Holdsworth's All Hammer-on Legato

I think I’m the only one here who actually prefers pull-offs to hammer-ons. When I’m building patterns… I try to setup things to use as many pull-offs as possible.

So I’m not the one who does that…
When I started to play guitar I had no teacher, no internet. I didn’t know anything about technique, and actually I didn’t know what legato is, so I had to “invent” it. And, as I had some background in piano, I used quick tapping finger motion (which is known as “hammer-on”). But I couldn’t even imagine that someone can use left hand fingers to pull the strings (pull-offs).
Now I try to play correctly, using hammer-ons in ascending motion and pull-offs in descnding, although it’s hard since my hand tends to use hammer-ons in all cases. Still have problems with pull-offs.
P.S. Sorry for my english

Teach me sir, my weak pull-offs are my number one cause for consternation.

It’s more a seeming lack of endurance when chaining a run together or especially when switching strings.

Practicing pull-offs using 3 notes per strings, but in groups of 4 notes helped me a lot. So if your descending, pull-off 3 notes, then play the 4rth on the sting above it. I do this across the neck as a warm-up.

Also, I use economy pull-offs. So when descending, I pull-off upwards… and when Im ascending… I’d pull-off regularly. It took me a couple months to master, and I haven’t seen anyone else do this… but it helps a lot for descending endurance.

That’s how I do pull-offs legato and hamer-ons only legato. Pull-offs really sounds more powerfull but I can’t control them good. Hammer-ons, on the other hand, are quite predictable for me.

P.S. Thanks to @Troy that I get my webcam out of my closet ))

Hi Everybody.

Allan is one of my favorite players and I’ve studied his playing and his technique very carefully. I’ve been focused on developing high level legato technique for several years now, including the “all hammers” approach.

There are a few conceptual difficulties people often have when they first hear of descending hammers, and how it can be physically possible. This can be dispelled via physical reasoning.

Suppose we are performing an ascending hammer on. Suppose for the sake of discussion that we fret a note with the index finger, pluck it and hammer a whole tone above with the ring finger. There is a very brief, imperceptible period of time between the moment when the flesh of the ring finger makes contact with the string and the moment when the string makes contact with the fret. During this period, the original note (with the index finger) has been damped by the contact with the flesh of the ring finger, and the higher note cannot be ringing, as it has not yet been fretted with the ring finger. Thus, by simple physical reasoning, there absolutely must be a “gap” between the original note and the hammered note.

We should not think the gap being eliminated, as this is impossible. Instead, we should think of the gap as having been shrunk to the point where it is imperceptible. This is relatively easy to ensure with an ascending hammer, and so the gap is not perceived.

Suppose instead we wish to perform a descending hammer. Again, for discussion, we fret a note with the ring finger and pluck. If we are to descend without pulling off, we must lift the ring finger and hammer below with the index finger in a concerted movement.

Let us examine the gaps in this instance. There is a brief period between the moment when the string stops contacting the fret under the ring finger and the moment when the ring finger stops contacting the string. During this period, the original note with the ring finger is not ringing, as it is not fretted. Further, the string must be damped, as the ring finger is still in contact with the string.

There is another brief period where between the moment the index finger contacts the string and the moment the string make contact with the lower fret. Again, during this period the lower note cannot be ringing, as it has not yet been fretted.

Let t denote the time variable. Let a and b be the initial and terminal time values of the first period mentioned above. Let c and d be the initial and terminal time values of the second period mentioned above.

We have three distinct scenarios:

  1. The ring finger ceases to be in contact with the string before the index finger makes contact. That is, a<b<c<d. In this case, there is a period where neither finger is in contact with the string, and thus the string cannot be damped. Unless the lifting of the ring finger was performed perfectly, this will result in a noise caused by the brief ringing of the open string.

  2. The index finger frets the lower note before the ring finger ceases to be in contact with the string. That is, a<c<d<b. In this case, the energy of the index finger hammer is wasted. The index hammer cannot sound the lower note as the ring finger is still in contact with the string, damping it. Thus, the lower note will be silent unless the lifting of the ring finger was performed poorly, which would be a very weak an ineffective pull-off.

