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Five Quick Legato Tips

(Image credit: Cindy Moorhead)

Legato playing is an important skill for any serious guitarist. It adds fluidity, expression, speed and interest to lead guitar parts—and sometimes rhythm parts too—and is vital in all but the simplest of songs. 

Legato describes the collection of techniques used to change between notes in a quicker, more expressive way. These include hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides. Hopefully you’re already familiar with some or all of these techniques. If not, it’s probably best to go and check them out now, as the tips below are more about how to improve these techniques than what they are and how to learn them in the first place.

Legato techniques within a guitar solo or a lead guitar part may be something you don’t always consciously notice, but if you hear a solo or lead part without any, you’ll know it immediately. The resulting sound is cumbersome and disjointed, sometimes used deliberately for effect, but generally lacking the easy flow found in some of the more expressive lead guitar styles like rock and blues.

Either way, there’s not a professional guitarist on the planet who hasn’t got their legato techniques nailed and stored away in their arsenal, regardless of how much they use them. They’re an essential component of playing smoothly, and absolutely crucial if you want to sound professional (which you do)! 

Good luck, and enjoy these quick legato tips!

1 - Scale It Up!

Try to play your scales in various legato ways. Take any scale you’re working on and play it through, but instead of picking every note using alternate or economy picking, just pick the first note on each string, then hammer-on to the remaining notes on this string. Repeat for every string until you reach the top of the scale, then on the way back down your hammer-ons become pull-offs instead. This is particularly good with scales that have 3 notes per string, i.e. scales where you’re not just hammering-on to one note per string. Instead, there’s a string of consecutive legato notes. It’s also great fun to slide between all the notes in a scale along one string. A useful side effect of these legato scale exercises is that it'll also help you nail your scales down better than you ever have before.

2 - Don’t Pay Attention!

A huge part of good legato technique, as with good technique in anything, is muscle memory. Your fingers need to repeat the action of hammering-on, pulling-off and sliding hundreds of times, so that it becomes second nature. For this reason, I fully advocate practicing in front of the TV or laptop, not giving the guitar your full attention. Before you know it, an hour has gone by and you’ve just spent a solid hour building up your muscle memory and dexterity. You’ve practiced legato being second nature to you—so that’s what it’ll be!

3 - Speed Up and Slow Down!

Make sure you practice your legato at different speeds. Fast legato (like fast anything in guitar) requires some building up to and development over time. Once you get it down though, it can be very effective, dramatic and impressive. Slow legato ensures your technique and strength are solid. You can’t rely on a blurred flurry of notes with slow legato, your playing is exposed for what it really is. So whereas we always say “get it right slow first” in relation to speed, here it also applies to accuracy and strength too. If you can hammer on and pull off with clarity slowly, the bulk of the work is done.

4 - Do Finger Exercises

Finger and hand exercises are often recommended to guitarists, but guitarists often never actually do them. Now that you're dealing with legato playing though, they’re really important. Whether it’s a finger-stretching, wrist-loosening warm-up, or a full-blown, all-encompassing daily routine, these exercises are important in ensuring you don’t get any injuries while in the middle of a period of frequent legato practice and in advancing your legato technique. Stronger fingers mean stronger legato.

5 - Try It Both Ways!

Challenge yourself to apply lots of legato to something that’s played with no legato, or very little legato. This is important in ensuring your legato playing is free, creative and adaptable, and is also a really fun exercise. You’ve only got your legato down for sure whenever you can apply it to anything—not just a pre-existing legato-laden guitar part. On the flipside, try removing the legato from something that’s normally full of it. Note how your technique has to change and what effect it has on the music. This exercise will make you take a more analytical approach to legato and lead you to fully understand the purpose it serves. And hopefully then, when you add it back in again, you’ll really appreciate it!

Billy is the Community Specialist for Guitartricks.com. GuitarTricks.com as over 11,000 lessons covering everything a beginner guitar needs to know to get started, as well as more complicated techniques like tapping, sweeping, scales, and more.