Perfecting Your Bluegrass Banjo Pull-Offs

by Julian Root

For the bluegrass banjoist—or even for the non-playing fan of bluegrass banjo—the pull-off is an essential piece of vocabulary. Hearing Crowe, Mills, Baucomb, or Scruggs himself flawlessly execute a rapid-fire succession of pull-offs with casual authority often gives the listener a visceral reaction. It’s like the salt and pepper on the omelet of a banjo break!  

Not limited to breaks alone, the pull-off is often at the heart of convincing backup playing. Slipped beautifully between vocal lines or after a solo, the well-placed pull-off adds conviction and fervor to the bluegrass banjoist’s arsenal. Every player recognizes this sound, yet many fall short of effectively honing this (relatively) simple concept. All too many players get halfway there, prematurely assuming proficiency to move on to flashier, more exciting techniques (ask me how I know).  

Let’s step back from those blazing chromatic triplet runs to take a look at a few ideas to perfect your pull-offs! The purists will be proud.  

As the overwhelming majority of pull-offs in bluegrass banjo playing are performed on either side of the second fret of the third string, that move will be our focal point in this article. I dare you to find a three-minute segment of JD Crowe’s playing that doesn’t feature this move! While pull-offs are present in any number of places up and down the fingerboard, proficiency in the 3-2 (third to second fret) pull-off will build a solid foundation for all future pull-off endeavors. 

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One of the first questions to arise in any pull-off study is the arrangement of the fretting fingers. Do we plant with our index finger, and pull with our middle? Logically, this makes sense—basic fretting exercises often teach us to assign one finger per fret. However, to really get that ‘sting’ of a strong pull-off, we need to anchor the pulling finger immediately behind the third fret. For most of us, this will be more easily achieved by placing the ring finger—not the middle finger—immediately behind the third fret, while the index finger is firmly anchored, snugged up behind the second fret. While there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do this, make this your starting point before experimenting further.  

Another common point of discussion here is whether to pull down toward the floor, or up toward the ceiling (often referred to as a push-off). Again, there is no universally ‘correct’ method. While both styles boast many competent adherents, the pull-off master likely employs both techniques. Anticipation of the next fretting hand position is crucial here. If your next move is simply another hammer-on/pull-off combination (ala Crowe), the cyclical quality of a push-off may be your best bet. However, if you’re planning to hit one of your open D strings and commence in a Foggy Mountain roll up on the second and first strings, you can propel your fretting hand in that direction by using a pull-off.  

As with many minute banjo picking techniques, isolating the move and repeating it numerous times is usually a better use of practice time than playing an entire piece which features the move a handful of times. While simply playing an endless stream of pull-offs/push-offs with your metronome would not be wasted time, the context provided by playing the full piece or phrase is useful. In a real-life playing scenario, you likely won’t be playing twenty pull-offs in a row. Therefore, in your practice, consider a four note phrase to add open strings (and therefore context). 

For example, you could begin by pulling off from the third to the second fret (striking with the thumb of your picking hand for maximum strength), followed by striking the first string open with the middle finger of your picking hand, and ending with a thumb stroke over the open third string. Wait one beat, and repeat. This should present a very familiar sound! Focus on a crisp, clear tone out of the note being pulled off on (the second fret of the third string). Remember to keep firm pressure against the second fret with your index finger. It’s worth mentioning to the absolute beginner here that a well-developed callous on the ring finger makes this easier. For all students, the most important element here is to keep pressure against both frets—not the fretboard. You won’t get that ‘sting’ or ‘pop’ by pulling/pushing off the fingerboard—that classic bluegrass snap comes from the leverage provided by the frets. 

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While it is easier to commence a pull-off or push-off with a finger already on the second fret, real-life playing is more accurately mirrored by beginning with open strings. We don’t always have the privilege of a pre-fretted string to work with! For that reason, it is important to start each exercise—at least in the beginning—with open strings. Although the string fretted at the third fret will be sounded first, make a conscious effort to place both fretting fingers down at the same time. This will greatly reduce the buzz and clatter which often besets the pull/push-offs of beginners. Think of your index finger as a support for your ring finger, before the ring finger is pulled off.  

Finally, a word about banjo setup. If you’re playing a particularly well-used banjo, take a moment to check out the frets. Gently bend the strings—particularly the third string—away from the point of contact on the fret. Do you notice a deep groove in the fret? If so, this can muffle the crispness of a pull/push-off, no matter how well executed. Consider contacting your local setup guy for a fret dressing, or even a re-fret. If you don't have a good banjo setup person near you, contact the Deering Service Center.  

With a well adjusted banjo and attention to the details described above, you’ll be snappin’ and poppin’ your way to the genuine bluegrass banjo sound.

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