Smoothly Does It – Legato Technique for Guitar

This guest post was written by Chris Lake, from The-Guitar-Guide.com a professional guitarist and guitar teacher of over 25 years.

Legato is a term that you will hear a lot once you start getting into lead guitar playing, but what exactly does it mean?

Translated literally as ‘tied together’ the term legato tells you that you should let the notes you are playing flow smoothly from one to the next, without any pause between them. With legato you get a very smooth flowing sound to the music, as opposed to ‘staccato’ in which each note played is sharply detached and separate from the following notes.

Legato Technique

Legato Technique

To achieve a legato sound different techniques are employed for different instruments. Take a wind instrument such as a flute. To produce legato here the player would play all the notes under one breath. With a bowed stringed instrument, the player would play the notes under a continuous bow.

To play legato on the guitar you need to minimize the use of the pick. This means using ‘hammer-ons’ and ‘pull-offs’, and when talking about guitar technique this is precisely what is meant by legato.

So, when employing a legato technique for guitar these are the two main techniques you will need to master. By combining the two you can play fast, smoothly flowing runs with ease.

So, to begin with let’s take a look at hammer-ons.

Hammer-ons are used to go from one note to a higher note on the same string without picking the new note. You can use a pick to play the very first note, but the subsequent notes will be played by ‘hammering-on’ to the string with your fretting fingers.

So for example, suppose you are playing the note E on the fifth fret of the B string with your first finger, and the next note you want to play is an F# two frets above. You need to use the tip of your ring finger to strike the string at the 7th fret to make the note sound.

You need to come down on the string perpendicular to the fretboard, and with enough force to produce the same volume, more or less, that you would with a pick. That’s about all you need to know about hammer-ons.

When you want to descend to a lower note on the same string you need to use a pull-off.

A lot of people assume that to execute a pull-off you just do the opposite of hammering-on, but this is not the case. If all you do is take your finger off the string you won’t actually produce any sound, or if you do it will be very quiet. Instead you really need to ‘pluck’ the string with the finger that you’re pulling off with.

So for example, if you play the note F# with your third finger on the seventh fret of the B string, and you then want to play the note E on the fifth fret of the same string, you firstly need to make sure that your first finger is already fretting that note on the fifth fret. Then you need to ‘pluck’, or ‘pull-off’ with your third finger in order to sound the note on the fifth fret.

If your pull-off action doesn’t cause the string to vibrate enough then the volume will not be adequate, but if you pull too hard on the string before releasing it you may
bend the note sharp which won’t sound good. You need to experiment a bit with this until you find the sweet spot.

So that’s the two main techniques involved in playing legato on the guitar, but there are a couple more worth mentioning. One of these is very similar to the standard ‘hammer-on’ but it doesn’t require that you pick a note first.

This is called a ‘hammer on from nowhere’, and it means you can do away with picking altogether, and play entirely with just one hand.

Rather than using the pick to play the first note when changing string, you just use your fretting finger to hammer straight on to it. Hammer ons from nowhere are a bit more difficult to get to grips with than the regular variety, but once you master them they will produce an even smother, more legato sound, as there is no need to use the pick at all.

Another legato technique I want to quickly mention is ‘tapping’.

This takes the idea of hammer-ons and pull-offs and applies them to the picking hand as well. With ‘tapping’ you use the fingers (sometimes just one, sometimes all four) of the picking hand to ‘tap’ notes on the fretboard, using hammer ons and pull offs. This can be done in order to play fast scale runs consisting of up to eight notes on a single string, or for playing wide intervals, perhaps in multi octave arpeggios, as an alternative to sweep-picking.

Now that you understand the basic idea of playing legato let’s look at how to practice it.

Let’s begin by taking the concept to its simplest form – using hammer-ons and pull-off between two notes. Alternating rapidly between two notes like this is called a trill, however to begin with we will be doing this very slowly.

Fret a note with your first finger (any note) then hammer on to the next fret with your second finger. Try to ensure that the notes are played cleanly, and with even volume. After this play the first note again by using a pull-off, taking care that this new note is of the same volume of the first two. Keep alternating back and forth between the two notes slowly to begin with (like a fire engine, or the Jaws theme). The aim here is firstly to ensure all the notes are clear and even, with no unwanted noise, and secondly to build up your finger strength and endurance.You should aim to play this exercise non-stop for at least five minutes, and be sure to use a metronome to keep time.

Once you’ve done this you next need to try the same exercise with all possible finger combinations. You’ve just done it with your index and middle fingers, so now try it with your index and ring fingers.

Play a note (any note) with the first finger, then hammer on two frets above with the third finger. Alternate between the two notes for five minutes, or longer if you can. After that, try it with your first and fourth fingers. After that do it with middle and ring fingers, middle finger and pinky, and last of all you ring finger and your pinky. Some of these finger combinations will be easier than others – most people struggle the most with those involving the pinky – so pay more attention to these.

Once you have become proficient at playing trills you can progress onto playing patterns with three notes.

If you use one finger per fret you can try patterns using the first, second, and fourth fingers, the first, third, and fourth fingers, and also try both of these fingerings with a stretch (meaning a fret in between each finger, ie. first finger on the fourth fret, second on the sixth, and fourth finger on the eighth fret).

Patterns you can try include 1-4-2-4, 4-1-2-4-2-1, and 1-2-1-4. Play these using all the fingerings looked at above, and try them on one string, as well over two or more strings. Try moving up and down the fretboard as you play them. Once you are comfortable playing different patterns like this you can begin to apply them to 3-note-per-string scale shapes. This is where they turn from unmusical exercises into usable musical ideas.

Hopefully you can see the general idea of this.To take things further you can start trying more complex patterns, involving four, or more, notes. Mix patterns together, try skipping strings. Get your right hand involved in some tapping. The only limit to what you can come up with is your imagination, so see what other ideas you can think of.

Before I finish this article I want to look at some of the more common technical problems that people have when they first try this.

The primary difficulty is due to a lack of strength and stamina in the fingers. In order to play legato, especially for extended periods of time requires a lot of endurance and strength – not things that you can develop in a short space of time. It takes time. Practice regularly, and don’t overdo it. Progress will come with time, and you’ll find it much less demanding on your fingers. Legato playing can also be quite rough on your fingertips – more so than normal picking. This can’t be addressed overnight, but regular practice will toughen up your fingers, and eventually it won’t be an issue.

When practicing legato I always recommend using a fairy clean amp setting.

Distortion can hide a lot of mistakes and especially covers up inconsistencies in dynamics. A nice cleanish amp setting will let you hear how clear and even you are really playing, and this should be your main concern at this stage. That being said, however, it can be a good idea to turn the distortion up every so often so you can check that you’re not producing lots of unwanted string noise.

As usual you should practice slowly at first. After a while your fingers will get stronger, at which point you can increase the tempo, but always make sure you are playing cleanly and accurately. Don’t make speed your main goal – once you have the accuracy and the strength, speed is easy to obtain. Try to pay the most attention to fingers that are weaker until you can play equally well with all fingers, as this will make things much easier in the long run.

So, we’ve reached the end of this article on legato playing. I hope it has shown you what you can get out of learning this style of playing, and how it can benefit you as a guitarist. As well as this I hope you’ve got some ideas on how you can start practicing, and then incorporating legato into your own style.

This article was written by Chris Lake, a professional guitarist and guitar teacher of over 25 years. If you would like more help with all aspects of learning the guitar may I suggest you head over to Chris’s website where you can get a free copy of his latest eBook about playing the guitar – The-Guitar-Guide.com

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