Smooth Operator – A Guide to Playing Legato


in Learning Instruments, Music Technique

Legato is a term that you will hear a lot once you start getting into lead guitar playing, but what exactly does it mean? Well, it literally means ‘tied together’ and it indicates that notes should be played smoothly, with no gap or silence between them, so that one note leads directly onto the next. 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.

On every instrument this is achieved in different ways.

For example, with an instrument such as a clarinet, all the notes would be played whilst making a single breath. With a bowed stringed instrument, the player would play the notes under a continuous bow. Playing legato on the guitar is done by using the pick as little as possible, or even not at all. This means using ‘hammer-ons’ and ‘pull-offs’, and when talking about guitar technique this is precisely what is meant by legato.

In order to play legato you will need to become proficient at these two techniques – hammer-ons when going from one note to a higher note on the same string, and pull-offs when going from one note to a lower note. These two closely related techniques can easily be combined to produce smooth, flowing melodic lines, often played at quite impressive speeds.

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

When you wish to play ascending notes on a single string without picking them you must use hammer-ons. The first note can be played with a pick but then, to play the following notes, instead of using the pick, the new notes are played by the ‘hammering’ action of your fretting finger onto the string. So let’s say you are playing a C on the G string at the 5th fret with your index finger, and you then want to play a D on the same string. What you need to do is ‘hammer’ the string at the seventh fret with the very tip of your third finger to produce the sound. Your finger should strike the string with plenty of force and at an angle of about 90 degrees so that the sound you produce has a good tone and volume. 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 common misconception is that a pull-off is just the opposite motion to a hammer-on, but it’s slightly more complicated than that. 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. What you need to do is really ‘twang’ the string, pulling down towards the ground, to make the string vibrate.

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 you don’t pluck enough you won’t get enough volume, but if you pluck too much you can end up bending the note sharp, and it will sound horrible.You need to find a balance between the two extremes so experiment with it.

There's More

So that’s the two main techniques involved in playing legato on the guitar, but there are a couple more worth mentioning. The first is closely related to the ‘hammer-ons’ we looked at above but doesn’t involve picking 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. Instead of picking the first note on a new string you simply hammer on with the fretting hand. It can be quite difficult to get the hang of – you need to be very careful with muting, and make sure your hammer-ons are accurate and powerful – but once you have it down you can play melodic lines exclusively with one hand, which not only gives a much smoother sound, but also looks pretty cool as well.

The other technique is called ‘tapping’.

Tapping takes the same principals of what we’ve looked at above but applies them to your right hand. 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 picking.

Practicing Techniques

So now that you are clear on the concept of legato playing let’s take a look as some basic ways to go about practicing it. If we take the idea to its most basic application then we can start by just hammering on and pulling 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. Play any note with your first finger fretting it, then use your second finger to ‘hammer-on’ to the next fret. Make sure the note sounds clean and the volume is even. 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, strting off very slowly. Your intention at this point should primarily be to produce clear and even notes, with no unwanted noise, and also to begin building up strength in your fingers over a period of time.Try to do this exercise continuously for at least five minutes without stopping, and use a metronome to keep your timing in check.

Once you’ve done this you next need to try the same exercise with all possible finger combinations. You’ve done fingers one and two, so now try one and three. 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. Then try fingers one and four. Then fingers two and three, two and four, and finally three and four. You will no doubt find it easier with certain fingers than with others, so more time should be spent on those that are difficult.

Two to 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 exercises with all of the finger combinations we just looked at and, as well as playing them on just one string, try them crossing two, three, four, five, and all six strings. You can play them in one place, or by moving around 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. 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. Add right hand tapping into the mix. The possibilities are endless, so have fun with it.

Progress with Time

Before bringing this article to a close I want to quickly cover a few technical issues that some people have when they first start learning to play legato. 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. Progress will come with time, and you’ll find it much less demanding on your fingers. You may also find that legato playing is very demanding on your fingertips – it can make them quite sore relatively quickly. This can’t be addressed overnight, but regular practice will toughen up your fingers, and eventually it won’t be an issue.

I normally recommend that a clean guitar tone should be used when 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. Using a clean sound will help you hear how evenly and cleanly you are playing, and this should be your main goal. 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 with all practice you should start off slowly. As your finger strength and stamina increase you can increase the speed, but always pay attention to accuracy. Don’t just chase speed –speed comes as a by-product of accuracy and stamina. As I mentioned earlier, it is a good idea to spend more time working on the fingers that are weaker, so that eventually all fingers will be more or less equal.

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. 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.

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 —


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