Hi all! Welcome to the technique section of the Beginner chapters in the Ultimate Guide to Guitar... This article and the next one will not cover theory, but only the practical, technical aspects of playing guitar. Every part of my guide (Beginner part, Novice part, ...) will start with a couple of theory chapters, followed by a couple of technique chapters. This article will cover left hand techniques, the next one will be about right hand techniques.
Last time, we learnt how to play simple solos over simple chord progressions. Today, we are going to learn to bring your solos alive! In this and the next article, we are going to learn some basic but very important techniques for your hands...
This article is going to be an easy one, an exciting one, but also a very important one! The techniques discussed in this article are basically very simple to learn and master, but vital to your guitar playing. Practice every technique every day until you completely get the hang of them! They will help your guitar playing to become more expressive... This article is going to be all practical (Yay! Playing > Theory!)... So let's get going and start playing already!
The left hand techniques we are going to learn in this chapter, are mostly used in lead guitar where they serve to make the guitar sound more expressive. That's why these techniques are called expression techniques. Which expression techniques are we going to learn:
These terms may seem new and strange to you now, but after reading this chapter you will soon know every aspect of the 5 techniques we will learn! Every technique has its own section, so we will start off with the first section: hammer-ons!
The hammer-on. A very easy technique, without a very original name... The name says it all really! What you basically do, is fret a note, pluck the string, and fret the next note on that string without plucking the string again. I will now break this procedure down in a couple of steps. Then, I will give you some information on how it's used in lead guitar. Finally, I will give you an example of my own... This will be the structure of all 5 sections on expression techniques!
A. How it's done
So, how do we do a hammer-on? Some easy steps:
1. Fret a note. Let's say, fret the 3rd string (G) on the 3rd fret, using your index finger.
2. Pluck the string, so you hear the note ring.
3. While the note is ringing, you press down (hard) with your ring finger on the 5th fret, fretting the string at that fret. You should now hear the note at the 5th fret ring instead of the note at the 3rd fret!
Why is that? Well, if you press your finger down hard enough (hammering onto the fretboard), you shorten the string's length without muting it. So, the string continues to vibrate at the new fret, and you don't need to pick it again! It may take some practice to do a hammer-on that doesn't sound partly or completely muted... Just keep on trying!
Some important and useful sidenotes:
After you do a successful hammer-on, you can do another one right after it. In our example, after you did a hammer-on with your ring finger at the 5th fret, you could do a hammer-on with your pinky at the 6th fret. Double hammer-ons are not rare in lead guitar...
Another possibility is the hammer-on out of nowhere. Basically, what you do is skip step 1 and 2 of the steps I wrote above... You just hammer-on a string that is idle! For example, you fret and pluck a note on the 3rd string at the 3rd fret, and then you hammer-on with your ring finger at the 5th fret of the FOURTH string (which wasn't played at first!). So, you are basically playing a note out of nowhere, because you didn't pick it. Still, this technique is commonly used in lead guitar.
B. Hammer-ons in lead guitar
So, now you know how to do a hammer-on... How do you use it in your solos? Well, basically hammer-ons (and pull-offs, see later) serve 2 important purposes:
Playing faster: sometimes, it's easier to hammer-on a note instead of picking it, just because hammering-on is faster. As a beginner, you probably don't have to worry about this, but in more advanced pieces of music, your pick hand might just not be fast enough. Hammer-ons (and pull-offs) are the way to go then: they make the work for your picking hand lighter.
Legato: playing legato is a musical term that means that you play the notes fluently; every note should be followed smoothly by the next one, no pause in between. You might notice that if you pluck a string for every single note (what you usually do), you do have short pauses in between. This pause is the fraction of a second when the pick (or finger) touches the string and cancels out all vibrations. However short, this pause is definitely noticeable and definitely not legato... That's where hammer-ons (and pull-offs) come in! You don't pick in between notes when you hammer-on, so you don't have this slight moment of contact with the string... So the notes will smoothly follow each other up without pause! This is also often used in guitar solos for a smooth effect...
These are the most important uses for hammer-ons in guitar solos. To illustrate the practical use of hammer-ons in lead guitar, I have made a short example of a lead guitar part using hammer-ons.
C. Example of hammer-ons
Remember the example guitar solo I gave you last week? Well, today, I'm going to adapt that solo so that it has all the expression techniques in it, that you are going to learn today! That way, you don't have to learn any new lead guitar phrases, so you can concentrate on the expression techniques...
