How to Play Fretted Pull-Offs on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

The fretted pulloff is an essential technique that defines the bluegrass banjo style. With this fretting‐hand move, you’ll be pulling off from one fretted note to another. It sounds a bit tricky, but the secret to success is to fret the same string with two different fretting fingers before you begin.

Here’s a step‐by‐step guide for the most important of these pull‐offs, a third‐string pull‐off that moves from the third to the second fret.

  1. Fret the third string in two places at the same time, with the index finger at the second fret and the middle finger at the third fret.

  2. Strike the third string with your picking-hand thumb.

  3. Just after picking this string, pull across it with your fretting-hand middle finger while keeping the index finger in place at the second fret.

    Your middle finger needs to move across the third string to create the pull‐off as well as up to avoid hitting an adjacent string.

  4. Keep pressure down with your index finger on the second fret to sustain the new note.

    Playing a third‐string pull‐off: (a) positioning the fretting‐hand fingers and (b
    Credit: Photographs by Anne Hamersky
    Playing a third‐string pull‐off: (a) positioning the fretting‐hand fingers and (b) pulling off with the middle finger.

Playing fretted pull‐offs with the alternating thumb roll

It’s time to start mixing fretting techniques as you incorporate them into roll patterns. This alternating thumb roll phrase uses both slides and fretted pull‐offs and pops up in a number of classic bluegrass songs such as “Doing MyTime” and “Shuckin’ the Corn.”

Playing the alternating thumb roll with third‐string fretted pull‐offs and slides.
Playing the alternating thumb roll with third‐string fretted pull‐offs and slides.

Playing fretted pull‐offs with the forward‐reverse roll

This essential forward‐reverse roll phrase combines a third‐string slide with a fretted pull‐off and is heard in many bluegrass songs. Keep your pull‐offs nice and crunchy — you really want the string to snap as you pull across with your middle finger. This shows you how it’s done.

Playing the forward‐reverse roll with third‐string fretted pull‐offs and slides.
Playing the forward‐reverse roll with third‐string fretted pull‐offs and slides.