In modern rock and fusion guitar playing, the legato technique has been on a steady rise to prominence since the 1970s. Guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Allan Holdsworth put the technique on the map, with players like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai elevating it to being a must-have skill for modern technical players. In today's world, the legato playing style is one of the most popular tools for employing speed when soloing, no matter what genre you play in.
When teaching guitar technique, I always start a program of learning with legato for this simple reason: legato playing focuses mainly on the fretting hand, and this is the essential hand for any guitarist. Remember that it is possible to become a great guitarist with an excellent fretting hand and a weak picking hand, but not the other way round. Also, if you want to be able to play fantastic alternate picked or economy picking runs, then you need to have an excellent fretting hand first, hence why my programs always begin with the legato technique.
The word legato comes from the Italian language, and it translates as smoothly. Any instrument can play legato, but for a guitarist, it specifically means to execute your notes with fretting hand hammers, pull-offs, and slides. In this series of three lessons, I'm going to outline for you a program of learning that develops a reliable legato technique, which you can then expand into some extremely impressive and fluid sounding licks and runs. The first stage in developing this skill is to learn the fundamental principles of the technique with cyclic pattern and scale fragments. Over years of teaching, I have found that many students of the guitar try to play long scalar runs far too early in their development of this technique, and that is holding them back.
Before you can expand into using large areas of the fretboard, you should perfect the basics of immaculate timing and accuracy. Once you have this together, we can then expand these ideas into full scale forms, both along the length of strings and across positions, and finally, look at combining these elements to open up the full fretboard. In this lesson, we start by learning four essential rhythmic groupings over fragments of the A natural minor scale. These rhythmic groupings are of four notes (sixteenth note) five notes (quintuplets) six notes (sextuplets) and seven notes (septuplets) per metronome beat.
These rhythmic groupings form the basis of a reliable modern legato technique. After we have looked at the exercises in the lesson, I shall discuss with you how you can expand these ideas across all seven positions of the scale. These exercises are aimed at both intermediate and advanced players and can be practised in many forms. For intermediate players who are comfortable playing basic rhythm and lead guitar, exercises like these are the next logical step into a more technical approach and a more fluid playing style.
For advanced players, these exercises can be viewed as a maintenance routine that keeps your technique polished and helps you remain in top shape on the instrument. On the downloadable audio files, I have demonstrated all of the examples at two speeds. Firstly, a slow learning tempo of 80bpm for sixteenth and quintuplets, and 60 bpm for sextuplets and septuplets. I have then demonstrated the examples at a target speed of 160 bpm and 120bpm, respectively. The learn tempo needs to be practised, even as an advanced player as at these speeds, you need to perfect your timing, accuracy and tone.
I have seen many students over the years who think they can play faster than they actually can. Guitarists tend to want to speed up as soon as possible, remember that speed is a by-product of accuracy. Play the examples slow and perfect first; then you will have the required platform from which to build speed. Practising these examples with a disciplined approach is the only way to yield results. Each exercise should be practised for around 5 minutes per day, 5 days per week. Firstly at the learning speeds and then with the gradual raising of the metronome. Make sure you go up in sensible increments such as 5bpm at a time and be sure to stick at challenging tempos, not rushing ahead up the metronome notches as this leads to sloppy technique.
It will most likely take you a month of solid practise to start seeing results, and there will be sticking points. When you reach one of these plateaus, stay at that point until you see a breakthrough, as it is only through constant repetition that the speed will come. Once you have mastered the exercises in this lesson, not only will you have a stable platform to progress on to the next stage of legato learning, but you will find that having a better fretting hand facility will improve all of the other areas of your playing. The first set of examples focus on the sixteenth note rhythmic grouping. I've written the exercise around the 5th fret area for A natural minor, so we can use a fingering that uses all four fretting hand fingers. We will discuss later how to move these exercises to different parts of the neck.
Example 1 uses fingers 1, 3 and 4 on the top string and fingers 2 and 4 on the lower string. When playing through the exercise, make sure you set up your fretting hand with the correct muting technique as discussed in the supporting video, and also use the pick directions outlined with the smoothest attack possible.
Example 2 swaps the number of notes on each string around from example 1, so that we have two notes on the top string and three notes on the lower string. Again, make sure your muting is sound, your picking is light so as not to spoil the fluid sound of the notes, and make sure you have immaculate timing when playing along with the metronome.
Example number 3 is a three-string exercise, reminiscent of some of Paul Gilbert's legato style. In this exercise, you play one note on the top string, three notes on the middle and one on the low string. You can choose to pick the lowest note or play it with a hammer on. The choice is yours.
Example number 4 can be viewed as playing up the first five notes of a C major scale (the relative major of A natural minor). Playing up a 5th is a typical warm-up technique for vocalists. I heard them doing this while I was studying at the guitar institute (the vocal institute was a part of the same college, ICMP) and I just used to copy them on my guitar for fun. Playing it on the G and B strings as we are doing in example 4 is useful as again we are using all four fingers. This example is easy to play at hyper speed and lose the sixteenth note pulse, so make sure you are focusing on your strict rhythm. Feel free to move this one up and down the length of the neck to play it in lots of different keys, its good for your ear training then too.
Example 5 is another three-string example. This one is quite difficult as it uses three notes per string but with sixteenth feel. Many guitarists find that playing strict sixteenth notes with 3nps is difficult. This makes sense as you naturally want to play a group of three notes as a triplet. This exercise will drill in the strict sixteenth pulse to your fingers over a 3nps fingering. I've written this in two different segments of the A natural minor scale, as it feels quite different on thicker or thinner strings.