Below is a tab of the first 2 bars of the example solo:
If you put the original tab next to it, you can see that in the new tab, certain notes are connected by a horizontal bracket and an H. This means, you are going to play (pluck) the first note and hammer-on the second one. You may also notice that the last note in this phrase, at the 7th fret on the 4th string, also has an H over it. This means we are going to hammer-on this note out of nowhere.
I have included an audio sample of how this sounds... You may not notice a very big difference with the original solo without hammer-ons, but just remember that the difference is mainly in the technique, and this may become very important once you start playing very fast!
Hammer-ons: Audio sample
OK! So now we have hammer-ons down... Let's get to its counterpart: pull-offs!
If you understand what a hammer-on is, it's pretty easy to learn pull-offs from there. A pull-off is in fact the opposite of a hammer-on: you fret a note, and you pull your finger away from that fret so that the string keeps vibrating, but at a lower fret. I will explain pull-offs the same way I explained hammer-ons: first the technique in steps, then some info on the practical use, and then an example.
A. How it's done
A pull-off in a couple of easy steps:
1. Fret a note. We will use the same example as the hammer-on: fret the 3rd string, at the 5th fret this time, with your ring finger.
2. Be sure to place your index finger behind the 3rd fret on that string! We are going to pull-off from the 5th to the 3rd fret...
3. Pluck the string, so you hear the note at the 5th fret.
4. Pull your ring finger off the string sideways so you pluck the string with your finger while pulling it away. Because your index finger is fretting the string at the 3rd fret, you will now hear the note at the 3rd fret!
Congratulations, you just pulled off your first pull-off! (Very ugly pun much intented) Some pointers, on how to do pull-offs correctly:
The pulling-off motion of your finger is the crucial motion in this technique. You have to pull of sideways so that you slightly pull the string along with your finger, and pluck it as you move your finger away completely. Pluck too softly, and you won't hear the note ring; pluck too hard and the movement isn't fluent anymore. Practice this movement until you got it down completely!
Like double hammer-ons, you can do double pull-offs too. In the previous example, you can pull off from the 5th to the 3rd fret, immediately followed by a pull-off to the open string. This is also often used in lead guitar.
Note: there is no pull-off counterpart for the hammer-on out of nowhere. No such thing as a pull-off out of nowhere exists: you can't do a pull-off off a string without fretting it first!B. Pull-offs in lead guitar
So, how do we use pull-offs in our solos? Actually, this is pretty easy. Pull-offs are used in the same way as hammer-ons in lead guitar:
Playing faster: like hammer-ons, pull-offs make the work for your picking hand lighter, allowing you to play certain passages faster.
Legato: pull-offs are another way to switch between notes without pause, so like hammer-ons, they are used to play legato.
Ok, so now you know how to do a pull-off and what it's for. It's time for another example to illustrate what I mean!
C. Example of pull-offs
For the hammer-on example, I used the first 2 bars of the example solo I gave you last week. For the pull-offs, I'm using the next 2 bars of that solo:
As you can see, there are 2 pull-offs in this phrase, which weren't there in the original solo. A pull-off is indicated with a horizontal bracket and a P between the notes. You play (pluck) the first note and pull-off to the second one...
Again, I provided an audio example for this phrase. Just remember that, like with the hammer-ons, the big difference isn't in how it sounds, but how it is played technically...
Pull-offs: Audio sample
Great! Hammer-ons and pull-offs, that's 2 of the 5 important left hand techniques you know already! On to the next... Slides!
Slides are a very commonly used technique in lead guitar. Hammer-ons and pull-offs didn't produce a really big difference in sound or expression, did they? Well, slides (and bends, see later) do that a lot more. To do a slide, you fret and play a note at a certain fret, and then you move your finger to another fret without lifting it off the fretboard. You keep pressing down the string, so that you go from one note to the other while sliding your finger up or down the string. You get a nice transition between the two notes like this...
A. How it's done
You know the drill: technique in steps, practical uses, example! So, in this paragraph, I'm going to teach you how to do a slide in a couple of easy steps. The only problem is: there are different kinds of slides! I will sum them up for you first, and then explain them:
Slides between two notes, only plucking the first note
Slides between two notes, plucking both the starting and ending note
Slides out of nowhere to a certain ending note
Slides to nowhere from a certain starting note
The most commonly used type of slide is the first one: the slide between two notes, only plucking the first note. This is how you do this in 2 easy steps:
1. Fret and play (pluck) a note. It doesn't matter which finger you use, but in this example, we are going to fret the 3rd string at the 3rd fret with our index finger.
2. Without lifting your finger off the string or off the fretboard, move your index finger to the 5th fret. If you do it correctly, the string will continue to vibrate at the new position.
