Bends, Hammers, Pulls and Slides (Advanced Guitar Techniques)

In this lesson we’re going back to technical exercises. We’ve already done some basic exercises and explained the importance of them, so why another lesson on technique? The first lesson on technique was all about getting your fingers working, but we only really scratched the surface. The aim of this lesson is two-fold: to introduce extra techniques that should be part of every guitarist’s arsenal (bends, slides, pulls etc.) and also to introduce some new exercises that allow you to work on more technically difficult material. We’re basically turning up the difficulty a few notches.

We’re going to look at a few new techniques now. For each technique, there will be a short description, purpose, pictures (tabs and notation), short example (with audio) and how to play.


What is it?

The hammer-on is achieved by pushing down on a note without picking it. As the name suggests, the finger ‘hammers’ down on the note with enough force so that a note is sounded. A hammer-on usually happens after another note has been played, so that the momentum from the first note helps the second note (the hammered-on note) ring clearer.


The hammer on is what’s known as an articulation. Just like when speaking a language, we use articulations to add depth and expression to what we are saying. There is a softer nuance to notes that are hammered on, as opposed to being picked.


Hammers No H 300
Hammers With H 300

As you can see, from the images above, hammers are indicated by using a curved line. When you see two notes connected by a curved line, you pick the first note, then ‘hammer-on’ to the next note. Sometimes there is a ‘h’ above the curved line to let you know that it is a hammer, other times there is not.


Hammers Example

How To Play:

Play a ‘G note’ on the 1st string (3rd fret) with your first finger by picking it (just as you would normally). While it is still ringing, hammer-down onto the ‘A note’ (5th fret) with your 3rd finger, without picking it. Leave your 1st finger on the 3rd fret even when hammering-on to the 5th fret. You should hear the ‘A note’ ringing as you hammer down, but it will be a slightly different articulation than what it would have been if you had picked the note. At first, you might find that you struggle to get a clear sound.

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It’s likely that when you attempt hammer-ons for the first time, the hammer simply stops the string from ringing (not good). This is usually because you have not ‘hit’ the note right in the sweet spot, or you have done it too slowly, or you haven’t hammered hard enough. All these things are just technical deficiencies that are overcome the more you practise. Keep at it, even though you may not get it right from the start, it should feel obvious as to what it is you are trying to achieve.


What is it?

The pull-off is achieved by taking your finger off one note and in the process giving the string a little ‘pull’ or ‘flick’, so that the next note is sounded without being picked. Just like the hammer-on, the pull-off usually happens when another note is already ringing, therefor creating a bit of momentum for the next note to sound.


The pull-off is another articulation. In fact, pull-offs usually go hand in hand with hammer-ons, but we’ll explore that link a little later. There is a certain sound, or feel, that pull-offs create, which adds expressiveness to that which you are playing.


Pulls No P 300
Pulls With P 300

As you can see, from the images above, hammers are indicated by using a curved line. When you see two notes connected by a curved line, you pick the first note, then ‘pull-off’ to the next note. Sometimes there is a ‘p’ above the curved line to let you know that it is a pull, other times there is not.

Wait a minute… how do we know to hammer-on or pull-off if there are no letters? Good question, we’ll get to that shortly!


Pulls Example

How To Play:

Play an ‘A note’ on the 1st string (5th fret) with your 3rd finger by picking it (just as you would normally). Before you play the note though, hold down your 1st finger on the 3rd fret  as you would when playing a ‘G note’. Now with both fingers pushing down on their respective frets, pick the string. The ‘A note’ will sound (because when pushing down on multiple frets on the same string, the highest note will always be the one heard). While ‘A’ is still ringing, take your 3rd finger off and give it a little flick so that it creates a bit of tension on the string. The momentum from ‘pulling-off’ the note should result in the ‘G note’ being sounded (remember, it’s already being pushed down and has been left there). Just like the hammer-on, it can take some practice before it becomes clear. At the beginning, you might find that you struggle to make the 2nd note heard. The technical challenge lies in being able to create enough power with the pull-off, while being able to keep the 2nd note (the one that is being heard as a result of the pull) steady.

