Make Your Melodies Sing with Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs


Melody is a golden thread that magically allows us to recognize, sing along with, and even recall a tune or a song. Just think of any song in your mind and you can hear it without touching and instrument or even singing out loud. Music lives in us, and marks time itself in ways that affect us all. Melody is a universal language.

Pull up a simple beautiful melody like “Amazing Grace.” Just hum it for a minute without words and listen as you go slowly through it. Now imagine it being played on bagpipes. If you need to, go online and listen to a bagpipe version, as it will be well worth the listen. You’ll notice right away that there are a lot of additional notes going by, but the melody is still there.

While the air coming through the bagpipes is constant, the instrument requires that players rearticulate each note on the chanter. Because of this, pipers tend to be masters of musical ornamentation. They figure out all sorts of ways to play the melody beautifully, and can add interesting groups of rhythms and notes between that really make the melody sing in a new way.

All instruments have their own unique ways that are used to ornament a melody. Singers trill and even yodel; wind players slur and trill, as well as jump octaves and triple-tongue; and string players can do amazing things with the bow and with slides.

Fretted instruments like the ukulele have a few tricks to offer as well, like cross-string ornaments and trills, and even a good Roy Smeck triple-strum, which is an embellishment of the rhythm itself. In this lesson you’ll look at hammer-ons and pull-offs, the most commonly used form of ornamentation on the uke, and valuable techniques to have at your disposal.

The Bare Melody

Let’s get started by learning a simple melody with no ornaments at all, as shown in Example 1 (00:43 in the video). This way we can build up to using the hammer-ons and pull-offs without getting lost in the rhythm or frustrated, as the ornaments will take a little practice.


ukulele lesson hammer-ons and pull-offs music notation example 1

You might have noticed that Ex. 1 is in a triple meter, 12/8, or 12 eighth notes per bar. The melody is a jig, and it’s easier than it looks. The pulse is grouped in threes, counted “One, two, three; two, two, three; three, two, three; four, two, three” in each bar. Once you feel the grouping of threes, you can just look at the tab if you aren’t used to reading the top line and it will work out very smoothly.

The rhythm here is all the same until the chord strums, where it stops for a bit. Be careful to include the very first pickup note that starts before the first beat. The same note and pickup rhythm happens on the last eighth note of bar 2 as well.

Now look carefully at the right- and left-hand notation. While the melody is picked with alternating strokes of the index and middle fingers, you are more than welcome at first to pick it with your thumb and just get used to the sound, but you will need to use your thumb, index, and middle fingers in the rest of the lesson. Be careful to follow the left-hand fingering in the standard notation, as it will be important when you add the ornaments. Play Ex. 1 really slowly and get the melody into your ear and hands. When you are confident with it move on to the next section.

Adding the Ornaments

Study Example 2 (02:25 in the video) and you’ll probably notice that the only thing added to the melody is a series of open-string notes, on the G string in bars 1–2 and the C in 3–4, picked by the thumb. Everything else remains the same. The open strings lend a nice droning sound that is common to music of this style. Most of the example is played with the thumb and middle or index finger picking notes together, with the rest of the melody articulated by the index and middle fingers in alternation. This can feel a little strange at first, so go slowly and get used to moving your index and middle fingers before adding your thumb. Be patient and it will come.

ukulele lesson hammer-ons and pull-offs music notation example 2

Now it’s time to tackle the ornaments, as shown in Example 3 (03:20 in the video). The first thing to do is work a bit on technique. Try a simple hammer-on, picking the open first string and hammering on to the second fret with your first finger. Do this a few times and land the tip of your finger right next to, but not on top of, the fretwire. You will feel and hear it when you get just to the left in the correct spot. Try putting the tips of your first finger and thumb together without the ukulele and you’ll see that with just a bit of angle and motion, you can get a strong connection without much effort. Make sure to sit down for this kind of practice or use a strap, as pulling off to open strings will feel like you are losing hold of the uke! (To hear the piece in full, jump to 07:16 in the video.)

ukulele lesson hammer-ons and pull-offs music notation example 3

Now try again on the first string, picking open and hammering to fret 2. When you start to get a nice “bing” sound, pull it back off for a third note. The pull-off works best when you pull your finger down towards the floor, and try for a nice snap as you roll off the string. Keep that thumb behind the neck and this will all go much easier. Hammers and pulls don’t work well with the thumb curling over the neck.

The rhythm for this little triplet ornament is the same length as an eighth note and will always appear on beat 2. The triplet divides that beat into three equal parts, and you can feel it by saying “trip-uh-let.” To work on the ornament, start very slowly and put each hammer and pull with the melody. Some of the triplets, like the first one, which requires your fourth and first fingers to work together, can be difficult, but others are easier. Every finger will get a chance!

I always suggest working on passages like this one measure at a time until the music starts to flow and the ornaments become nice and even. Don’t be afraid to drop the thumb drones and work on the melody and ornaments alone if that helps. Once it all comes together it will be easier than you think. Be sure to watch the accompanying video lesson, too. It will give you a better insight the techniques, and you’ll be able to hear all the elements come together in rhythm—which is so important to a lively little jig like this.

Daniel Ward is a popular teacher, performer, and author of Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele and Melodic Meditations for Ukulele.