  3. The string ceases to be in contact with the higher fret under the ring finger, the index finger makes initial contact with the string, the ring finger ceases to be in contact with the string and the string makes contact the lower fret, in that order. That is a<c<b<d. In this case, the string ceases to make contact with the higher fret, and is damped by the ring finger. There is a brief period where the ring and index finger both contact the string, but no note is fretted. Then, finally the lower note is fretted by the index finger and rings due to the energy of the index hammer. That is, we achieve a descending hammer. The if the period of simultaneous finger contact is made as short as possible (a<c=b<d is the limiting case), the index hammer imparts more energy into string vibration.

Scenario 3 is the only correct descending hammer. If the total time period a to d were made imperceptible, then it would indistinguishable from the ascending hammer, which necessarily also has a gap by previous argument.

Scenarios 1 and 2 are mistakes, with scenario 2 being the worst possible outcome.

Scenario 3, the true descending hammer, is very difficult to execute, but it is possible, both in theory and in practice.

Now, the above should convince you that the descending hammer is possible. But how do you begin to teach yourself to do it? I can only share what worked for me.

What worked for me was to intentionally begin with scenario 1, and attempt to refine until scenario 3 is achieved. Beginning with scenario 1 is very beneficial, as it prevents you from fretting the lower note before the higher finder ceases to be in contact with the string. That is, this approach prevents scenario 2, which is the worst possible outcome (silence or a bad pull-off).

As we’re usually (and should be) familiar with pull-offs before we attempt to learn descending hammers, there is a natural tendency to “load” the index finger into fretting the lower note, but this is a recipe for scenario 2.

The correct descending hammer is valuable as the tone difference between ascending and descending hammers is more consistent than when using pull offs.

If you perform a descending hammer correctly when unplugged, you will hear the noise of the string vibrating between the nut and the lower finger (index in my previous discussion), similar to the unplugged performance of a hammer from nowhere. This parasitic noise is of little concern on an electric guitar, as it will not be heard when plugged in, however it makes the technique impractical on an acoustic.

Ok, so know we have the descending hammer. Let’s talk Holdsworth’s legato and legato in general.

First, Holdsworth absolutely, definitely used pull-offs, despite what anybody else says. I’ve studied video of his playing very carefully. There are many instances where he descended from the higher note the the lower note and the the lower note is clearly already fretted. The lower note isn’t picked, and rings out clearly, so it must be a pull-off.

There are other instances I have noticed in his playing however where the lower note does not seem to be already fretted and the lower finger in rapidly making contact with the string. To me, this looks and sounds like a true descending hammer. He might be very quickly loading the lower finger into fretting the lower note for a slight pull-off, but I don’t feel that is what is happening in many cases.

So Allan Holdsworth never eliminated pull-offs entirely from his playing, and it’s unlikely anybody else ever will. Holdsworth also picked a lot more than most people think.

What Holdsworth did do, was refine his pull-offs, minimizing the amount that the pull-off movement bent the string, while still ensuring a clear note. Some Holdsworth fans refer to this as a “lift off,” and it regularly is confused with the descending hammer in discussion.

Assuming you practice and become comfortable with the descending hammer, legato playing will include picked notes, hammers (ascending and descending) and pull-offs (and slides, but well get to that later). Now, we have to blend them together.

It is crucial to understand that there is a point beyond which hammering a note harder doesn’t really make the note any louder. Instead, the extra force results in the note bending slightly sharp, or results in noise from any other strings that are not damped. Therefore, there is a maximum volume we can generate with a hammer.

The maximum volume of a hammer is below that possible from a pull-off, which is in turn lower than the maximum volume possible a picked note. The level of our hammers is then the limiting factor in legato volume, and we must learn to match the level of our picked notes and pull-offs (which we refine into the lift-off) to the level of our hammers if we intend to optimize the legato sound.

We also need to minimize the percussive quality of our pick attack. A pick made from a softer plastic like nylon can help to reduce pick attack, compared to something like tortex or ultex. Edge picking helps also. Hybrid picking with the flesh of the finger tips also helps to reduce attack.