What Are Slurs?

Hammer-ons and Pull-offs both fall into the category of ‘slurs’. While hammers and pulls are specific to guitar (and probably other stringed instruments), slurs are a more universal articulation. They basically refer to notes that are achieved using the momentum of recently played notes. Slurs usually create a softer, yet more-connected passage from one note to the other which can be used to create phrases that seem natural and intuitive, both from a physical and aural perspective. The curved lines that we used in the examples so far are used to indicate slurs on all instruments.

If hammers and pulls are both slurs, and use the same symbol, how do we know to play one or the other when there are no letters above? Easy. Hammers always occur when the second note of the slur is higher in pitch than the first note. From a tabs perspective, if the second number is higher than the first, it’s a hammer.

Pulls happen when the second note of the slur is lower in pitch than the first (or a lower number in tabs).

These distinctions are actually quite logical. You can’t hammer-on from a higher note to a lower note and you can’t pull-off from a lower note to a higher note (try it!). Once you get comfortable playing hammers and pulls, it becomes very obvious as to when a pull-off is required and when a hammer-on is required.


What is it?

A slide is achieved by literally sliding your finger from one fret to another while the string is ringing. It is another articulation that has a very distinct effect.


Sliding is really just a way of getting from one note to another, with a distinct flavor. When you slide from one note to the next, it almost sounds as if the note is morphing into the next note. It’s a cool effect and can be very expressive.


Slide Pic No Slur 300
Slide Pic With Slur 300

As you can see, the slide is notated with a straight line. When you see a straight line, you move from the first note to the next by sliding your finger. Sometimes there is a curved line (slur) as well as the straight line (slide). Technically there is a difference between a slide with a slur and a slide by itself. When you see a slide by itself, you should pick the note that you are sliding to, just as you reach it. When you see a slide with a slur, you should slide to the destination note, without picking it.

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One thing to keep in mind is that slurs and slides can often get mixed up and sometimes aren’t notated as accurately as they should be. You often see slides written simply as slurs or vice versa. The higher the quality of the transcription, the more accurate it is likely to be, but with all the tabs available on the internet these days, the lines (pun intended) can become a little blurry.


Slide Example
How To Play:

Play a ‘D note’ by putting your 1st finger on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string. Pick the note and while it is still ringing, slide your 1st finger across to the 5th fret. The important thing is to maintain the pressure on the string while sliding. The sound will simply stop if you release the pressure. Although the above example slides from a lower note to a higher note, slides can go both aways (including from a higher note to a lower note).


What Is it?

Bends are one of the most expressive things you can do on the guitar. Although it is a technique made famous by blues guitarists, it is used across a range of styles and has a very distinct sound. A bend is achieved by playing a note and then literally bending the string (usually in an upwards direction) with the finger that is being used to play the note. What happens is that the when the string bends, the pitch of the note increases, relative to the size of the bend.


Bends can be used simply as an effect. Because the sound is so distinct, bends can be used to create a mood or express a feeling. Having said that, what you are doing when bending a string is increasing the pitch of a note, therefor bends are often used as a way of getting from one note to the next, albeit with a unique and interesting articulation.


Bend No Release 300
Bend With Release 300

The markings used for bends are a little more complicated than with other articulations. Bends either occur by themselves or are coupled with a release. A bend is the process of bending the string (usually) upwards. A release is when you let the string return to its natural position after a bend while the string is still ringing. As you’ve probably figured out, the pitch also returns to its original pitch with a release. With notation, a bend is indicated by a kind of reverse ‘V’ (see images above). The reverse ‘V’ connects two notes together – the note that you are bending, and the note that you reach with the bend (a sort-of ‘destination’ note). This is how you know how far to bend.

With tablature, the starting note is indicated by a number on a string (regular tabs) and a curved up arrow is used to indicate that the note needs to bend. Unlike notation, there is no ‘destination note’ but instead there is a number. ‘1/2’ instructs you to bend the note by a semitone and ‘1’ (or ‘full’) instructs you to bend the note by a tone. Observe the two pictures below. The image to the left is a half bend (1 semitone). The picture to the right is a full bend (1 tone).

