You know what, let’s have a series on this blog! This is going to be a three-part thing. All about the legato technique. This here is part 1. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3. I hope you enjoy it!
“What’s with the legato?!”
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 it means?
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.
Legato playing gives a nice smooth overall sound to the music and is the opposite of ‘staccato’ playing, where each note is played detached from the next.
The way you go about playing legato depends on the instrument. Take a wind instrument such as a flute. To produce legato here, the player would play all the notes in one 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. In order to achieve this, you must use hammer-ons and pull-offs, and, in the context of guitar playing, this is what legato playing usually refers to.
So, when playing legato on the guitar, these are the two techniques that you will need to master. These two closely related techniques can easily be combined to produce smooth, flowing melodic lines, often played at quite impressive speeds.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs
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 need to do is ‘hammer’ the string at the seventh fret with the very tip of your third finger to produce the sound. Your ‘hammering’ finger needs to hit the fretboard at about ninety degrees in order to produce the required volume, and should be done with a good amount of force. 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 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 if you have just picked the top E string at the seventh fret (the note B), and you want to descend two frets to the note A on the same string, you must first ensure that you already have a finger pressing down on the string where the new note will be played (in this case the first finger in 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 need to find a balance between the two extremes so experiment with it.
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 technique, known as ‘hammering on from nowhere’ enables you to play entirely with one hand, eliminating picking completely. With this technique you don’t pick the first note you want to play, you just hammer onto it with your fretting hand finger.
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.
One other technique you can use for legato playing is ‘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. It allows 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. It’s great for playing very fast arpeggios as a smoother alternative to sweep picking.
You can get an example listening to Joe Satriani’s Alway With Me, Always With You (around 1:50 in):
In the next part we’re getting into practice and actually growing your legato skills. See you then!
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 – The-Guitar-Guide.com