As for when to use a pull-off (lift-off) or pick stroke instead of a descending hammer, it’s largely contextual. If you want the lower note to be accented, a pick stroke or slightly firmer pull-off is preferable. If you’re performing wide stretches, it’s often very difficult to descend from the pinky to the ring finger with a descending hammer, because it’s difficult to generate a sufficiently powerful descending hammer, and a slight pull-off or light pick stroke is often necessary. However, when you’re comfortable with the descending hammer, they can be done at high speeds, as there is no requirement to “load” the lower finger into fretting the lower note, as in a pull-off.

The easiest patterns when using pull-offs are the “rolling” motions, for example (on any string)




These are surprisingly among the more difficult sequences when using all hammers. Instead of “rolling,” the all hammers approach tends to have a “juggling” feel.

Finally, I leave you with what I believe to be the single most valuable legato exercise that is possible. When cycled, this pattern combines every possible coordination of fingers when ascending with hammers and descending with descending hammers or pull-offs, and is excellent for finger independence. Using one finger per fret on any string, we have the 12 note sequence:


I practice this with all hammers and with hammers and pull-offs. On every string, in every position. When using all hammers, the challenge is to ensure that the descending hammers ring out clearly and that the gaps described above are imperceptible. When using pull-offs, the challenge is to ensure that the lower finger is loaded and ready to receive the pull-off.

There is also the reverse pattern


If you have any questions (or spot any slips, this was a massive post) please don’t hesitate to ask.


Firstly, what an astounding post, thanks for taking the time to put that together.

I don’t think I quite get what you mean by “load”/“loading” throughout, any way of putting it into different words?

Chris Poland is probably also worth investigating as a super smooth legato player - I think he uses Benson picking and it leads to his picked and legato tones being very very consistent.

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Hello @Prlgmnr.

I’m glad you enjoyed the post, hopefully I can clarify. Sorry for my confusing terminology.

Let’s suppose we are performing a pull-off, and for the purpose of discussion we are pulling from the ring to index finger. For an effective pull-off, the index finger must fret the lower note before the ring finger begins the movement.

When we practice pull-offs in isolation, we often maintain constant fretting pressure on the lower fret. Most pull-off exercises allow you to do this. This makes for poor exercises which fail to target the greatest challenge in pull-off technique.

Consider a simple descending six note pattern, using the index, middle and ring fingers of the fretting hand. We have


We might begin with all fingers fretting on the E string, but when we move to the B string, we must ensure that the middle finger is fretting at the 6th fret before the pinky can pull-off from the 8th fret, though it is not necessary to ensure that the index finger is fretting the 5th fret yet. This is what I call “loading.” That is, the simultaneous fretting of the higher note and the lower note to which we pull-off.

This simultaneous fretting, or loading, is crucial for an effective pull-off. However, for the descending hammer, it is crucial that we do not do this.

This explains the prominence of the rolling movements such as


in conventional legato playing (Satriani, Vai, etc). These rolls are easy to perform with pull-offs because we can easily ensure that the lower notes are fretted while fretting the higher notes. That is, the lower notes are naturally “loaded” for the pull-off.

This “loading” is why rolling movements do not lend themselves to the descending hammer, as we instead need to ensure that lower notes are never simultaneously fretted (loaded).

This “loading” is why most players struggle to learn the descending hammer. Since they are already familiar with the pull-off, they attempt to include this “loading” of the lower note (simultaneous fretting of the lower and higher notes). This causes scenario 2 to happen, and often convinces the player that descending without pull-offs is impossible.

Does anybody know how to use plain text in posts for tablature? It would make my examples and exercises clearer. EDIT: Thanks @Brendan! Examples have been edited.


You’re right - Chris does use trailing edge picking and he uses .50mm Clayton picks. he says the tone between the picked notes with them and playing notes legato is nearly indistinguishable.

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Thanks for these awesomely detailed posts @Tom_Gilroy!

For tab notation in posts you can enclose a line of text in back ticks (`) and it will appear in monospace plaintext like this:


You can also do the same thing with a larger block of text:

Start each line in the block with four spaces
And it will look like this.

(If you forget the syntax you can also get this by clicking the code brackets icon in the middle of the composer toolbar.)

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Hi @Brendan! Thanks for that, I’ll edit my above posts so they’re more easily understandable.

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Wow, that’s a great post and great analysis.
Interesting thing that using hammer-ons only we can achieve staccato sound, despite the fact that hammer-on is usually conceived as legato technique.

