Hammer on, Pull off, Tap, Repeat

Here’s a frequent question in the forums: “What’s a hammer on/pull off/tap? How do I do it?”

Once upon a time I used to play metal, had hair, wore leather pants and played guitar on stage leaning over a fan. I was a legend in my own mind. So drawing on that long forgotten experience, let’s figure out this hammer on/pull off/tapping thing using the ending section of Van Halen’s Eruption as both example and exercise.

First though, let’s define things:

Hammer on – Note generated by lightly snapping your finger down behind a fret. (Check out the music guide entry on hammer-on for more explanation)

Pull off – Note generated by removing your finger from a string, slightly pulling the string as you do.

Tap – Note generated by tapping the fretboard behind a fret with your non-fretting hand’s index or middle finger.

One thing at a time, let’s get Hammer-on down. I’m going to use an acoustic for this first part.

Now I’m not going to re-invent the wheel. I’m just going to paraphrase it a bit. I took all of this next section practically word for word from David’s wonderful article Tricks of the Trade:

On your guitar, make an open Em chord. Strum the chord and then one at a time lift, pick the open string, and hammer on with your fretting fingers. It is just a little snapping motion, bring down your middle finger where it is supposed to go. This isn’t a brute force thing. It’s simply a sharp little tap.

When you are playing alternating bass with your chords, a hammer-on helps to spice things up a bit or it can be used as a rhythmic fill.

Try this on your acoustic or without distortion if you’re playing electric:

E minor hammerons

It should sound like this:

Does it? Great! You are on your way!

Okay let’s go to the Pull-off.

Let’s stick with the acoustic. Put your finger on the second fret of the A string. Pick or strum the string with your strumming hand. This will sound the B note. Now pull your finger off.

If you’re lifting your finger straight off the string, you will not get much of a sounding of the open A. 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.

E minor pick offs

It should sound like this:

Here is the Exercise in C from David’s lesson. It combines hammer-ons and pulloffs. See the article for the tab.

And there you have it. Two thirds of what you need to know to play Eruption: Hammer-on and Pull off.

Before we go any further, here is our Guitar Noise disclaimer:

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

Remember, too, that this is just how I do it. If you are only looking to play along with the recording this isn’t for you. I think EVH tunes it down a half step and he plays so fast I have no idea what he is doing really. But this will give you a pretty darn good approximation of the style and feel. I actually play a couple of sections on the way up that he doesn’t just to lengthen the thing a bit. Besides, practically no one will notice the difference on stage.

Now when you see this tabbed out it seems really complex. It isn’t really. You are playing sets of four notes over and over and over again.

It goes like this tap, pull off, hammer on, hammer on. Start again, tap, pull off, hammer on, hammer on.

Take this slowly and work your way into speed. It will come.

I’m going to break this into three parts. The first part is going up the neck. The next section is coming back down. The final section is eruption of the blood vessels in your forearm.

In the first section, going up the neck, each of the sections is repeated eight times. Think of these sections individually and then put them together.

Now put away that acoustic and get out the electric.

Let’s pick and hammer.

We are going to use the B string since that is where we are going to end up anyway.

So here’s what we are going to do. Pick the open B, now hammer on with your left hand index finger onto the fourth fret.

Great, but wait there’s more, leave your index finger on that fourth fret and hammer on the seventh fret with your ring finger.

Do this 43, 895 times or until your forearm feels like it is about to fall off.

Now let’s pick and pull-off.

On your B string, place your index finger on the fourth fret. Now pick that string and ever so slightly pull your fretting finger down towards the floor and off. It should pluck the open string.

Now fret the B string at the seventh fret with your ring finger AND fret it at the fourth fret with your index finger. Pluck the B string. Now pull off with your ring finger. You should sound the note of the fourth fret. But there’s more, now pull off your index finger on that fourth fret, sounding the open note.

Now the only other thing is the tap. Bring the finger of your choice down, (I use the index) on the twelfth fret. It should sound a nice and clear note. Remember you are using a sharp, but light tapping motion. In this exercise, I am ever so slightly pulling off with my tapping finger. Try it and see what you think. It depends a lot on your setup.

When you get this going you will notice an accordion-like pattern, the tapping finger goes up, the hammer-ons follow. The tapping finger goes up, the hammer-ons follow.

For examples of all of the above, check out the MP3 after the tab. I play the whole thing slowly.

Here is “Going up the neck”: Notice each section is repeated 8 times except the last which I play only four times in the recording.

Going up the neck

Here is an MP3 of the going up section at a slow tempo.

Onward to section two; let’s go back down the neck.

Same thing as before, but you only repeat each section three times. I tabbed it out, but notice the first 8 repeated sections are really the same set of four played twice.

Going back down

Go slowly and just memorize the pattern. Once you have the muscle memory in place, speed will come quickly.

And finally, here is the section where your arm explodes. Have I said work this slowly? No need to say it here, you have no choice. This is the little finishing piece, six each of two riffs, play the first one again, skip to the last section and alternate them 1 time each as fast as you can. When your arm starts to bleed, run your fingernail or pick down your low E and hit a power chord at the bottom.

Arm explodes

And here it is complete and up to speed. Ha-ha, up to speed, I crack me up. It’s all relative. It’s as up to speed as I’m going to get. I’m playing my 1979 Fender Heavy Metal Strat, with everything at 11, played through distortion, compression, flanger, and a dash of reverb. I stomp on a stereo phaser at the very end.

Enjoy it, but don’t blame me when your left arm packs its bags and walks out on you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find where my arm stormed off to.

The Great Guitar Noise Experiment

This is an experiment. Use it at your own risk. No guarantees here.

The links below will take you to a short video of the lesson above. Let us know in the news section how this works for you.