Mike Moxcey ©2005
Left Hand Techniques
Besides plucking strings with your right hand, you can also use left (fretting) hand techniques to make different sounds. This doesn’t work on an autoharp (with no fret) or a dobro (which you don’t fret), but does work for most other stringed instruments.
A pull-off is where you pluck a fretted string and then lift the fretting finger (pull it off) to get another sound. The most common ones, and the easiest to do, are pulling off the 2nd or 3rd fret to an open string. The trick is to pull off sharply to make the second note sound strong. Some folks actually catch the string with their fingernail to pluck it as they pull off. A related technique is called “pizzicato” and came from the violin (which has no plucked notes). That involves plucking the string, usually open, with your left hand using no right-hand action at all. If you get good at that, then you can make good sharp-sounding, bluegrass-style pull-offs.
Some people call pull-offs “push-offs.” Others make the distinction of which direction the fretting hand moves off the string: “pulling” the left finger down toward the ground or “pushing” it up away from the ground. Some folks get different sounds using different directions.
A pull-off doesn’t have to end on an open string. A common technique in bluegrass guitar and banjo is the 3rd to 2nd fret pull-off on the 3rd string.
A hammer-on is the opposite of a pull-off. You pluck a string with the right hand, usually an open string, and then jam a lefthand finger down (hammer) to fret the string and make a new note. You must jam it down quickly in order to get a clean sound. The best ways to practice this is plucking an open string and then hammering on to that string at the 2nd fret.
A hammer-on doesn’t have to be done on just one string. Many folk, rock, and blues guitarists use this and hammer on from open strings to an Em or E chord using the 2 or 3 fretted strings on the guitar.
Slides are a main dobro technique because you use the slide bar on that instrument. But you can also slide just using your fretting finger. Fret a string, pluck it, and then slide the fretting finger up or down one or two or 5 frets to get a different sound. I believe the difference between a one-fret hammer-on and a one-fret slide is minimal, but others swear there is a difference.
You can do fast or slow slides. With a fast slide, you try to make the beginning and ending notes sound about the same amount of time and don’t worry about the notes in-between. With a “slow” slide, you pluck the beginning note, let it ring for awhile, and then slide up to the ending note. You can let the slide move fast or slow depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Chokes are where you pluck a fretted string and then move the left finger up or down vertically in relation to the ground. It stays behind the same fret but by moving the string across the fret, it makes the sound sharper. This is used extensively in blues. You can “choke” a string up, “choke” and then “unchoke” it, or choke it back and forth several times on a single pluck.
You can use pull-offs, hammer-ons, slides, and chokes individually or in combination. One classic technique is to hammer-on a G string at the 2nd fret and then slide up to the 5th fret. You can also do a double hammer-on or pull-off to perform a “triplet”—three notes in the space of two. Or you can hammer-on and then choke. Many old-time frailed banjo songs consist of lengthy series of hammers, pulls, and slides.
These are also called harmonics. They are a way to make a bell-like sound on a stringed instrument. They are very useful when tuning and are explained in that section.
There are many other sounds you can make on a string instrument. Knocking on the woo when you sing about someone knocking on a door is kind of fun. You can also beat out a rhythm using hands or fingerpicks. I’ve heard folks sing about getting a telegram and beating a dash-dot pattern on their instrument
Doc Watson’s version of Froggy Went A-Courtin’ has several different animal sounds on it. He runs his fingernails up and down the string to get a buzzing bee. Other folks have done Whoa Mule and strummed behind the bridge of a banjo to get a sound like a kicking mule. These are all advanced, but cute techniques. If you hear something weird, try to figure out how they got that sound. It may be enlightening.
Using a Slide
Another technique for getting a different sound is to use a slide bar (what dobros use). Slide guitarists use this for blues, but I’ve heard folks play slide banjo and mandolin. You can also get ring slides which fit over the little finger or ring finger like a ring. These allow you to do normal fretting but also let you use the slide when needed.