How to Play Hammer-Ons on the Bass

You don't always have to pluck a note to play it. Hammer-ons and pull-offs are techniques that let you play some notes using only your left hand. They are useful for playing quick bass licks and slurred notes, and you'll hear them in many songs.

What is a Hammer-On?

A hammer-on is a note you play by "hammering" a finger of your left hand down onto the string while it is still vibrating from a previous, lower note.

This changes the pitch up to the new note. You don't pluck with your right hand; the sound comes from the vibration that is already there, aided a little by the force of hammering your finger against the string.

Playing a Hammer-On

To play a hammer-on on the bass, first play an ordinary note. With your first finger, play the sixth fret on the second string (the D string), a G♯. Now, use your third finger to quickly and forcefully slam down on the string at the eighth fret. If you do it right, you should hear the pitch go up to an A♯ without any major loss in volume.

You can also play a hammer-on with your second or fourth finger. You don't have to start with your first finger, either; you can start with your second or third finger, or an open string.

If it didn't seem to work quite right, here are several things to keep in mind:

  • Slam your finger down quickly. If you are too slow or don't use enough force, your finger may mute the string a bit before pushing it all the way against the fret.
  • Don't hurt yourself. While speed is necessary, you can overdo it. Try hammering on lightly to get a sense of just how much force you need, and don't use much more than that.
  • Have good aim. If you don't hammer directly on the string, the note could buzz or be muffled.
  • As with any bass note, use the pad of the finger. Don't use your fingertips like a guitar player.

    Try these exercises to improve your bass hammer-on technique:

    1. Starting anywhere you like, play a note with your first finger, than hammer-on at the next fret with your second finger. Repeat, but hammer-on with your third finger two frets up instead, than again with your fourth finger three frets up.
    2. Play a note with your second finger, than hammer-on at the next fret with your third finger. Repeat, but hammer-on two frets up with your fourth finger.
    3. Play a note with your third finger, than hammer-on at the next fret with your fourth finger.
    4. Play a note with your first finger, hammer-on the next fret with your second finger, than the next fret with your third, and then the next fret with your fourth.

    Once you've learned how to play pull-offs, practice the two together by playing a note with your first finger, then hammering-on to a note three frets higher with your fourth finger. Next, pull-off back down to your first finger. Alternate back and forth after plucking only once. Try to sustain the note as long as you can. Next, do the same thing, but alternate between your

    1. first and third fingers two frets apart.
    2. first and second fingers on adjacent frets.
    3. second and fourth fingers two frets apart.
    1. second and third fingers on adjacent frets.
    2. third and fourth fingers on adjacent frets.