Bend Half Pic 300
Bend Full Pic 300

When there is a release note as well, the same reverse ‘V’ is used to connect the note that was reached at the height of the bend to the starting note.

With tablature, a release is indicated by an arrow that curves back down (following a bend), indicating that the bend is released back to the original note. Often this ‘return’ note has a bracket around it, to indicate that it is not picked again, but simply reached as the result of the release.

In the first two pictures of bends, the picture to the left is a bend without a release. The picture to the right shows a bend and then a release.


Bend Example

How To Play:

Play the 1st string (E) on the 7th fret with your 3rd finger, producing the note ‘B’. Bend the note up until it reaches the note ‘C’ while maintaining the pressure held down on the note. Next, ‘release’ the bend while maintaining the pressure so that it returns to the original B note.

A Few Things About Bends

Use Your Ears

Usually, when bending a note, you are aiming to reach another note. The only way to reach this note accurately (without falling short or going too far) is to use your ears. In the example above, the destination note was a ‘C’. A good tip is to play the destination note normally and then try to remember what it sounds like, so that when bending, you know that you have reached it. In the example above, you can preview the C note by playing on the 8th fret of the 1st string. Then you can remember the pitch of the C note and try to hit that note when bending the B (on the 7th fret).

The In Between Pitches

When you slide between notes, the original pitch increases in intervals of semitones until it reaches the destination note. One of the cool things that happens when you bend a note, is that the pitch increases by intervals much smaller than semitones, on its way to the destination note. This means that with bends, you can technically achieve pitches that you can’t by playing ‘normal’ notes. Observe the following two diagrams. The first picture is a diagram of what happens to pitch when you increase the pitch by semitones, by moving up one fret at a time. The pitch moves in step sequences, without passing through any of the ‘in between’ pitches. The second picture shows a diagram of what happens to pitch when you bend a note. The pitch gradually gets higher, until it reaches its destination note:

Pitch Diagram Frets 300
Pitch Diagram Bend 300

Use Other Fingers

When bending notes, you can tuck other fingers in behind the main finger being used to bend, in order to give your bend more strength. For example, when bending with the 3rd finger, use your 2nd and 1st fingers to help lift the load.

Down Vs Up Bends

Most of the time, we bend a note upwards. We can however, bend downwards. Interestingly, they both achieve the same result. That is to say that an upwards bend increases the pitch of a note, and a downwards bend also increases the pitch of a note. This should be obvious – the increase in pitch is caused by extra tension on the string. Tension is created regardless of which way you bend. Upwards bends are much more common, but sometimes downwards bends are necessary.


What Is It?

Vibrato is achieved by very small and repetitive fluctuations of pitch, creating a unique and interesting sound.


Just like any other articulation, vibrato is used to add expression. Vibrato is very common with singers. If you listen to an opera singer singing, you can hear the pitch wavering when notes are being sustained. This wavering however, is a very controlled technique and sounds very expressive. It is the same with guitar. We use vibrato to add feel, usually to notes that are being sustained.


Vibrato Pic 300

Vibrato is indicated with a horizontal, jagged line. Think of the line as a representation of what the pitch does when vibrato happens – it oscillates the pitch in very small increments, repetitively and usually quite quickly.

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It’s important to know that often, vibrato is not annotated. More often than not, it is left to the discretion of the performer, as it is usually a subtle but expressive articulation. This can be said for other articulations as well (perhaps less so for bends). Often, music can be written out without articulations and it is up to the performer to add slurs and vibrato etc.


How To Play:

The above example is really there for the sake of an aural example. You can achieve vibrato by two main methods. The first involves playing a note and wriggling your finger while maintaining pressure. The second involves bending the note by a very small amount, then releasing, then repeating (usually done very quickly). Both of these methods produce vibrato.

Rather than working on one exercise, the best thing to do is to play different notes using different fingers and practise sustaining them while using vibrato. To start with it will feel weird. It will feel like you are trying to do something strange with your finger, without any result. Stick with it. Just like anything, the more you practise it, the easier it will become and the better the results will be!

