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How to Develop a Solid Legato

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One of the most popular techniques you may encounter during your musical studying is legato. Since it can be tricky to master, and even trickier to make a good use of it, I'm will show you how to develop a solid legato technique on guitar.

1. Legato Defined

Legato is an italian word which means tied together. Playing a melodic phrase with legato means that every sound we will play on our instrument will start on the exact moment the previous sound stopped. This technique is achieved on a guitar by hammering on or pulling off a note.

What you will gather from this definition is that the main goal of using legato is having a smooth and connected sound between each note.

2. Reasons for Learning 

Some might wonder about playing a motif using legato. There are multiple reasons for doing so: 

  • Versatility—the more way you can play a phrase creating a different effect, the more you're versatile and expressive as a player.
  • Expressiveness—legato is a really expressive technique. It's musical, it can be soft, it can be percussive. Legato really takes the finger tone out of you.
  • It's time improving—I don't want to get too soon inside of this, but learning this technique can improve your timing dramatically.

3. Hands Technique

First thing you need to have set in place is hand technique; I'll assume you're right-handed.

Left Hand

This hand will make the sound. I've emphasised the article because there are different sounds you can achieve with your left hand but, allow me to say it, not all of them are correct.

You want your finger to be curved and absolutely not flat, and you also want to hammer and pull the string using just the top of your flesh on your finger. To makes sure you're using the correct hand technique, here's the first exercise

While doing this exercise, place you're right hand on the bridge—as you were doing with palm muting—and make sure you hear a snap every time you pull off. I've always found pull off trickier than hammers, so make sure to work on those. 

Right Hand

Good right hand technique will make the difference between neat sounding legato and not.

Although everyone has a different right hand position, you should try to rest with your finger on the strings. This will allow you to mute the strings you're not playing and to have a more detailed sound.

Furthermore, having your fingers on the string will allow you to use hybrid picking. I personally don't use it but it's a great way to obtain a more uniform sound between the pick and hammers since plucking a string with the finger will have a more soft and round sound. 

4. The Truth About Solid Legato

Now that you know how to properly place your finger, let's discuss how to make the legato solid and in time. 

What messes up everybody's legato is timing. It's obvious: you don't pick every note, you don't perform the same mechanical motion with the right hand on every note. You slow down, then speed up and then the legato has fallen apart. 

You need to train yourself on keeping the right time even with one hand. And there are two elements you have to master: 

  1. Muscles and flexibility in your left hand
  2. Good knowledge of rhythm

The first point lead to thousand of hours of practice. I wrote down some of the main exercise I usually do. The point is make our hand stronger and used to larger stretches. 

You can download some Warm Up exercises from the attached zip file.

Knowing your rhythm is something that requires some musical education. Refer to my tutorial, How to Make Your Rhythm Guitar More Solid: Part 1.

Whenever I study a new technique I like to isolate every aspect of it. So once you're comfortable with the exercise I wrote above, you may use the same one, but from a rhythm perspective.

Chromatic exercises really do the trick. Don't worry about scale, don't worry about the sense of what you're doing. Just worry about rhythm for now. You need to subdivide the rhythm in your head and you need to be able to play different figures using just your left hand.

A good concept to practice rhythm with legato is playing 16th note whenever you'll have a combination of three notes on the same string and, instead, playing triplets when you have four notes on the same string. 

This is because common thinking that every time you change string you have to pick and accent the note because you do feel like you are on the beat. But if you follow this concept you ll have to accent a note that you're not actually picking.  

I said where to pick but try to avoid to accent the note you're picking and, instead, try to feel where the beat is in relation to the note. 

Get some practice with a variety of rhythms in the Legato Exercise in the attached zip file.

On a side note, if you want to commit to this technique and not waste your time, here's a simple but yet important tip: keep your finger as close as you can to the fretboard. The more you increase the distance when you're not using that finger, the more time it will take to get it back in position. The smaller the move, the accurate you'll be.

Also, when practicing use a slightly overdriven sound: just a little bit. It will make every string ring way more noticeable and, in the end, you'll be able to achieve a more clean sound. 

5. Slower is Better

Now get some practice.

When I started develop this technique there was one thing that really made the difference: practice slowly. I found myself practicing always between 60-80 bpm. This didn't stop me from reaching higher tempos and although it made my runs precise, solid and clean. 

To help you develop your legato, refer to the Legato Licks exercise in the attached zip file. There are some scale run, some arpeggio phrase and sequence in general.

Lick 1

Lick 2

Lick 3

Lick 4 

Lick 5

6. The Musicality of Legato

I've tried to hide it for the entire article but I personally love this technique. It's smooth sounding and perfect for lots of genre. It works magnificently with slides and bendings and to me it gives that extra feel and human aspect that I dig and use a lot. 

I suggest you to do this exercise: try to play the same line with legato and without. It definitely depends on the genre and mostly on taste, but you may look for aggressiveness and still choosing legato instead of alternate picking.

Mastering this technique can really improve your skills.

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