In music, playing two or more notes “legato” means playing them smoothly, and this can be achieved in different ways on different musical instruments.
On the guitar, the most common phrasing techniques that achieve this, along with slides, are the hammer on and the pull off.
In the following hammer on and pull of exercises, I will start from the very basic – a single hammer on and a single pull off on guitar – and end with more difficult, as well as more interesting ways you can use these two complementary guitar techniques.
Exercise 1: The hammer on
To execute the hammer on below, you have to strike the first note with the pick and then “hammer on” the second with the third finger of your right hand.
Note: The arched line over the notes is what indicates that the guitar notes should be played as either hammer ons and pull offs. This is called a slur and is often confused with a tie – which is notated exactly the same way.
However, there’s a very easy way to know if that arched line is meant to be a tie, or if it’s intended to be a slur: If the second note and the first are the same, it must be a tie (you can’t hammer or pull off the same note!), if they aren’t, it’s meant to be a slur (you can’t tie two different notes)
Exercise 2: The pull off
The pull off is like the hammer on in reverse.
Fret the first note with your third finger and strike it with the pick. Then pull it off to get the sound of the second note without striking the note again.
Keep in mind that your third finger is taking the role of the pick here, so you shouldn’t just lift it off but actually pinch the string to get the sound of the next note.
Exercise 3: Hammer on and pull off
In the next exercise we’re going to use the pick only once – to strike the first note.
The second note is “hammered” and then “pulled off” to get the sound of the first note again.
Exercise 4: Pull off and hammer on
This time we’ll do the same motion in reverse: We strike the first note, pull it off, and hammer it on again.
Exercise 5: The trill
A rapid alteration between two notes a fret or two apart is called a guitar trill.
In the next exercise, you’ll just pick the first note and hammer on and pull off the rest of the notes.
Exercise 6: Finger independence exercises
What we’ll do next is take the idea of the trill and apply it to all finger combinations.
Each bar should be taken as a separate exercise and you can continue the same motion for as long as you want.
When you reach bar 4, do not shift your hand so that your index finger plays the first note. Play that note with the middle finger. Likewise with the last bar where the first note should be played with your ring finger.
What we’ve done so far has been pretty boring since the goal was to get you developing the right finger independence, strength and muscle memory so that you can play hammer ons and pulls offs on guitar.
Exercise 7: Minor pentatonic lick
The minor pentatonic is the most commonly used scale for anyone getting started with improvising on guitar and the following is a two bar lick that uses notes from the A minor pentatonic scale, with legato technique applied to some of the notes.
Exercise 8: Minor pentatonic sequence
Guitar scale sequences are an effective way to practice scales as well as start developing ideas of how scales can be played differently than just going through them up and down, and use them in your riffs, licks and solos.
The following is a sequence on the A minor pentatonic scale that makes use of legato technique.
Exercise 9: Guitar riff context
Hammer ons and pull offs are also an effective tool when creating guitar riffs.
The following riff uses some pretty long legato runs, as well as palm muting technique on the open E string.
Exercise 10: String bending and vibrato
Legato techniques are not the only ones that can make the same notes some different.
String bending and vibrato are very powerful phrasing techniques and in the next guitar lick, they’ll be used together with hammer ons and pull offs.
Exercise 11: 3 note per string scale
The minor natural scale and the minor pentatonic scale share the same notes – except that the minor pentatonic has two notes less.
There are different ways to learn the minor natural scale, including the CAGED system which I personally do not find very effective for learning guitar scales.
What I frequently use is 3 note per string scales patterns, and in the next example we’re going to play the A minor natural scale, playing 3 notes on every string, using hammer ons as we’re going down, and pull offs as we’re going up.
Exercise 12: Cycling
In the next exercise we’ll be using the same scale as above, but instead of going down and up the scale we’re going to cycle through every set of two strings.
In the example we’re going to cycle between the first two strings, but the same exercise can apply to any set of strings.
If you’re able to play all 12 hammer on and pull off exercises above, you’re definitely on the right track to mastering legato technique.
And though I always suggest that playing fast should come last, once you have mastered this technique you can start making your first attempts at fast runs on your guitar.
You should also be practicing the exercises above with a metronome and gradually increasing the speed.
A benefit of this is not only that will you be practicing your legato, your timing and developing the ability to play fast, but since increasing the tempo is a way to measure your progress, it will increase your motivation to practice guitar.
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