Practice this technique! It's a very important one, and if you got this type of slide down, I can easily explain the other 3 types, based on this one:
The second type of slide is the slide between notes, plucking both the starting and ending note. In our example, we would follow steps 1 and 2 just like you normally would, and after that you just pluck the ending note with your pick. Use this is you want to accentuate the ending note after a sliding transition.
The slide out of nowhere is another commonly used technique. Let's say we are going to do an upward slide out of nowhere, to the 5th fret on the 3rd string. Just place your finger on the string (not pressing down on the fretboard!) a couple of frets below the position of the ending note. Then, slide upwards to the ending fret, gradually pressing the string down more to the fretboard. If you did this correctly, you will end on the 5th fret with your finger fully pressed down and the string vibrating so you hear the note at the 5th fret!
A similar technique is the slide to nowhere from a certain starting note. It's basically the slide out of nowhere in reverse: you take the 5th fret on the 3rd string as your starting note, you play it and you slide downward, gradually releasing pressure on the string. If you do this correctly, the starting note will at the same time slide down and fade out...
B. Slides in lead guitar
So now you know what kinds of slides there are and how they are done. How are they used in solos, then? Well, the answer for slides is easy. Slides are purely for aesthetic purposes: to make your solos sound more expressive, emotive, ... Other than that, slides are a way to change positions while soloing, without pause. You can slide from a note in one position to another note in a different position, and continue soloing from that position.
I've provided you with an example of slides in soloing. If you want more (and better) examples, I suggest you check out Steve Vai. He abuses slides in his solos!
C. Example of slides
Again, I took a phrase out of last week's example solo and adapted it with the new expression technique. So, here are the 5th to 8th bar from the example solo, using slides:
Three of the 4 types of slides are in this example. On the first note, you slide up out of nowhere. Then, there is a couple of slides between notes where you only play the first note; these are indicated by a diagonal line between the notes (indicating if you slide up or down) and a horizontal bracket above the notes. (If there's no bracket, you slide and play both notes, but there's no example of that in this phrase...) Finally, on the last note, you slide down to nowhere.
It's easier to understand this if you can hear it. Therefore, I made another audio example of how this should sound. This time, you can clearly hear the difference between this and the original, can't you? Like I said, slides are used mainly for expression... Hear for yourself!
Slides: Audio sample
OK! Only 2 techniques to go, the next one being the most exciting of all 5 techniques, in my opinion... Bends!
Bends! My favourite! Of all expression techniques, this is the one that will make your guitar scream, weep or rock the most... Whichever you want, if you use the technique right! Bending is easy to explain, because the name says exactly what we are going to do: you are going to fret a string and then bend it up (towards the ceiling) or down (towards the floor) to increase the tension on the string and raise the pitch... And now (you know the drill): technique, practice, example!
After that, I will go into detail about a very important technique related to bending: vibrato... But first, bends: how do you do them?
A. How it's done
Bending is a very easy technique to learn, but a very difficult one to master properly. In steps:
1. Fret a note. We take the 5th fret on the 3rd string again. Fret it with your ring finger, and be sure to place your index and middle finger on the string too. It will be easier to bend the string up with the strength of 3 fingers instead of only one... Most of the time, you will be using 2 or 3 fingers to bend a string.
2. Play the note.
3. Push the string upwards (towards the ceiling) with your 3 fingers. Keep the string fretted at the 5th fret! You will hear the pitch of the note raise gradually as you bend further upwards...
Now, that was easy wasn't it? Well, like I said, bending is easy to learn but difficult to master. Why? Because you have to know how far to bend up, how high to raise the pitch before you stop bending further up...
Some pointers on how to learn to do this correctly:
Most of the time, you will have to bend up a semitone or a whole tone. The tricky part is to bend up to exactly that pitch, because a little bit too high or low will sound awfully out of tune. So how do you know how high to bend up the pitch?
Let's say you need to bend up the 5th fret on the 3rd string a whole semitone. This corresponds with the note at the 7th fret on that string (2 semitones or a whole tone higher = 2 frets higher). Just go to the 7th fret, and listen to the pitch of the note you play there... Then go back to the 5th fret and bend it up so that it exactly matches the pitch you just heard. Keep doing this, until you get it right! Try other positions, try bending up for just a semitone... Practice, practice, practice!
Once you got the bending technique down, there are some variations to consider. For example, the bend-and-release technique: you bend the note up, and release the tension so that the string falls back to its normal (un-bent) position. Another technique is the pre-bend technique: you bend a string without playing it first. Then, you pluck the bent string, and release to go back to the un-bent state. The tricky part here is, that you have to guess how far to bend up, because you can't hear the string if you don't play it!
