Smoothly Does It – Your Guide to Playing Legato on Guitar

By Chris Lake


Once you start to move away from rhythm guitar and into playing lead, you will
no doubt come across the term ‘legato’, but do you know what this means? The
literal meaning of legato is ‘tied together’ but in musical terms it means that
you should play the notes in a smooth manner, not leaving any space between one
note and the next. The opposite of ‘staccato’, whereby the notes are played
abruptly and percussively, legato gives a smooth, flowing sound to the music.
Guitar technique matters

The way you go about playing legato depends on the instrument. On a woodwind
instrument, for example, the notes would all be played 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 playing legato on the guitar these are the two techniques you will
need to master. By combining the two you can play fast, smoothly flowing runs
with ease.


Let’s start off then by looking at hammer-ons. When you
wish to play ascending notes on a single string without picking them you must
use hammer-ons. You play the first note by picking it, then to play the second
note, rather than using the pick to make it sound, you ‘hammer-on’ with your
fretting finger. So imagine you have your first finger on the top E string at
the fifth fret, for example, playing the note A, and you now want to play the
note B on the same string at the seventh fret. What you do is bring the tip of
your third finger down, fast and hard, on to the string at the seventh fret to
produce the note. 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 covers the basics of using ‘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 you simply lift your
finger off the string, in the opposite manner to a hammer-on, you won’t produce
adequate volume, or you may not get any sound at all. 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 have to remove your third finger
from the seventh fret in a ‘plucking’ motion, down towards the floor, so that
the note on the fifth fret is now heard. If you don’t ‘twang’ the string hard
enough you won’t produce the required volume to get an even sound, but if you
overdo it the note can be bent sharp which won’t sound very nice.You’ll have to
play around with this technique until you find the right balance.

Those are the primary techniques you will use for playing legato, but I want to
look at two more that you can also add to your toolkit. The first is closely
related to the ‘hammer-ons’ we looked at above but doesn’t involve picking a
note first.This technique, known as’ hammering on from nowhere’ enables you to
play entirely with one hand, eliminating picking completely.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. This is slightly more difficult
than a regular hammer-on as it requires a lot of power, accuracy, and good
muting, but will give you an even smother sound, as nothing is picked.

The other technique is called ‘tapping’. This takes the idea of hammer-ons and
pull-offs and applies them to the picking hand as well. The ‘tapping’ hand can
use one or more fingers to ‘tap’ extra notes that the fretting hand can’t
reach, allowing you to play many more notes on one string for very fast scale
runs, or lets you reach very wide intervals that you couldn’t do with just one
hand, great for playing very fast arpeggios as a smoother alternative to sweep

Two-note trill

Hopefully you now have a clear grasp of the concept of
playing legato, so let’s have a look at how best to practice the techniques
mentioned above. Let’s begin by taking the concept to its simplest form – using
hammer-ons and pull-off between two notes. When you alternate quickly between
two notes like this you are playing a ‘trill’, but for now we will do this
slowly. Start by playing any note using your index finger, and then play the
note on the next fret by hammering-on with your middle 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. Carry on alternating from one note to the other,
starting off very slowly. The idea with this is to make sure all the notes
sound clear and have even volume, and to start building up endurance in your
fingers. You should aim to play this exercise non-stop for at least five
minutes, and be sure to use a metronome to keep time.

After you’ve got to grips with this exercise you should do the same with all
the other fingering possibilities. You have used your first and second fingers
so far, so now do the same exercise with your first and third fingers. Play a
note (any note) with the first finger, then hammer on two frets above with the
third finger. Trill between these two notes for at least five minutes. Next do
the exercise with your index finger and your pinky. Then use your second and
third fingers, then second and fourth, and lastly you third and fourth. You
will no doubt find it easier with certain fingers than with others, so more
time should be spent on those that are difficult.

Three note patterns
The next step after you have got to grips with two note
trills is to start practicing three note patterns. 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. Do these with all the finger
options mentioned above, and practice them on a single string, then on multiple
strings. Play them in one position, as well as moving up and down the neck.
After you’ve gotten to grips with these, you are ready to start using the
patterns within the context of diatonic scales, applying them to the three note
per string scale shapes. At this point the exercises become fully musical, and
can be used in any soloing and improvisation.

Hopefully you can see the general idea of this. Continuing on from here you can
apply the same concepts to more complicated scale fragments, with four notes,
five notes, six, seven etc. Mix patterns together, try skipping strings. Add
right hand tapping into the mix. There is no limit to the ideas you can come up
with, so use your imagination, and have fun.

Strengthening your fingers
Before concluding this article I want to briefly cover
some common technical difficulties that arise when first encountering legato
playing. The main issue is that of finger strength and endurance. To be able to
play long legato passages with the fretting hand only requires a great deal of
stamina, and you can’t expect to achieve this overnight. It takes time. Regular
practice will help you here. After a while you will get better, and it will
become much easier. Legato playing can also be quite rough on your fingertips –
more so than normal picking. Again, there’s nothing much you can do about this,
just keep practicing and your fingers will toughen up and it will no longer be
an issue.

I always suggest using a clean sound when you are practicing legato. Using lots
of distortion will hide your mistakes and make it harder for you to discern
whether your dynamics are even or not. When you use a clean sound you can hear
much more clearly how even you playing is, and this should always be your
primary objective. 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.

To begin with, as with everything, your practice of legato should be done
slowly. As your finger strength and stamina increase you can increase the
speed, but always pay attention to accuracy. Don’t make speed your main goal –
once you have the accuracy and the strength, speed is easy to obtain. Some
fingers will be naturally weaker than others, so you should focus more time on
these, till you can play equally well with all fingers.

So that concludes this overview of legato technique. 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. I also hope that I’ve given you some ideas about how to
learn, practice, and apply this technique, so get practicing and start
incorporating legato into your own playing.

Chris Lake
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, head over to Chris’s website where you can get a free
copy of his latest eBook about playing the guitar

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