10 Technical Exercises

Now it’s time for some more technical exercises. The first bunch of exercises that we did in the original lesson on technique was mainly to build basic technique and get you playing. The following exercises are harder and include some of the techniques that we have looked at in this lesson, but aren’t necessarily designed for the purpose of exploring those techniques. The main purpose of these exercises is to increase the difficulty a few notches. Just like with the first group of exercises that we learnt, the same principles apply – Memorize the exercises, focus on tone and clarity, use a metronome and take it slowly.

Alternate Picking Exercises

The following exercises involve alternating between a down stroke and an upstroke from note to note. The first note played is a downstroke, the next an upstroke, the next a downstroke and so on. Alternate picking exercises are ideal for developing picking speed and accuracy.

Alternate Picking Exercise 1

ex001 Alternate Picking

 Alternate Picking Exercise 2

ex002 Alternate Picking

Economy Picking Exercises

Economy picking involves using repetitive picking strokes (of the same direction) when possible. Basically the rule is that if you are moving down a string and you’ve just played a downstroke, you play another downstroke so that the pick kind of falls from one string to the next. When you are moving up a string and have just played an upstroke, you play another upstroke as you move up a string. This creates economy of movement, which is why it is called economy picking. If this is confusing, have a look at the following two examples. The first example shows an exercise using alternate picking:

Economy Picking Example A

The next example is the same exercise, but with economy picking:

Economy Picking Example B

If you play both examples, it should become obvious as to why the same strokes can be used consecutively.

Just a quick note with economy picking – Let’s take the above example that uses economy picking and look at the first two notes. We start with a down stroke and then use another down stroke to play the next note, on the adjacent string. Students often make the mistake of playing two distinct strokes. For example, they play the first stroke as a downstroke, reset, then play the next stroke as a downstroke. This is a mistake. The whole concept behind economy picking is that it should effectively feel like one big stroke. The pick essentially plays the first note and continues its motion, playing the next note and so on. The challenge with this technique is that you still need to be able to control the rhythm. To create rhythmic space in between notes, you can let your pick rest on the string that you are about to play, thus stopping momentarily but not reseting the motion of the pick to its original starting position. This is a subtle difference but it is vital!

Here are two economy picking exercises. They’re pretty tricky!

Economy Picking Ex 1 (music and audio)

ex003 Economy Picking

Economy Picking Ex 2 (music and audio)

ex004 Economy Picking

Legato Exercises

Legato exercises usually involve lots of hammers, pulls and slides. Legato playing is about making notes sound connected and fluid, which is what the articulations just mentioned achieve. From a technical perspective, legato exercises develop technique in the left hand, as hammers, pulls and slides are executed with the non-picking hand.

Legato Exercise 1

ex005 Legato

Legato Exercise 2

ex006 Legato

Rhythmic Exercises

The following exercises have a rhythmic focus. Too often, we practise exercises that are made up of continuous and unchanging rhythms, because it allows us to focus on things such as speed and consistency. Being able to execute different rhythms presents its own technical challenges and should be worked on.

Rhythmic Exercise 1

ex007 Rythmic

Rhythmic Exercise 2

ex008 Rythmic

Combination Exercises

The following exercises involve combinations of the above categories. After all, most things that we play on the guitar don’t fit nicely into one category. It’s important to be able to combine techniques.

Combination Exercise 1

ex009 Combinations

Combination Exercise 2

ex010 Combinations

Embellish And Experiment

You can always (and should) modify exercises and try new things, especially when you become comfortable with a particular exercise. There are many things that you can do to make an exercise different. Play the alternate picking exercises but start with an upstroke. Turn the economy picking exercises into alternate picking exercises. Try putting slurs into an exercise that doesn’t already have slurs. And these are just suggestions that don’t involve changing any of the notes! The possibilities are endless.

So That’s All There Is?

So have we now covered all the techniques that you are likely to come across?! There are always more advanced techniques and variations that you can learn. But this lesson covers most of the main ones. If you can become familiar with hammers, pulls, slides, bends and vibrato, you will be well equipped to cover most things that you will come across. Learning other techniques will then become an interesting new experience, rather than an overwhelming one.

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