FROM THE FALL 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE | BY DANIEL WARD
When it comes to techniques that none of us really want to practice, hammer-ons and pull-offs are in the top tier of party poopers for ukulele fun. Other contenders are barre chords, of course, and weird, stretchy chords that are as unfamiliar sounding as they are uncomfortable to form.
Luckily, this lesson is all about fun—quite simply put, it’s an enjoyable way to get good at hammer-ons and pull-offs while learning an old-style blues bass riff. The real payoff with these two techniques is that they sound great. When done correctly they will enrich your musical skills and will deliver a much higher level of fretboard ability that you can apply to anything you play.
Isolation of movement is the key to learning the proper angles and pressure for hammer-ons and pull-offs. These techniques are types of slurs, which you can find in scores for any instrument. A slur works by not re-striking each note. If the instrument is a cello, this means moving from one note to another with the fingerboard hand while pulling the bow in one motion. A slur on a trumpet is done by changing from one note to another without re-tonguing each note. On the uke, doing one or two slurs can work fairly well without too much work, but learning to really control every finger will give you the ability to play as many slurs as you want without using the picking hand at all!
“Isolation Blues,” as shown in Example 1, is a simple but very specific exercise. Place all four of your fingers in a row on the same string starting at the fourth fret. Begin with the fourthstring, and you can use a high or low G. (The notation is for low G, but is also playable in reentrant tuning, as the tab numbers are the same.) At this point you are covering frets 4, 5, 6, and 7. Keep your thumb loose and perpendicular, roughly behind the middle finger on the neck. The straighter your fingers track in a line with the thumb acting as a vice, the easier it will be to stay on your fingertips and fret notes with the best angle.
Start with just the first finger and add one at a time. When all four are depressed, the second and third fingers should look straight up and down, with the first and fourth in at an easy angle. If you lift up the two outer fingers, your hand will look a bit like a crab. Stay right on your fingertips, and fret with the least amount of pressure needed to sound the string right next to, but not on top of, the fretwire. This is the home base angle that you’ll use to do the slurs.
Staying close to the fretwire and on your fingertips lets you apply the right amount of pressure in just the right places to play with less effort and no buzzes. The real trick to hammer-ons and pull-offs is to master the correct speed, pressure, and angle. Slurs always feel a bit difficult at first, so don’t get discouraged. With a bit of patience and work it comes every time.
Now try picking the open G string, landing your first finger right on that fourth fret without striking the string again. It should sound a bit like a bounce from the lower pitch up to the fourth fret. If you land right on your fingertip, and with enough speed and weight, you’ll hear a nice bell-like tone. Next, hammer each finger after the other up to fret 7, sounding G, B, C, C#, and D. Try this a few times to get the hang of hammering your fingertips down. By anchoring each finger as it comes down, the isolated motion will make it easier to get a clear note.
The pull-offs happen in reverse order, and the angle is the real key to success here. A good pull-off is better explained as a rollover. If you simply pull your fingertips off the string, you’ll get a weak sound, but if you pull down towards the floor and really feel your fingertip roll over the string and land against the fretboard, you’ll be on track to the right technique. Just like the hammering, the isolation of each pull-off is done by anchoring and pulling against the other fingers in place. The only way to get a handle on this is to do it a lot, so this blues bass riff is a perfect way to practice and make some music at the same time.
Take a look at the notation, and you’ll notice that it’s basically the same thing over and over. Starting on the fourth string, you pick the first note and then hammer frets 4, 5, 6, 7. Right away, pull 7 to 6, 5, 4, and pull again to start the phrase over on the open string. This will outline a G7 bass line that is very common in blues-rock. On the second line, the same pattern starts on the third string, outlining the C7 chord before returning to the G7 pattern. On the D7 chord, the only change to the established pattern comes where the second finger starts on fret 7 of the fourth string, and then finishes the familiar chromatic line on the third string. This pattern works just fine on a high-G uke, but a low G will outline the chords a little clearer.
I’ve suggested some chords so you can get the etude’s harmonic implications into your ears, or even play with someone else at the same time. Since we’ve all been isolated during the pandemic, you might try revisiting the Smartphone Blues lesson in the Winter 2018 issue, so you can record yourself and play along. And a good further use of hammer-ons and pull-offs is outlined my Melody and Ornament lesson in the Summer 2019 issue.
Time to practice! Have fun with this one, and keep your strokes even and slow to begin with. The angles will take some time to become crisp and clear, so keep at it a bit every day, and you’ll be thrilled with the results. Enjoy your lesson!
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Ukulele magazine.