examination and it won't be long before you've developed the mental and physical muscles to get it working, albeit at a very slow speed. I'd expect the next leg of the 3 finger pull-off (from fret 7 to fret 5) to be substantially easier. Once both are functional we can link them together to make this stepping-stone to playing the full lick: