Tricks of the Trade


Before moving on with leads, it’s important that we all get on the same page regarding guitar “tricks.” Today we’ll look at the four most basic ones, go over some examples and also take a look at how they can be used as fills for rhythm players. We’ll also continue to play Bob Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door to death (no pun intended). I’d also like to note that if you’re really interested in this topic, you owe it to yourself to spend some quality time at the Guitar Lesson pages here at Guitar Noise. I can’t begin to tell you how much there is there to look through.

Some things come quickly to some people. Students who cannot tell the difference between 4 / 4 and 3 / 4 time will be able to flawlessly perform a complex riff. A guitarist who has no trouble fingering complicated chords will struggle to play a descending bass line. We all approach learning things differently and how easily we can grasp something does not always translate into how quickly we’ll incorporate it into our playing, if we ever do.

The techniques or “tricks” that we’ll examine today are hammer-ons, pick-offs, slides and bends. Just how quickly you catch on to these – which come easily and which require a bit of work – is, as always, up to you. But that really is the secondary lesson. What I hope to do is show you how the rhythm guitarist or solo performer can also make use of these four techniques – generally considered solely as tools of the lead guitarist. And how, by adding these tricks to your playing, one can add new depths to one’s style.

Oh yes, lest we forget:

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of the song. It is intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

The Amazing Second Fret

Let’s take a really quick look at the lower end of our fret board – the first five frets, shall we? For most guitarists, this is where ninety percent of one’s playing occurs. One of the reasons the guitar is tuned the way it is (as well as why so much guitar music is written in the keys you all know so well), is to give the player (relatively) easy access to all the notes in any given scale. Granted it’s not as easy as it is in the bass (as you can read in Dan Lasley’s great article on the subject (Bass for Beginners # 1), but it’s still not like trying to stretch your hand an octave-and-a-half on a keyboard. Since Knocking On Heaven’s Door is in the key of G major, we’re going to concern ourselves with only the notes in that scale:

Notes from from the G major scale

Okay, there are two important things to note here: first, the fifth fret is, except on the G string, always the note of the next open string. You already knew this because this is how you tune your guitar, right. On the G string, it’s the fourth fret that sounds the next open string. Why is this important? Well, if you want to run a G major scale (or a natural E minor), you can now pretty much stay on the first three frets. The only note beyond this short range of movement is the F#, which is on the fourth fret of the D string. You’ve drastically cut down on the amount of area for your fingers to cover which in turn will allow you to be quicker. See?

G major scale

This is why it pays to think ahead about these things…

The second thing to notice is how full of useable notes the second fret is. And this is almost always the case in whichever key you might want to play in. Really. And once you are in on this “secret, ” hammer-ons and pick-offs become a breeze. In the first position, anyway. And that’s where we’re concentrating our energies today.

A hammer-on is done exactly as it’s said. Strike an open string (use the G or D to start) and after you strum it, tap a finger solidly onto a fret, just as you would if you were fingering a chord. You should hear two distinct notes, one following the other, if you’re doing it correctly. If we do this on the open G and hammer on the second fret, it would look like this (in notation and tablature):

Hammer on

This is an incredibly useful tool to have when strumming patterns where you have to hold a chord a while. For instance, say you were playing a song that had several measures in a row of E minor. Instead of a straight strum or even a rhythmic strumming of all six strings, you could do something like this:

E minor hammer ons

That adds a little more fun and interest to the proceedings, doesn’t it? Now a quick bit of advice – you have to hammer on the string harder than you might think, but not as hard as you might think either. That’s really helpful, huh? A good way of practicing this technique is to simply tap on the string without strumming it first. If you can produce a clean note that sustains itself while your finger is on the fret, then you’re doing fine. If not, don’t worry. As I explained earlier, some things take time for different people. Keep at it and it will come. And while you’re practicing, be sure to practice your hammer-ons using each of the fingers of your neck hand. At some point you will need to (or wish you could) use this device with your pinky and ring finger as well as with your index or middle finger. So get used to using it now. And while you’re practicing this way, whether you want to or not, you will also be learning pick-offs.

Pick-offs, as you already know or have guessed, are also literal-named. Do a practice hammer-on (no strum). Now take the tapping finger away. You should get another sounding of the open string. This is the easy way.

Now let’s try the hard way. Place your finger on the second fret of the G string. Pick or strum the string with your strumming hand. This will sound the A note. Now pull your finger off. It’s not as easy to produce that second note, the open G, is it? If you’re lifting your finger straight off the string, you will not get much of a sounding of the open G. What you need to do is pull the string when you’re removing the finger and the best way to do this is with a slightly downward motion. Basically what you are doing is “picking” the string with the finger on the neck. Yes, this takes a bit of practice for some people and a bit more for others. The musical notation for a pick-off looks like this (and we’re using our A to G example again):

Pick off

The pick-off can also be used as a rhythmic fill, much in the same way as the hammer-on. Here’s another E minor strum, this time with pick-offs:

E minor pick offs

Once you get yourself familiar with the notes on the second fret, you can have a lot of fun. And you don’t have to be in the key of G all the time. So many first position chords (and their respective scales) make use of the notes found on the second fret that it becomes a challenge not to go overboard with hammer-ons and pick-offs. Here’s an exercise you can use to practice both techniques using the key of C:

Hammer on/Pick off exercise part 1
Hammer on/Pick off exercise part 2

You’ll find that if you maintain the basic chord shapes, hammering-on and picking-off with the fingers that would normally be on a given fret for a particular chord, the technique is more natural and it will become second nature for you to use these as part of your rhythm patterns. This is yet another way how guitarists develop an individual style.

The Equally Amazing D Major Chord

One of the easiest examples of using hammer-ons and pick-offs as rhythm techniques can be demonstrated with the use of a first position D major chord (“…it’s an ordinary D major chord – one that you might find around the house…”). Start with a simple D major, then hammer-on your pinky on the third fret of the high E (first) string.

This is a D sus4. Then do a pick-off to return to D again and then pick off what ever finger you use to cover the second fret of the E string. This gives you a D add9. Finally, hammer-on back to the original D chord again.

D Chords

I can’t begin to tell you how many songs use this particular progression or how many people use it (or variations of it) whenever they find themselves strumming long expanses of D major chords. But it’s a pretty good way to develop your little finger and get it into the action.

Another good exercise to develop the little finger is to play a D major chord and hammer-on the fourth frets of the D and G strings like this:

Exercise in D

Again, this can be (and is) used in numerous songs. It’s up to you to experiment with where and how you want to use it.

Sliding Through The Bends

The two other techniques we’re going to cover are slides and bends. Again, they’re self-explanatory. Sliding up or down to a note in a lead creates a distinct tone, which some people call jazzy and some call mellow. Usually a guitarist will start his or her slide two frets away from the target note. I’ve heard longer and shorter slides. And you don’t only have to slide a single note. Two well-known examples of this technique are the opening riff from the Beatles’ Revolution and the second lead acoustic fill in Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. Here are the standard notations for slides and bends:

Slides and bends

Bending strings in one of those things that can take time to learn. I absolutely hated bending strings for the longest time because I just couldn’t do it. Do it well, I should say. Then one day while listening to a group at a club I really watched the guitarist and saw this guy using two or three fingers to bend strings. That was a big turning point for me.

When you bend a string, you actually push the string in towards the center of the neck (if it’s one of the first three strings). By bending, you are altering the pitch of the string, making it higher than normal. How much higher depends on how hard you bend. Normally a bend of a half-step is done but some guitarists bend notes up a full step. On the Dire Straits song Down to the Waterline, Mark Knopfler does a solo that includes a bend of a step-and-a-half. Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd will throw in a few of these “super-bends” into his solos as well. It takes a lot of practice and not just on the fingers. Your ears have to be able to discern the interval you want to achieve in your bend. Yes, it’s just another shining example of why it equally important to practice your listening as well as your playing. If you can’t discern the intervals you’ll never know whether your bends are in key or not.

A favorite blues/rock trick is to bend on one string while playing the “end note” on the adjacent higher string. I call this a “unison bend,” but, as always, there are more names for it than are worth going into. This effect is probably best recognized as the one Jimmy Page uses at the end of the solo on Stairway to Heaven. Again, if you take a moment to think about it, you’ll find that it’s easiest to perform between the G and B strings (since the interval between these strings is smaller than the intervals between the others).

Unison bends

Filling In The Blanks

I’ve always thought that the reason blues guitar is almost always in vogue is because this style of playing appeals to the would-be lead player in every guitarist. Typical blues songs are done in what is known as call-and-response. The vocalist will sing a line (call) and the guitarist (and of course they can be the same person) will follow that up with a short lead (which is usually called a fill). This fill is the response.

This call-and-response mode of playing extends way beyond blues, not only in terms of musical styles but also in terms of musical history. Pop, rock, country, metal and world music is full of examples of it. Go back to the early classics of Cream or come forward in time to Dire Straits. Here in the shining new millennium you can pick almost any song of the latest Santana album and you will hear it.

And it’s waaaaaaaayyy older than you think. While I was visiting Marrakech last year I had the pleasure of listening to traditional Berber music. While I couldn’t decipher a single word, I found that I was already intimate with the style. The narrator would chant a phrase or a number of phrases and then he play a burst of music on the rbab. This music predates much of “modern” Western civilization, so you can see that, while we’d like to think we’re hip to the next big thing, we’re actually just the latest to jump on a very long bandwagon.

Because a typical response is usually less than a whole measure long, it’s a great place for a guitarist to hone his or her skills with the various techniques that we’ve been discussing today. You may not believe me, but it’s really a relatively short step from handling these fills to coming up with leads.

I want to close our session today by revisiting Knocking On Heaven’s Door, only this time we’re going to look at it as an exercise in call-and-response. Basically, I’m going to go through the sequence of the first verse and chorus and add some fills. Each fill occupies the last two beats of the phrase (okay, really one and three quarter of a beat…) and, to make matters even more interesting, each of the first four fills that I’ve laid out deals (primarily) with one of our four techniques covered today. The fills in the chorus are mix-and-match – just whatever came off the top of my head. And yes I know (thank you very much) there hasn’t been anything on the top of my head for ages. Please note that to make things easier on myself I’ve based most of my “responses” on the chord forms that I’m playing and that I always end up back on that trusty G chord which begins the next phrase.

Knocking on Heavens Door part 1
Knocking on Heavens Door part 2
Knocking on Heavens Door part 3
Knocking on Heavens Door part 4
Knocking on Heavens Door part 5
Knocking on Heavens Door part 5
Knocking on Heavens Door part 6
Knocking on Heavens Door part 7

You could go on playing this sequence for hours and keep coming up with different ideas. And that’s essentially the point. Give yourself room to experiment. See what you like, what comes easily, what needs work. The very least that will happen to you is that you’ll spice up your rhythm playing. The optimum goal, of course, is that you’ll start getting ideas and seeing how you can apply this to other music, including your own stuff.

As always, please feel free to drop me a line with any questions, comments, corrections, concerns either directly at or via the Guitar Forums.

Until next week!

About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles.

In April 2013, David also joined the writing staff of, heading up their Guitar Pages.

And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David also contributes frequently to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He also is the author of three Idiot's Guide to Guitar books: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Guitar, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Rock Guitar and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Bass Guitar as well as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing the Ukulele and the co-writer of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Art of Songwriting.

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