B. Bends in lead guitar
Bends are pretty much like slides, mostly used for expressive purposes. Like I said, if used correctly, bends are the most expressive of all of the 5 techniques, and will make your guitar scream, weep or rock at will... Other than that, bends can be used to reach high notes without moving your hand out of the position you are playing in. You can bend up the highest note in a certain box (position) instead of moving your hand two frets up...
Again, to illustrate the use of bends in lead guitar, I have a small audio example for you!
C. Example of bends
I used the example solo again (surprise!) to demonstrate the use of bends in soloing. Here are the 9th and 10th bar of that solo tabbed out:
I've replaced a couple of notes with bends: the first note was at the 12th fret on the 1st string, but now it's a full bend at the 15th fret of the 2nd string, which sounds the same. Also, the 4th note in the phrase seems to have disappeared, but it isn't: after playing the 3rd note, you simply bend it up to get the missing note! The second to last note has also been replaced with a bend...
The tricky part about playing this phrase is to get the bends to sound exactly like the normal notes, so you have to bend the string up to the perfect spot. Try and practice! I'll give you an audio example of how it should sound:
Bends: Audio sample
And voila! You got the 4 of the 5 important expression techniques down! We are almost ready to move on to the right hand techniques... Almost, because there is one more technique I need to explain to you! It's a very easy one, because it's related to bends, which you already know now... and it's called vibrato!
This is a technique that is very commonly used to make individual notes come to life, especially when they are held a long time. Vibrato is a musical term that means a periodical fluctuation of the pitch of a note in time. In common English: vibrato means you are very quickly raising and lowering the pitch of the note, so that it fluctuates around the actual pitch of the note. This is not the same as tremolo, which means that you are periodically raising and lowering the volume of a note. That is why calling the whammy bar a tremolo bar is actually completely wrong: the whammy bar alters the notes' pitch, it has nothing to do with volume!
A. How it's done
So how do you do vibrato on a guitar? Well, there are three techniques, but the most commonly used technique has a lot to do with bends.
1. The first technique is the most commonly used technique, especially on electric guitar. You fret and play a note, and then start bending the string slightly up and back down, up and back down, ... for the pitch-fluctuation effect. This technique uses a vertical up-and-down movement of the finger.
2. The second technique is more commonly used in classical guitar. In this technique, you fret and play a note, and then move your finger up and down along the length of the string. You are not bending the string, but the movement of your finger changes the tension on the string periodically and thus creates a pitch fluctuation effect. The movement of your finger is not vertical but horizontal (along the length of the neck and strings).
3. The most obvious technique, is of course using the whammy bar! Push it down to lower the notes pitch, pull up to raise it...
B. Vibrato in lead guitar
Like I said, vibrato is used to make notes sound more expressive. Especially when the note is held for a long time, vibrato can add to the richness of the sound, making it sound a lot more emotive, alive almost! Also, it may help sustain the note for a longer time. Vibrato is also very often used after bends: after bending the note, you simply release it a little bit and bend back up rhythmically. This vibrato technique is more difficult to pull off, because the string is bent up and is therefore more tense. Just practice and if you pull it off correctly, it will sound amazing!
C. Example of vibrato
Isn't that a coincidence? I have one technique left to demonstrate to you in practice, and just 2 bars of the example solo to use as a demonstration... If I use those 2 bars, I will have added expression techniques to every single phrase in the solo! That's why, I'm giving you the tab for the entire solo now, instead of only the one phrase I use as a demonstration:
Here you go! All the previous phrases with expression techniques are in this tab! We'll first look at the last 2 bars. Not much has changed, but the last note, which was a note that was held very long, now has a fluttering horizontal line above it. This is the indication for vibrato, meaning that we are now going to play this note with vibrato.
I'm going to give you an audio example of this again, but like I gave you the tab of the entire solo instead of only one phrase, I'm going to give you the entire solo in audio instead of only the vibrato part! Isn't that nice of me...
Full solo with expression techniques
Now, you can hear all the expression techniques used in the same solo. Practice them! Here's what you should do: take last week's backing track, and improvise solos like you did last week, but try to use as much of these expression techniques as you can! This will make your solo sound more alive, I can promise you that...
There! We're finished with the left hand techniques! Remember, you will need to practice a LOT if you want to master all these techniques perfectly... But rest assured that when you do, your solos will sound a lot more interesting!
We're not finished with the Beginner's technique education though... Stay tuned for the next article on right hand techniques! This one is going to be shorter, easier, but just as important! If not more important...