Pull-offs on guitar can be tricky to master, but once you get the hang of them, they're one of the key ways to play faster and adds more of a fluid sound to your playing.
As a result, it is one of the essential guitar techniques to learn - and one of the more challenging.
In this guitar lesson, I'll show you everything you need to know about pull-offs, how to execute them properly, and how to incorporate them into your playing. By the end of this guide, you'll be a pull-off expert!
Pull Offs Demonstrated
Quick tip: After you read about "Pull Offs On Guitar" you can see these concepts applied to playing "Over The Hills and Far Away" below.
Pull-Off Essential Facts
Fact #1. What is a Pull-Off?
A pull-off is a way to sound notes on the same string while only using the fretting hand.
Often used alongside hammer-ons, a pull-off is performed when a fretting finger "pulls" the string in the direction of the floor and then releases the string, just like pulling back a bow and shooting an arrow - hence the term 'pull off.'
In shooting an arrow, the energy stored in the string by the pulling action propels the arrow forward. Likewise, the energy stored in the string by pulling it creates the string vibration that produces the sound we hear.
Warning! Most guitar students do not pull the string; they merely lift the finger off the string.
Fact #2: There Are Two Types of Pull-Off Technique
Type #1: Pull-Off To An Open String
When we place a finger on a fret and pull the string so that the open (unfretted) string note sounds, we must, like pulling a bow, pull it far enough to create sufficient energy to produce a sound.
Notice that the nut (the white part up top on the head of the guitar with grooves through which the strings come down to the neck) holds the string firmly in place while you pull on it, in effect helping you to make the pulled note.
If the string were allowed to move, it would lose energy, and the sound would be weakened or not heard at all.
Type #2: Pull-Off To A Fretted Note
Type #2 is the more common type of pull-off - and the more difficult.
We no longer have the nut helping us; we must use another finger to hold the string firmly and cause it to resist moving due to the pulling action of the pulling finger.
We’ll go into more detail about each of these types of pull-off techniques later in this article.
But first, let’s cover something important:
The Challenge With The Pull-Off Guitar Technique
Whether you play electric guitar or acoustic guitar, pull-offs on guitar are always a problem, especially for self-taught players.
So here's the big secret to this technique:
The "pulling finger" and the "receiving finger" both have to do their job on their two notes!
The Problem with Pull-Offs:
You may experience the following issues when trying to execute pull-offs:
- The 2nd note of the pull-off is weak and does not sound clear, especially at high speeds.
- The other fingers of the fretting hand tense up during the pull and become hard to control, missing the following note they need to play.
The Solution For Pull-Offs:
- The "pulling finger" must actually pull, not merely lift.
- The "receiving finger" must push the string upward a bit so that the string does not move when the pulling finger pulls.
HEY - LOOK - I'M ONLY USING ONE HAND!
Pull-offs, like hammer-ons, are a way of creating a note without the right hand. However, pull-offs demand more left-hand exertion than notes sounded with two hands. They also require even more effort from the fingers than hammers.
Pull-Off To A Fretted Note: How To Do It
There are two finger actions necessary to execute a pull-off to a fretted note:
1. The Pulling Finger
The pulling finger must pull the string out of alignment with the receiving finger.
2. The Receiving Finger
The receiving finger must hold the string firmly so it cannot move when the pulling finger pulls.
The Action of the Pulling Finger To a Fretted Note
The finger pulling the string must pull it with enough force to move it out of the otherwise straight line the string is in naturally.
Therefore, we must often modify the exact spot on the string that contacts the finger from what it would be if the finger were not performing a pull-off.
Because we are using more force on the string during the "pull," we need a bit more finger surface to grab the string.
The Action of the Receiving Finger
The receiving finger has the vital job of holding the string firmly in place so that it does not move out of its straight line from the fret back to the nut.
If the receiving finger is allowed to move, the pulling finger cannot do its job.
Even though the receiving finger may pull the string, it will not create the necessary tension in the string required to produce the note.
In effect, the receiving finger performs the same job that the nut performs when doing a pull to an open string: it secures the string firmly in place so that it does not move as tension is placed on the string.
For the receiving finger to do its job, it must exert not only downward pressure on the string (toward the fingerboard) but also "upward" pressure in the direction of the ceiling - essentially a "push-pull" action in the pull-off to a fretted note.
Be careful not to overlook this!
The Biggest Problem When Practicing Pull-Offs: Sympathetic Tension
Sympathetic Tension: Every time you use a finger, the finger next to it tenses up.
It's a bad problem because it makes the tensed-up finger unable to be controlled.
So "sympathetic tension" happens when a finger not being used tenses up "in sympathy" with a finger in use.
This problem happens to every beginner and is why many people fail at guitar.
Sympathetic tension makes playing scale passages difficult. It makes playing fast scales impossible and often occurs when practicing pull-offs because of the significant muscle power used.
There are two ways sympathetic tension affects our fingers: Finger Squeeze & Finger Rise.
