Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer

Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer

I was asked by Laura about doing clean hammer ons and pull offs. I am adding a tutorial on them on the videos . Would be interested to hear any other suggestions.

If this link doesn't work I am adding it to the videos.

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Replies to This Discussion

Linda, the link works great.  And another very fine tutorial by you!  Excellent talk and demonstration! 

Hi Linda,

I was once asked to write up a short technical piece about hammer-ons and pull-offs for a local dulcimer group, which I had also reposted on this site.  In case you or anyone else finds it useful, I'd be happy to reproduce it in this discussion. Just let me know.  :)



Hey Brian. That would be great. Thank you!!

Ok, here you go:

Hi all,

Many years ago, after a discussion in my local dulcimer group about hammer-ons and pull-off and their use, I was asked to write a short piece about them. Not only can these two techniques dress up your music, but they often simplify the playing of music, and therefore allow more speed and fluidity, by giving your right hand a rest.

I thought I would paraphrase what I had written back then to try to make it a little shorter, in the hope that someone here finds it useful. This is certainly not the final word on the subject, and I am not claiming to be an expert. The discussion below is based on how hammer-ons and pull offs were taught to me when learning classical guitar, but the techniques are easily adapted to the dulcimer.

How to perform hammer-ons (formally called ascending slurs) - two guiding principles:
1) snap the hammering finger quickly and cleanly onto the string. Many people worry more about the force they are applying and overdo it.  If you concentrate on speed instead, the required force will be there.  (You never want to apply more force on a string than is necessary to cleanly sound the note. Anything beyond that is just wasted effort and makes your playing more cumbersome.)
2) Continue to apply pressure (just enough) once your finger is on the string.  Failure to do this results in a weak-sounding "staccato" slur that is not very nice.

Remember - speed is more important than force or tension for doing hammer-ons well.  (This is one of the only techniques I can think of where speed is actually vital to proper performance.) If you get the speed, the required force will be there.

How to perform pull-offs (formally called descending slurs) - two guiding principles:
1) the first motion of the finger that is "pulling off" should be into the fretboard. It is a common mistake for people to take the term "pull-off" too literally, and to actually just "let go" of the fret with the finger.  In this case, the predominant motion of the finger is upward (away from the fret). This will result in a very weak, inconsistent sound.
2) after pulling down into the fretboard, the string should be "snapped" off of the fingertip, and the finger is then brought up again into position of the fret board.

The pushing into the fretboard, snapping the string and returning the finger to position shouldn't be considered separate events, but should instead be performed smoothly in one motion.  That will result in consistently good tone, and more volume than is possible by just "lifting off".  Also - don't push into the fretboard with any more force than needed to perform the pull off cleanly.  Anything beyond that is wasted effort. At best it makes your playing sound labored, and at worst it causes fatigue and possible even damage over the long term.

I hope someone find this useful.  :)

Kind regards,


Linda Jo brockinton said:

Hey Brian. That would be great. Thank you!!
Excellent. Thanks Brian
Hi Linda - another excellent linda jo tutorial! you are such a good teacher. could you add it to the video page? that way i can add it to my favourite tutorials to find it for future reference.

.......and brian thank you for your info as well.
regards Marion

Linda, there is oh so much in this short video.


I, too, use lighter strings and strings tuned down a half or whole note when I fingerpick. I think the fingers have more control over the strings that way. (I have a completely different dulcimer with heavier strings tuned to D for flatpicking.)


The advice about trying to keep strings ringing out while you fret other strings is also great advice that pertains to all kinds of playing.


And the discussion about the different angle of your hand on the fretboard depending on whether you use your thumb is a topic rarely addressed. I would suggest that whether you use your thumb should also determined how the dulcimer sits on your lap. If you play with a thumb, the head of the dulcimer can move out towards your knee, whereas if you play without the thumb and use the "front" angle as you call it, the dulcimer can lay across your lap in a more perpendicular manner.


Let me add one more comment.  Some time ago I put together a short video explanation of hammer-ons and pull-offs also in response to a question here (think of it as a kindergarten version of this video). Randy Adams commented then that you can also perform a pull-off by pushing your finger forward rather than pulling it back. You would do this if you are playing quickly and the next note would be a string in that direction. I have not mastered this technique, but I bet if you scour Randy's older videos before he became obsessed with the noter you'll find examples of it.

When I started playing the banjo I bought an instruction book by Earl Scruggs and he wrote in there about the pull offs and push offs and the reason for each.....made sense to me and have been doing it that way ever since. The push offs are a little harder to get clean than the pull offs but you're heading in the right direction for the next note. Obsessed huh Dusty?.... : ).... 

Hey that's cool. I will try it. It does become an obsession . It's the little things you obsess on that helps you get to the next level.

Yeah, in this case obsession may be a good thing.  My daughter complains that when I learn a new song I play it dozens and dozens of times a day to the total exclusion of anything else. I'm sure it seems like an obsession to her. I just think of it as practicing.

Me too. It's a game to me. Can I master it or will I let it master me. New things are always a great challenge. That's what I love about music. You may master the instrument and the techniques but each peace of music is a puzzle that has to be solved and solved well. My husband is usually glad to hear the song over and over but when I play a few measures over 100 times to get it smoothe and up to speed he gets a little testy lol.

So, what about the chiming effect you get with hammer ones...where both the front and back half of the string ring, usually at dissonant pitches.  Is there a way to (easily) mute the back half of the string?  My guitar-playing brother-in-law says that you have to hammer right on the fret (or just behind it) to avoid this.  Other thoughts/techniques?


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