I'm trying to get back into playing guitar after many many years, but this time learning extra techniques like hammer-ons. I'm currently playing Where did you sleep last night by Nirvana. I can play the song, but learning the intro. In the unplugged version (from what I can see and observe from the concert video), Kurt plays the sixth string open, moves to the second fret, plays that and then moves to the third fret and plays that. I'm getting this to work and it sounds as it should

In this video tutorial and in many online tabs, the sixth string should be played open, then the second and third frets are hammered on which should have the same sound affect as the way that Kurt plays it

My problem is, I cannot get my hammer-ons to sound correct. I am trying to get my technique to work, but being the age I am and not playing for over a decade, my fingers are still very stiff and stupid. I have tried just a basic hammer-on, trying to hit the string as hard with the tip of my finger as I can, but the sound I'm getting back is quite damped and dull.

My question is, is this down to pure technique and exercise to get a proper sound, or does the callusses on your finger tips (which I'm still building, mine is still soft) plays a role in getting a proper sound from a hammer-on

  • Your guitar setup and build quality may make a difference to how easy it is to keep a note sounding during a hammer-on. It may be worth taking your guitar to a shop and asking if they can lower the action (how far the strings are from the fretboard. Also, you didn't mention if you are playing electric or acoustic guitar, if it's electric, a little extra gain might help to cover slightly dulled notes while you are improving your technique.
    – AJFaraday
    Aug 14, 2015 at 14:43

4 Answers 4


Callous or no callous, be firmer with the hammer on. That's why it's called that! Try to hit the string just behind the fret wire, not in the middle of the fret, and keep the finger pressed down after contacting the string. Callouses probably make little difference, but having played for years, I don't have any. If you have, maybe the action has taken its toll on the tips.


Speed and strength are the key, make sure you hit the hammer-on string with speed and be firm; tips of fingers are best rather than the flatter part. A callus may make a slight difference. Try working on a pull-off, this will mean the string will actually be plucked and ring louder.

  • Since the tune apparently uses open 2nd and 3rd frets, how will a pull-off (from a higher fret) help?
    – Tim
    Aug 14, 2015 at 15:02

The key to an effective hammer on is speed. The velocity of your finger as it strikes the string is the important thing. If you strike the string with insufficient velocity, you will mute the string before the note rings out.

Think about hitting a nail with a hammer. If you slowly press the hammer onto the head of the nail, the nail will not go into the wood no matter how much force you apply. In order to get the nail to penetrate, you need to generate a certain amount of speed with the head of the hammer. Same principal applies with guitar playing. Strength will not make up for lack of sufficient speed.

It does take some practice to develop the necessary finger speed for effective hammer ons.

Also it is important to get your finger as perpendicular to the string as possible using only the tip top of the finger (close to the fingernail). It is almost impossible to generate a clean sounding hammer on using the side of your finger. Again using the hammer an nail analogy, if you hit the side of the nail it will not work.

To develop the necessary finger speed, practice by striking any open string without playing the string at all (the string is motionless until you hit it with your fretting finger). Once you can do this and hear the note ring out, you have it.

To get a feel for what you are shooting for, try using the first finger of your picking hand and strike an open still string while the guitar is lying in your lap with the strings facing the sky. Try to emulate a birds beak attempting to peck through the fretboard - concentrating on speed. You should easily generate the effect and sound you will be shooting for when you practice with your fretting hand fingers.

Keep working on it. You will get it eventually. Good luck!

  • Adding to this good answer is that the SPEED of the hammer-on is important, but don't translate that into hammering-on as quickly as you can after the last note played. Lots of people think that if the hammer-on doesn't get played as soon as possible, it won't work. Untrue! You don't even need to play a note prior to have an effective hammer-on. That note before has NO bearing on the hammer-on working.
    – Tim
    Aug 15, 2015 at 7:34
  • @Tim Absolutely correct Tim. Note that the exercise I suggest for developing the finger speed is to hammer on a silent motionless string until you can make the note ring out. Aug 16, 2015 at 16:14

You may want to get a lighter string gauge and have the action of your guitar lowered. If you have high action and thicker strings, it would be harder to play a hammer-on than if you have lower action with lighter strings.

Finger callous shouldn't really play into whether or not you can play a hammer on.

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