Hidden Hammers, Sleight of (Picking) Hand, and the Art of Sneaky Slurs

February 7, 2012

Jason Becker
One of the coolest things about rock lead guitar is that a little sleight of hand not only makes fast phrases easier to play, it often makes them sound more natural, too. For instance, if you play the zippy ascending run in Ex. 1 accurately and with a confident attack, almost none of your listeners will notice or care that you didn’t pick every note.

That’s right, you cheated—at least by the standards of alternating picking purists. Like a lava-blooded, late-’70s Uli Jon Roth or Edward Van Halen, you slurred the second note in each sixteenth-note triplet by hammering it instead of actually picking it, and the lick still rocked. (By the way, if the example looks at all note-y or daunting written out, you’ll be relieved to discover its general fretboard pattern is a simple, symmetrical one, as outlined in the grid in Ex. 2.)

There are, of course, other gratifying ways of sneaking hammers into single-note runs. Retaining the first example’s picking pattern for each triplet—a pick downstroke followed by a hammered note followed by a pick upstroke—rephrase the line by shifting the notes one pulse earlier in time. This results in Ex. 3, which features a pickup note played with a pick upstroke just before the first bar line. (Remember: The downbeats always occur on pick downstrokes.) At steep tempos, this pattern is even easier to pick than the first one, because it gives your pick more time to skip to the next string, as the jump occurs during the hammered note. For the best sound with both examples, accent the down-picked notes. Experiment, and be sure to apply these patterns to your favorite three-notes-perstring scale shapes.

Now, let’s look at how to sneak hidden hammers into non-scalar triplet sixteenths, such as those Jason Becker picks so nimbly in his solo on David Lee Roth’s blazingfast boogie, “It’s Showtime.” I was tasked with playing this very solo at Becker’s Not Dead Yet festival in San Francisco earlier this year, and I discovered that at a million beats per minute (give or take), this lesson’s “hammered note replacement therapy” tactic is more than a little handy.

Take, for instance, Ex. 4. Featuring a “hammer-on from nowhere” (as Greg Howe would call it) on the 5th fret of the third string, this line is worth looping.

Prize evenness, and observe how the hammered string skip makes the lick more manageable at Roadrunner speeds. Then, see if you can spy the same phrase hiding in the longer “Showtime”-style line in Ex. 5.

Before we wrap up, let’s downshift to straight sixteenths (four pulses per downbeat—“ one-ee-and-a, two-ee-and-a,” etc.). Using a pick downstroke followed by a hammered note, a three-string triadic arpeggio such as Ex. 6 becomes easy to play fast.

The pattern repeats: downstroke, hammer, downstroke, hammer, etc. Pursue this approach, and you’ll find it makes elaborate string-skipping lines such as Ex. 7 a dream to play.

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