How to Play Open-String Hammer-Ons on the Bluegrass Banjo

By Bill Evans

It’s time to put the hammer down to master the most frequently played hammer‐ons in all of bluegrass banjo, where you’ll move from an open string to the second fret on the third and fourth strings. Here’s how to play the third‐string version:

  1. Play the third string open with your picking-hand thumb.

  2. With the fretting-hand middle finger, push down to fret the third string just behind the second fret.

This needs to be a quick and decisive movement so that the fretting finger doesn’t mute the sound of the third string as it comes into contact with the string.

To play a fourth‐string hammer‐on, just shift everything over one string and that’s all there is to it!

Use the tips of your fretting fingers to fret the strings more accurately and with the force you need in order to make your hammer‐ons really rock. For most hammer‐ons, you’ll call upon your middle finger to do the heavy lifting, but don’t be alarmed if you find that it takes different amounts of pressure on each string to make your hammer‐ons sound their best.

This example shows how you play hammer‐ons on both the third and fourth strings. In banjo tab, a hammer‐on is indicated by the letter h.

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

Playing third‐ and fourth‐string hammer‐ons with the alternating thumb roll

Just as you did with slides, the best way to get started integrating hammer‐ons with bluegrass roll patterns is to begin with the alternating thumb roll. Remember to keep the rhythm of your roll patterns constant as you hammer‐on with your middle finger on the third and fourth strings.

Take a look below to hear the combination of third‐ and fourth‐string hammer‐ons with this roll.

It’s much easier to tackle an entire song when you’re already confident playing individual phrases like these by themselves, so don’t hesitate to repeat each phrase over and over again until it becomes second nature.

Playing third‐ and fourth‐string hammer‐ons with the alternating thumb roll.
Playing third‐ and fourth‐string hammer‐ons with the alternating thumb roll.

Playing the fourth‐string hammer-on with the forward‐reverse roll

Now check out the fourth‐string hammer‐on with the forward‐reverse roll. Below, you insert the hammer‐on into a complete eight‐note roll pattern in the first measure. The second measure combines the hammer‐on with the first four notes of the forward‐reverse roll and a pinch pattern to give you a favorite lick.

Playing third‐ and fourth‐string hammer‐ons with the forward‐reverse roll.
Playing third‐ and fourth‐string hammer‐ons with the forward‐reverse roll.

In the examples above, the hammer‐ons are being fretted between the roll notes. For this reason, the notes of the hammer‐on are written as sixteenth notes, with two beams, in the tablature. As you increase your speed, you may want to play the hammer‐on at the exact same time as you pick the next note in the roll, which is what Earl Scruggs did when he played “Cumberland Gap” up to speed. Either approach will work as long as you’re keeping a steady, consistent rhythm in your picking hand as you play roll patterns.