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Hi, to everyone!!
How can you mute the noise/sound of the open strings while descending with hammer-ons, especially while moving to the next string after hammering the last note on the previous string. If you add distortion, this can be a big pain…
It seems that neither Allan H. or Marshall H. used any string muter

While I agree, I’d reverse the order and take it a step further - I think the best thing I ever did for my legato playing was to start practicing unplugged. Disclaimer, I look at legato a little differently than Marshall Harrison in that video above (if its the one I think it is), in that while he’s technically correct that “legato” in a classical sense involves a smooth, flowing, indisctinct sound, what he refers to as “rock” legato is a totally valid approach too, and I definitely strive to maintain a clear and articulate attack to each note, picked or legato. And, if on an unplugged guitar, you can hear distinct hit-ons or pull-offs without the benefit of an amp or comprtessor or any gain at all to smooth things out, then when you DO throw some gain into the mix (or not - that Govan video is stupefyingly good, but proves its at least possible) then you KNOW your notes will be clear and even.

Getting your muting technique down is important too, but IMO you can get by on good-but-not-great muting better than you can on good-but-not-great articulation in your legato technique.

Also, I don’t know if anyone else has had the same experience, but I’ve found that fretting with just the tips of your fingers gives you a clearer attack on legato techniques than the fleshy pad. It could be placebo, but I swear to god I can hear the difference between the two, especially when my hands are cold. :rofl:

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I think this may be true for hammer-ons but for me it would make the pull-off harder/quieter. On the other hand, fretting with a non-perpendicular finger seems to allow a bit of “scooping” motion when the finger lifts, which seems to facilitate the pull-off.

That being said, my hammer-on/pull-off techniques suck (and I don’t think I’ll attempt all-hammers in the foreseeable future)!

fun thing… best way to practice ‘all hammer-on’ legato is to practice staccato ))


Hi @DimVas.

I use both hands to achieve a comprehensive dampening technique.

Consider the following images, which depict two different and fundamental fretting postures.

Notice the differences.

In the first posture, the index finger frets between the pad and the side of the finger, with the exact position depending on the span. The other three fingers fret with the finger tips. Notice that the fingers and thumb are both parallel to the frets. In this position, my index finger damps all strings higher than the fretted string, and the tip of my index finger also damps the string below the fretted string. The middle, ring and pinky fingers only contact the fretted string on a short span, and thus provide no damping. To achieve a larger span, these fingers must flatten and will usually also contact the string above the fretted string.

In the second posture, I’m fretting the strings with the softer pads of my fingers. To accomplish this, my fingers must be angled diagonally relative to the frets and the fretting hand thumb points along the opposing diagonal. Notice also how the index finger is more bent and the direction in which it points. Now, the index finger damps the string below the fretted string and all higher strings (though it can be difficult to ensure the high E is damped when fretting the low E). Importantly, the middle, ring and pinky finger all contact the string below and the string above the fretted string, and thus these fingers also provide damping in this posture. As the span increases, it becomes necessary to fret closer to the finger tip with the middle and ring fingers, so their capacity for damping is reduced.

Obviously, these are somewhat idealized in presentation, and these forms must be malleable in actually playing. However, I think that understanding these two postures, and their advantages and disadvantages, including damping capability, is very helpful when developing fretting hand technique.

From what I have seen, Allan had a very strong preference for fretting postures resembling the second posture. Marshall Harrison seems to share this preference. Shawn Lane preferred fretting postures resembling the first posture for 3 note per string passages.

Neither of these postures is the classical fretting posture, which would be somewhat similar to the first posture but fretting with the tip of the index finger also. This allows for no damping with the fretting hand. Importantly, classical players don’t want or need this damping capability, their default fretting postures are designed to allow for polyphony.

For right hand damping, I would suggest you read my post in the following thread:

In particular, when playing legato I typically pick using what I referred to in that thread as “Mode 2,” as this form allows me my greatest control over damping and facilitates hybrid picking and sweeping.


Thank you so much for the detailed explanations in your answer!!

Hi @DimVas, you’re welcome.

I’m glad I could help.

EDIT: I wish I’d thought to move the ironing board before taking those pictures…

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Haha!! Just noticed :slight_smile: actually I kinda like it :slight_smile:thanx again, you’ve been a great help!!