Slurs, also known as “hammer-ons” and “pull-offs”, are both an effective exercise for the hands, and a common musical technique in classical guitar pieces.
In music, they allow us to inflect the music in a vocal-like way. They allow us to potentially play scale passages and ornaments (trills, etc.) more quickly and smoothly than we otherwise would.
As an exercise, hammer-ons and pull-offs build strength, stretch, and finger independence. At any ability level, we can use slurs as a high-leverage technique exercise.
At First, Slurs may be Tricky
When we first learn slur technique, they are strenuous and awkward. We don’t yet have the finger independence and accuracy we need to play them well.
Hammer-ons take accurate aim and a directed muscle movement. Pull-offs require movements and control that we don’t require in every-day life.
But there are a few tweaks you can make to improve your slurs, and have new experiences in your hands.
Tip One: Use Your Arm
To perform a hammer-on, one finger is holding down a string on a fret, and another finger sounds a second note by “hammering” onto a higher fret.
Usually, this requires us to lift one finger and slam it down, hoping for both accurate placement and enough force to sound the note.
But you can also rotate your forearm to create velocity and power. This means twisting your arm in the “turn the doorknob” movement.
As another example, hold your left hand in front of you, palm down. Then quickly flip your hand to palm up. This is the general motion for hammer-ons. Flip palm up to palm down for the general motion for pull-offs.
Allow the larger muscle groups to help out the smaller finger muscles.
With practice, you can make this movement very quickly and powerfully. Of course you won’t use the entire range of movement available, but even a small amount will allow the larger muscle groups to help out the smaller finger muscles.
Tip Two: Decrease the Finger/String Angle
This one is for pull-offs. It sounds scientific, but it’s not.
Oftentimes, when we play pull-offs, we begin with our fingers at a right angle to the string. This means they come straight up from the fret board.
For some playing (as well as for hammer-ons), this is perfect, and perhaps necessary. But for pull-offs, there is a better way.
Allow your fingers to relax and extend, so that they’re closer to straight (not completely), and now touching the strings at less on an angle.
This allows the finger “pulling off” a better starting position, and a more advantageous range of movement.
When you begin at 90 degrees (perpendicular to the string), pulling off means exerting strength through a very small range of movement.
You can use a stronger range of movement in the finger, and get the desired result more easily when you come in to the string at an angle.
It also makes the next tip possible.
Tip Three: Push on the Back Finger
This tip is also for pull-offs only.
Once you’ve mastered the tip above, and changed the starting angle for your pull-offs, you can add in this next step.
In addition to pulling with the “pull-off finger”, you can also push with the “back finger”. The “back finger” is the finger holding the note being pulled off to, or, the second note sounded.
When you both pull the upper finger while simultaneously pushing the back finger, the entire action takes far less effort overall.
Pushing the back finger compensates for any string movement arising from the pull off, and keep the string stable. This means that the pull-off finger has less work to do.
This opposing motion will allow you to use your hands more efficiently and play with a great overall sense of ease
To both push and pull with two different fingers takes some coordination and practice, but it will allow you to use your hands more efficiently and play with a great overall sense of ease.
When you get used to this opposing motion when playing pull-offs, you can begin to relax the rest of the hand. Slurs come more easily, and you’ll have more control over the precise timing of your pull-offs.
Toy with Pressure and Angles in Your Practice
As you practice slurs in your daily technique practice, experiment with varying the angles of your fingers, and the pressure you use to play the hammer-ons and pull-offs.
You’ll learn through experience how much pressure is needed, and what that feels like when you play with different left hand finger combinations.
Over time, this practice will help you to move more gracefully and exert only the force necessary for the job at hand. You’ll gain stamina and be able to play for longer periods of time. And you’ll have more dexterity and agility in your hands.