Holdsworth's All Hammer-on Legato

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!!

So, I got a response notification on the commute in to work and had to wait until I could get home and pick up a guitar to actually check my recollection. And for me at least, I get a sharper, crisper attack for both hammer-ons and pull-offs with just the tips of my fingers than the pads. Thre may be some human anatomy differences here, and it totally makes sense why a little more “grip” from the pads would help with the pull-off, but on the other side of the coid I think the relatively firmer skin on your fingertips gives a cleaner release, which makes for a sharper, clearer, crisper attack.

All tat said - Tom Gilroy just wrote a book here that, scanning it at least, seems to advocate for the opposite approach (though they may not be opposites - tone and speed may be best served by different approaches), so I’m going to go open a beer and sit down and watch his videos and read what he has to say in case there’s something I’m overlooking here :+1:

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Hi @Drew.

I am not advocating fretting with the pads over fretting with the finger tips or vice versa. I think that both are valid and I am comfortable with both of the postures I describe above.

The only exception would be fretting with the tip of the index finger, which I feel has significant disadvantages when playing legato, and no advantages that I can see. Of course, fretting with the tip of the index finger has advantages in other contexts.

Yeah - on closer read that’s more about hand position than it is fingertip position - my bad! Serves me right for scanning. :slight_smile:

I’m a tad frustrated by what feels like slow progress developing my hammers and pulls, I just feel like I’m not getting the unplugged volume I should be, so it isn’t TERRIBLE when plugged in, but it is a massive volume drop from picked notes.

Probably just need to spend more time at dead slow tempos, and I guess some of the things I’ve learned from CTC have spoiled me in terms of how quickly I can expect to improve a given technique.

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Hi @Prigmnr.

I wrote this above:

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.

If you pick hard, your picked notes might be much louder than what is actually achievable with hammers and pull-offs. If you want to achieve a more legato sound, you need to identify the volume ceiling for hammers and learn to match your picked notes to that level.

If you’re near the volume ceiling already and the lack of unplugged volume bothers you when playing an acoustic guitar, there really isn’t much that can be done about it.

If instead, the lack of volume is bothering you when you’re playing an electric guitar unplugged, I wouldn’t worry too much. If what you’re playing sounds good when you’re amplified, that’s all that matters. I think spending too much time practicing unplugged encourages heavy-handedness and hampers development of damping technique.

You should aim to be able to play legato at a consistent volume level through a clean amp.


Some Holdsworth fans refer to this as a “lift off,” and it regularly is confused with the descending hammer in discussion.

+1 on the “lift off” as being a third approach. Somewhere between my “pull off” and the “lift off” is something I think of as the “brush off.”

With a wobbly string in motion, I’d be curious to see high speed cameras on what @Tom_Gilroy’s suggested regarding damping.

In tapping practice I think about the difference between the tip of my finger landing on a string to fret it versus how a drum stick head bounces on a vibrating snare drum.

I like an action on my guitars where I don’t have to exert much effort to keep the string in motion, while keeping enough height to help the tone. When the action gets to a certain height I can still play all-hammered, but it’s about as much fun as trying to run fast through water. Quick height adjustment and it becomes effortless again. Peace.

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Very late to the party here. Allan was not all hammer-on legato despite some ‘authorities’ stating it as fact.

In the 1984 issue of “Guitar for the Practicing Musician” there’s a LENGTHY Holdsworth technique article that discusses how he executes lines. It’s probably the best discussion of how he did things in print I know of.

PIcking, hammer-ons and LIFT OFFs - not pull-offs. there’s a subtle distinction. Holdsworth disliked the pitch fluctuation (he called it the cats meow sound) that occurred during pull-offs and devised a variation: a lift off vertically directly above the note he wanted to enunciate. It works and that’s what he used.

His ultimate goal was to make picked, hammered and lifted notes ultimately have the same volume/attack so you couldn’t tell what he was doing. Which he was a master at.

I’ve used this for years now. example: https://soundcloud.com/aliensporebomb/sevenish

We saw some backlash against this approach from proponents of “pure only hammer-on legato” which can be traced to Marshall Harrison and his adherents but it’s not what Holdsworth himself actually used.

That being said, for some lines the hammer-on only approach can be useful.


Totally agree with you on Harrison being obsessed with this. If I am honest, I dislike the sound of all-hammers approach if it is used exclusively - it makes me queasy and I find that a lot of players that do this tend to be less dynamic. It sounds very piano-like which is great in small bursts (think Satch’s Mysical Potato Head Groove thing). I love the sound of a good pull-off (insert rude joke here?), and you can add vary the amount of ‘twang’ used (more to add emphasis and less for a smoother tone).

Despite the above, I try and do all hammer-ons as part of legato practice as it puts your fretting hand under complete scrutiny and improves my usual legato style.

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Hi @aliensporebomb.

I’ve read most of the interviews with Allan that have appeared in print or online, including the one you’ve mentioned.

While the interviews are certainly helpful, I don’t think anything Allan has said regarding his technique should be taken as gospel, for several reasons.

As we’ve seen in CTC interviews, few players have a thorough understanding of their playing mechanics, and there are usually discrepancies between what a player is doing and what they think or feel they are doing. For example, Allan once mentioned in an interview that he didn’t use sweep picking, though I have noticed many examples of him using sweep picking in his playing.

Most of the interviews where Allan discussed technique were conducted in the early to mid '80s, while Allan’s technique and his playing in general continued to develop beyond that point, as incomprehensible as that is.

Allan, despite his genius, was not a good teacher or expositor. While the article you mentioned is indeed lengthy, the section where he discusses the “lift-off” is brief, and not particularly instructive.

Unfortunately, Allan is no longer with us and those of us who wish to analyse his playing have to make do with the video recordings we have available to us. From my own study, it seems to me that Allan utilized picking, ascending and descending hammers, “lift-offs” and occasionally conventional pull-offs also, depending on context.

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I discovered Harrison’s work after running into people making money online stating that one has to do things that run counter to what Holdsworth’s on record striving for. I was very grateful for it. Harrison’s biggest gripe so far as I could tell, was with folks referring to anything involving hammers and pull-offs as legato. Legato refers to connected sound and is analyzed in detail by for example, classical pianists. It is also a common term used by guitarists to refer to hammer-on’s and pull-off’s.

I think in general, at some point, if one enjoy’s Holdsworth’s music and explores similar technique, one hopes one doesn’t run into folks arguing gospel that runs counter to observable evidence, and that one doesn’t fall into the trap of knowing certainty beyond the evidence that he used lots of techniques and that he worked hard on his sound.

I mostly agree with what aliensporebomb is saying here (thanks), although I might state the reason as, “so that the mechanics of his lines didn’t show through and obscure the musical message as intended.”

RIP Mr. Holdsworth, and love to the family and friends. Peace out, y’all.

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I know Pals of Al and - I almost feel like I want to ask them what they learned since some of them were players.

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