Legato Playing

Legato technique, and how to improve yours.

Legato playing, which is characterised by a fluid, fluent sound, consists of using pull-offs and hammer-ons for sounding most of the notes.

As a general rule, only the first note on each string is picked (and in some cases, not even this is), the rest are hammered on or pulled off.

Here, I’m going to look at ways to learn legato technique efficiently, and improve your existing legato technique.

Its also worth noting, that most tapping techniques require a good legato. As the picking hand taps notes on the string, the fretting hand is usually pulling off and hammering on notes at the same time.

Its sometimes thought that legato is an easier technique for playing fast than picking. This is true for simple linear runs, but if you play more complex note sequences, legato quickly becomes as difficult as picking.

To start with, you should work on one string.

Place your first finger on the 12th fret top (thin) E string. Then hammer-on your second finger to the 13th fret E string. Follow this by hammering your fourth finger on to the 15th fret. Do this repeatedly.

Next start with your fourth finger on the 15th fret

There are two important points to this exercise.

1) You should keep the timing between the notes as perfect as possible. use a metronome or drum machine/sequencer. Note that if you play 8th notes over a 4/4 beat, this repeating three note hammer-on phrase will cross over the beat. In other words, if the first note of your phrase is played on the first beat of the first bar you play over, when the first beat of the second bar arrives, the note under your first finger will land on the second 8th note, not on the first beat. This is because you are playing a pattern of three over a beat of four.

Whether you are playing 8th notes or 16th notes, this crossing over the bar phenomenon can be disorienting at first. You’ll get used to it after a while though. Playing patterns of three over beats of four is an important skill to have.

Accurate timing is one of the most important aspects of effective legato playing. If you’re timing is inaccurate, you will tend to slow down or speed up slightly at every string change, accenting the first note on each string, this leads to uneven, unconvincing runs. What you want is very accurate timing, you don’t want string changes to be apparent to the listener. Listen to a great legato player like Alan Holdsworth for example, can you tell when he’s changing or crossing strings? So using a drum machine/sequencer or metronome is important.

2) You should minimise your finger movements. The higher you lift your fingers off the fret board between notes, the more tired your hand will get. Although it may take some work to minimise your finger movements, its much easier to play fast and accurately when your fingers only have to move a short distance to the strings between notes. It also helps accurate timing. Ideally, your fingers want to stay only a few millimetres away from the strings at all times. So if you press down a note with your 3rd finger for example, you’re other fingers (including your 4th) should stay either on, or hovered a few millimetres above the strings. You should not be lifting your fingers one or more centimetres away from the strings between notes.

Legato playing adds complications to economy of motion (keeping finger movements small). The reason for this is that in order to get a loud hammer-on its tempting to raise the hammering finger high off the strings before hammering down, to get the velocity needed for the loud hammer. However, what you need to work on is loud hammers from only a few millimetres above the strings.

With pull-offs there is a similar problem. Many people do pull-offs by pulling their fingers off sideways (towards the floor). This often results in the fingers flying off the strings and moving some distance away after every pull-off. If your fingers end up miles away from the strings, getting them back onto the correct notes accurately and quickly isn’t going to be easy and is likely to slow you down and cause timing errors.

So to minimise your finger movements, you may need to change the way you do pull-offs. When you do a pull-off, rather than pulling your finger off the fingerboard and away from the strings, pull your finger towards the floor, off the string and directly into the fretboard between the strings. This is an exercise, when you actually do pull-offs during a solo, you’re not expected to pull your fingers off the string and on to the fretboard. However, this movement off the string, onto the fretboard is an important exercise for minimising your finger movements.

When you do a pull-off, you should aim not to move your fingers more than a few millimetres away from the string.

Keeping fingers in line

Here is another exercise for keeping your fingers’ movements to a minimum (which as I’ve said is very important for speed and accuracy). Similarly, this one is aimed at reducing or eliminating the fingers tendency to pull-off and move away from the strings.

Start on the E string, and pull-off from your 4th finger to your 2nd, and then from that to your first. Immediately after you pull-off each finger (especially your 4th finger), you place that finger on the D string in the same fret it pulled off from. The object is to get each finger to the D string the instant it has pulled off the E string. Try to move your finger directly to the D string, don’t lift it away from the strings more than you need to to clear them. When you’ve spent some time with this exercise, you’ll find that you can do a pull-off and your finger will remail hovered over the string it just pulled off, rather than flying miles off the fret board.

Hand position

Getting a good left hand posture is also important. Ideally for legato technique, you should be able to move the position of your thumb depending on which string you are playing. When you are playing on the low strings eg: the A string on the lower parts of the fretboard where you have to stretch, you want to keep your thumb right on the back of the neck. When you play on the higher strings however, eg: the B string, you will need to bring your thumb round to the top of the neck more if you intend to do any string bending. The most efficient and controllable way of bending the strings is to rotate your wrist, keeping your fingers locked. Keeping your thumb over the top of the neck acts as a lever.

The next thing to think about is “finger posture”. For legato playing, each finger should be slightly curled (unless you’re doing a long stretch), each hovering over its own fret (unless the scale you are playing demands a bigger gap between fingers). Your thumb should be on the back of the neck roughly opposite your second finger.

Although having your fingers flat on the fretboard (as opposed to being curled) and your thumb over the top of the neck, is useful for bending strings and vibrato, a curled finger position is better for legato playing. This means that you should get used to switching between hand positions i.e: curled or flatter fingers depending on what you are doing.

Once you have your basic legato technique working, there are a number of exercises that will help develop the technique.

The following exercises are in the C major scale, but can be done in any scale or position.

The letter at the beginning of each line represents the string and the number represent finger numbers.

Use the following fretboard diagram for the scale shape for these exercises. Then do them in all other scale shapes and keys.

guitar head Maj_diagram_1


E 1 2 4

A 1 2 4

D 1 2 4

G 1 2 4

B 1 3 4

E 1 3 4

E 1 4 2

A 1 4 2

D 1 4 2

G 1 4 2

B 1 4 3

E 1 4 3

E 4 1 2

A 4 1 2

D 4 1 2

G 4 1 2

B 4 1 3

E 4 1 3

E 1 4 1 2

A 1 4 1 2

D 1 4 1 2

G 1 4 1 2

B 1 4 1 3

E 1 4 1 3

E 4 1 4 2

A 4 14 2

D 4 1 4 2

G 4 1 4 2

B 4 1 4 3

E 4 1 4 3

E 1 2 4 2 1 2 4

A 1 2 4 2 1 2 4

D 1 2 4 2 1 2 4

G 1 2 4 2 1 2 4

B 1 3 4 3 1 3 4

E 1 3 4 3 1 3 4

Its very important to practice these over a metronome or drum beat/sequencer.

I give lessons via Skype, contact me about setting up a lesson here.

All content © copyright 2011 Mark Wingfield, Dark Energy Music Publishing