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How to play legato guitar licks

How to play legato guitar licks
(Image credit: Future)

Beginner guitar: Whether you admire BB King’s sublime phrasing, Ed Sheeran’s acoustic flourishes, or Eddie Van Halen’s scorching runs, you’ll need to master legato technique. 

‘Legato’ is an Italian word that simply means to play smoothly, but electric guitarists use it specifically to refer to notes played without picking – your fretting fingers sound the notes instead. 

Here, we’re looking at authentic rock and blues licks using only fretted notes from the pentatonic scale.

If you’ve ever tried to improvise a solo, you’ve probably had moments where you couldn’t think what to play. These repeating licks are useful vocabulary to have for those situations.

Once you’ve mastered the mechanics, they don’t require much brain power, so you can concentrate on deciding what to play next. And once they’re in your muscle memory, you can develop terrifying speed with them if that’s your thing.

Technique check: Get your fingers in prime position to make those licks easier

How to play legato guitar licks

(Image credit: Future)

1. PULL-OFF (BEFORE)

Let gravity help you play pull-offs by using the weight of your hand to fall off the string, ‘plucking’ it in the process.

How to play legato guitar licks

(Image credit: Future)

2. PULL-OFF (AFTER)

Spot the difference in wrist angle from the previous picture. This tiny wrist flick will make your pull-offs much clearer.

How to play legato guitar licks

(Image credit: Future)

3. HAMMER-ON (BEFORE)

The key to effective hammer ons? Hit hard, and from a height. For now it’s just about generating enough finger power.

How to play legato guitar licks

(Image credit: Future)

4. HAMMER-ON (AFTER)

Finish the hammer-on in the same position you would start a pull-off, so you can switch rapidly between the techniques.

Example 1. Simple pull-off lick

(Image credit: Future)

Ignore the usual ‘one finger per fret’ approach; high up the neck, frets are closer together, so use whatever fingers are comfortable.

Example 2. Pull-offs and string bend

(Image credit: Future)

This is a similar lick to the last one, but played on first and second strings this time. Notice that all these notes are from the E minor pentatonic scale.

Example 3. Simple hammer-on lick

(Image credit: Future)

Here, you’ll need a partial barre on the 12th fret to move smoothly between the notes on the first and second strings.

Example 4. Variations

(Image credit: Future)

You’ll get more mileage from all our licks if you mix and match the endings. The last note of each lick can be used to end any of the others.

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Total Guitar is one of Europe's biggest guitar magazines. With lessons to suit players of all levels, TG's world-class tuition is friendly, accessible and jargon-free, whether you want to brush up on your technique or improve your music theory knowledge. We also talk to the biggest names in the world of guitar – from interviews with all-time greats like Brian May and Eddie Van Halen to our behind the scenes Rig Tour features, we get you up close with the guitarists that matter to you.