How to Play Fretted Hammer-Ons on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

The fretted hammeron is only just a bit more complicated than the open‐string variety on the bluegrass banjo. With a fretted hammer‐on, you pick a fretted note first, rather than an open string, and you then call upon the services of a second fretting‐hand finger to create the hammer‐on. When you complete a fretted hammer‐on, you’ll be fretting the same string on two different frets with two different fingers.

Some of the most intense and exciting musical moments in bluegrass banjo history are the result of fretted hammer‐ons! Check out J. D. Crowe’s solo to the Jimmy Martin classic “You Don’t Known My Mind” or Earl Scruggs’s masterpiece “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to hear the gutsy raw power of this technique and to experience what it can do for your playing!

Trying out second‐ and third‐string fretted hammer‐ons

Here’s a step‐by‐step guide to the all‐time classic second‐string hammer‐on that has inspired thousands to play bluegrass banjo:

  1. Fret the second string at the second fret with the fretting-hand index finger.

  2. Pick the second string with the picking-hand index finger or thumb — your choice!

  3. While continuing to fret the second fret, hammer-on with the middle finger behind the third fret.

  4. Let this note ring while you continue to fret the second and third frets with both your index and middle fingers.

  5. Now repeat!

    The position of (a) the fretting‐hand fingers before playing fretted hammer‐on and (b)
    Credit: Photographs by Anne Hamersky
    The position of (a) the fretting‐hand fingers before playing fretted hammer‐on and (b) the fingers after playing hammer‐on.

Fretted hammer‐ons frequently travel in groups of two, which is why you want to continue fretting the second fret after you’ve completed the hammer‐on. When you lift the middle finger to play another fretted hammer‐on, your index finger will already be in position and ready to go.

You’ll also want to try this fretted hammer‐on using the third string, fretting from the second to the third fret. This will keep your fingers busy as you try out both hammer‐ons. Note that you alternate picking these strings with your index finger and thumb in this example.

Playing second‐ and third‐string hammer‐ons.
Playing second‐ and third‐string hammer‐ons.

Playing the second‐string fretted hammer‐on with the forward roll

The second‐string fretted hammer‐on embellishes the D note, which is also the same pitch as your open first string. When you’re really serious about emphasizing your D notes, the forward roll is just what’s needed for the occasion.

The following phrase is often used to kick off a song like “Sitting on Top of the World,” or “On and On,” where the first main‐beat melody note is — you guessed it — a D! If you’re familiar with the sound of bluegrass banjo style, you’ll recognize this phrase.

Playing the second‐string hammer‐on with the forward roll.
Playing the second‐string hammer‐on with the forward roll.

Playing the second‐string fretted hammer‐on with the Foggy Mountain roll

When you fret two consecutive second‐string hammer‐ons while playing the Foggy Mountain roll, you’re playing one of bluegrass banjo’s most recognizable phrases (which also just happens to also be the first two measures of Earl Scruggs’s classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”).

Playing second‐string hammer‐ons with the Foggy Mountain roll.
Playing second‐string hammer‐ons with the Foggy Mountain roll.

To facilitate playing this example with speed and power, don’t forget to use your picking‐hand index finger to start the roll but then strike the next second string (at beat two) with your thumb. The alternation of your index and thumb fingers will allow you to play the roll faster and the thumb will provide more punch in an unexpected place to add interest to this phrase. It’ll also make you sound more like Earl Scruggs, which is reason enough for me!