Let's explore these 2 issues below:
The 2 Forms Of Sympathetic Tension
Finger Squeeze: Sympathetic Tension makes a finger squeeze against the finger next to it. In the above picture, you can see the 2nd finger squeezing against the first finger. This issue happens simply because the first finger is pressing the string down.
Finger Rise: Sympathetic Tension makes a fretting finger rise up in the air, away from the string. This is a problem because we need to keep our fingers close to the strings. The further our finger moves from the string, the longer it takes to bring it back to the string to play. This problem makes fast playing difficult or impossible.
We must ensure that we keep sympathetic tension out of the fingers that are not in use.
To do that, we will use "the touching technique." - see below.
Minimizing Sympathetic Tension: The Pull-Off Touching Technique
The Touching Technique: We will teach the inactive fingers to stay relaxed by keeping them lightly touching a string while the pulling finger and receiving finger are working. We will touch the idle fingers lightly to the string adjacent to the string we are using for the pull-off.
Here you see fingers 2 and 3 touching the 5th string lightly as the pulling finger and receiving finger work to perform the pull-off.
Pull-Off To A Fretted Note On Same String: Foundation Exercise
Now that you know the proper mechanics of doing a pull-off on the guitar, we must study the correct Foundation Exercises.
In this video, you will see the touching technique used to keep inactive fingers relaxed. The fingers not being used will touch an adjacent string while the pulling finger pulls lightly:
Pull-Off To A Fretted Note Exercise Demonstrated
We have 3 objectives when doing the above exercise:
- Train the Pulling Finger to really pull, not merely lift.
- Train the Receiving Finger to hold the string firmly by pushing up as the pulling finger pulls.
- Train the fingers not being used to stay relaxed and not curl with tension and pull away from the strings.
Exercises For Pull-Off To A Fretted Note On Guitar
Our primary goal at this point is to begin training the fingers to apply the necessary force to the strings while simultaneously disallowing sympathetic tension in the inactive fingers.
Important: If sympathetic tension starts to creep in, we will create more problems than we are solving!
Practice the following exercises to develop your pull-off technique for fretted notes.
Hint: Scroll down the page beneath the diagrams for instructions:
Follow These Directions To Properly Practice Pull-Offs To A Fretted Note On Guitar:
- Place the inactive fingers lightly on the string adjacent to the pull-off (touching).
- Place the active fingers lightly in position.
- Play the string with the right-hand finger or a pick.
- Pull the string slowly to the side with the pulling finger, and push the string with the receiving finger enough to keep the string in the same place as pressure is applied.
- Pose at the point of highest force, rotate attention, and relax the entire body with Whole Body Awareness.
- Release the string, and instantly relax the pulling finger. Relax the receiving finger, but keep enough firmness in the finger to keep the note fretted and sounding.
Pull-Off To An Open String Foundation Exercise
When pulling off to an open string there is no receiving finger. The nut does the job of holding the string firmly in place.
So, we only need to use the pulling finger, which pulls the string out of alignment from the nut.
Important: When we place a finger on a fret and pull the string so that the open (unfretted) string note sounds, we must, like pulling a bow, pull it far enough to create sufficient energy to produce a sound.
Position of the Pulling Finger When Pulling To An Open String:
Often, we must modify the exact spot on the pulling finger that contacts the string from what it would be if the finger were not performing a pull-off. This is because we generally use more force on the string during the "pull," so we need a bit more finger surface to grab the string with.
So, sometimes when using pull-offs, we may want to experiment with placing the finger on the string with a little more flesh than usual. An example would be when the hand may be holding a chord while some fingers are angled and pulling a string.
Pull-Off Guitar Tab Exercises For An Open String
Keep These Points In Mind When Practicing Pull Offs To An Open String On Guitar:
Keep the whole body relaxed: Make sure your shoulders are relaxed. Also, make sure you do not hold your breath at any point.
Make sure the finger is relaxed as it touches the strings: Do not tense the finger before it touches the string. The finger must be relaxed when it first touches the string. Then, the finger becomes firm as it pushes the string down.
Keep the body relaxed as you pull: There is a great tendency to hold your breath and tense various body parts as the finger pulls. Instead, pay attention to your whole body and breathing as the finger pulls.
Stop! When You Pull: Use no tempo practice on the pull. Stop dead at the moment when you are pulling the string - stop and hold the pull. Then, check your body, hand, and arm for any tension you can let go of.
Relax After The Pull: Make sure you release all tension from the finger after you pull. Even better, release the tension as you pull the string and let it go.
Pull-Offs In Action: Over The Hills And Far Away
No matter what style of music you play, sooner or later, you will need to do hammer-ons and pull-offs - they are one of the keys if you want to play faster and smoother. A good example is the classic Led Zeppelin song "Over The Hills & Far Away."
Here is the music, and in the above video, I give you exact instructions on how to handle the notes.
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Over to you:
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