In music the term legato is used to indicate notes that are played in a smooth and connecting manner. It is a technique used in other strings, woodwinds, synths, and even while singing. And when it comes to guitar, we play legato by using the pick as sparingly as possible.
What is legato?
The best way to understand legato is to place your finger on the 10th fret of the high E string. Pluck it and immediately hammer-on the 12th fret and right after hammer-on the 13th fret. If you can move fast enough, reverse the order in a pull-off from the 13th and 12th fret. You play all these notes with one pluck of the string.
And that’s all it is, a player doing a ton of hammer-ons and pull-offs to keep the melody from having any breaks. The second we have to pick a note, the flow can stop. It is an incredibly easy concept but turning it into guitar shredding reality is not as easy as it seems.
Legato playing is what made the 80’s solos of Eddie Van Halen so awesome. The best guitar virtuosos will always rely on this articulation to get a clean sound between notes. If you dedicate a ton of practice time to playing in this manner you will be able to get that smooth and fast flowing sound, like a guitar emulating the saxophone.
Notable players of legato
The best-known legato players are from the latter half of the 20th century, back when guitar was the focal point of most bands. Allan Holdsworth is the one who inspired almost every other player we have or will mention!
Joe Satriani’s Flying in a Blue Dream is a great example of his mastery of the technique. And Steve Vai with Tender Surrender is another song filled with perfect legato. He worked for Frank Zappa, who was also influenced by similar artists as Holdsworth. They all longed to emulate the Slonimsky scales used by John Coltrane (you find a terrific pdf here).
A who’s who of legato guitarists also show up on the Centrifugal Funk album. The techniques they use allow for odd time signatures and unique phrasing. Many legato players are involved in jazz, fusion, metal, and other experimental types of music as the technique is great for creativity.
How to play legato?
When playing legato on the guitar, notes must be close and often on the same string; this is because you have a limited time to keep playing when picking once. Once you do cross strings you will need to do a ghost or hammer-on from nowhere.
This is where you fret the note so hard that it alone causes the string to play. And then from there keep doing more hammer-ons or pull-offs to keep the legato going.
This is why finger tapping sounds similar to legato because it also relies on just the fingers striking the strings at the fret, no plucks with any fingers or picks. Along with the hammers and pulls you will be mixing in glissando, vibrato, and more. As you get the strings to ring, slide up and down and bend them for great added effects.
If you are ascending in the scale you will find it necessary to pick again when moving to the next string. There are points where we have to pluck the string, but our goal is always to keep that to a minimum as that is an interruption to the flow of notes.
It is also important to control the volume of notes as you hit them or pull your finger off. If one is too loud or soft it will not give the smoothest effect. You need speed, but a steady sound that is fluid.
Obviously most legato playing is done on an electric guitar as that has the sustain necessary to keep the notes playing. But shorter legato runs can always be incorporated into an acoustic set, depending on your finger fretting strength.
Exercises and Tips
Keep your fretting hand close to the board and your fingers stretched out to one finger per fret. And be sure to mute any open strings next to where you are playing to avoid errant notes.
If you happen to read music an arc or slur is used to notate legato, and in tablature a wavy line will be above the indicated notes (similar to a trill). It is best to start on one string at first, working your way up and down the frets of that one.
The trill is a fast hammer-on and pull-off, making it a more advanced legato technique. See how many times you can get the trill to sound with just one pluck!
Do not forget to work on your fourth finger. It may not be easy as many guitar players do not exercise the pinky. It will need to be strengthened so it can actually produce the sound necessary.
Make sure you work on building finger strength for your hammer-ons from nowhere. This is simply practicing striking the strings with only the fingers, no picking involved. Make sure the sound is not only loud, but clear.
One of the easiest ways to start is to simply play ascending and descending scales in a legato fashion at various speeds. That way you practice your scales and this technique at the same time! Over time the best way to master legato is to develop a lot of muscle memory, you don’t want to think while playing, just let your fingers flow.
The only way to become efficient at legato technique is a lot of practice. There are no shortcuts or tricks to speed or efficiency. Be sure to start slow and keep it simple and fix any mistakes in your technique early on. Legato articulation is used by guitar virtuosos, it is not something that will come easy!
Be sure to get your free access to the download page, where you'll find scale, chords and fretboard pdfs.