The next three examples focus on a new rhythmic grouping, the sextuplet, or groups of six notes per beat. It may seem more logical to move from sixteenths to quintuplets, just adding one more note; however, sextuplets have a much more familiar feel and work very well with 3nps fingerings, so we will start with those and then look at the odd rhythms groupings.
Example 6 shows an exercise I found most challenging to do when I first wanted to hone my chops, and it is an essential exercise in any program of learning for my students. The idea is to hammer on two notes, and then pull-off back down to your first note. The reason many students find this tricky is that you have to get your middle finger of the group of three out of the way to perform the pull-off. I'd suggest practising this example with fingers 1, 3 and 4 to start with, then also do it with 1, 2 and 3. The example is shown in reverse motion also, which focuses on pull-offs and then a hammer back to the start. This version is much easier to execute.
Example 7 shows two rapid-fire string crossing licks used by modern rock players like Eddie Van Halen, Paul Gilbert and George Lynch. These were two of the first-speed exercises that I learned, and they yield excellent results when practised in a disciplined approach.
The first exercise has three notes on the top string and only one on the lower string. The second approach has one note on the top and three on the bottom. Fans of Paul Gilbert will recognise this as his famous picking exercise. It is also an excellent modern rock and fusion legato exercise. Keep your pick in between the two strings when performing these examples to economise motion, and use a light touch to keep the tone as smooth as possible. If you would prefer to play the transitions from one string to another with a hammer on, then that is fine. Do whatever works for you.
Our last sextuplet example is quite possibly the essential single-cell scale fragment any guitarist should practice if they want to have a proficient 3nps legato technique. Shown in forwards motion which focuses on hammers, and reverse motion that is based on pull-offs, the exercise looks at crossing strings with full 3nps fingering over a two-string scale fragment. Only once you have this idea firmly nailed down can you expand into playing full scale forms with clean, precise, rhythmically accurate technique. The fingering that is shown works on all four fretting hand fingers, and is intricate as we are using fingers 1,2 and 4 on the lower string and 1, 3 and 4 on the higher string. Exercises like this are always more straightforward when you have the same fingering on adjacent strings.
The next few examples will focus on the odd note groupings. Firstly we will have a look at quintuplet exercises, and then we will add two more notes per beat to get septuplets. Odd note groupings work exceptionally well with the legato technique, as they give us this full rolling effect that Joe Satriani describes as the sound of liquid mercury. The feeling of rolling around the notes comes from the fact that when playing odd note rhythm figures in three notes per string fingerings, we will be repeating many notes. The repetition gives the listener the impression that many notes are happening and has a smooth, ultra legato effect.
Our first quintuplet example uses full roll legato to allow us to cycle around our 3nps two string fragment completely. With this exercise, you cross from the B string to the E string as we did with example 8, but then we immediately descend back to the start, which is where we arrive at the full rolling sound.
Example 10 is another quintuplet full roll example, but this time, the roll happens on the high e string. The exercise starts similarly to example 9, but we descend only as far as the A on the E string with pull-offs and then hammer again through frets 7 and 8. The exercise is then cycled which you can start with a first finger hammer-on from nowhere to strengthen that fretting hand, or you can pick the starting note, as always with the lightest touch not to mar the tone.
Example 11 is a full roll septuplet exercise. With Septuplets, we are now playing seven notes per beat, which is the highest number of notes per beat we are looking at in this lesson. At their full speed, septuplets sound very fast and are used by modern rock and fusion players like Greg Howe, Brett Garsed and Guthrie Govan for the smoothest results. Example 11 is a forward motion exercise that sees us ascend, descend, and ascend a whole string again from our scale fragment before crossing to the other string. Full rolling of a single string is achieved this way in septuplets, and we do it for both strings. Although this is a forward motion exercise with a heavy emphasis on hammer-ons, pull-offs are still a significant feature due to the nature of full roll playing.
Example 12 is the last exercise for this first cutting edge legato workout. It is a reverse motion exercise of example 11 and therefore places a heavier emphasis on the pull-off technique. Pull-offs are a more complicated technique to execute than the hammer-on, so make sure you pay careful attention to your timing being spot on with these examples, and make sure you are pulling with good tone, and your notes reach the same velocity as that of your hammers. It is quite common to hear a difference in dynamics between a player's hammers and pulls, and ironing this out is key to getting that uniformity of sound needed for legato playing.
Some players don't like the sound of pull-offs and opt to hammer on every note. You do this by hammering on the finger playing the next note as soon as your previous finger has left a string. Its commonly referred to as hammering in reverse and was used consistently by Allan Holdsworth, the champion of legato playing, as he did not like the tone of pull-offs. This is an incredibly tricky technique, though, and many great players can achieve suitably smooth sounds with pull-offs. If you aim to pull-off without being overly aggressive, the same as using a light touch with your pick, you should still be able to achieve an incredibly smooth legato tone.
Example 12 is the final exercise for this lesson. If you've enjoyed the exercises and can see the benefits of practicing them but don't want to refer back to my site every time you want to practice, you can download this lesson as a high quality PDF for free below.
Download This Lesson As A Free PDF Booklet With Added Bonuses!
As I've just mentioned, if you liked this lesson, you can download it for free as a high quality PDF booklet, but, there's more. In the included PDF I also show you how you can expand these 12 exercises to be used in tons of different places throughout the A natural minor scale fingerings, and I've included fingerings for melodic minor and harmonic minor scales too. Plus, I've added mp3 files of me performing the exercises so you can hear them against a metronome. I've also included additional PDF's that just show the 12 exercises, and i've included guitar pro files of the exercises too.
Obviously this has taken me some time to put together, so if you feel like you want to make a contribution to my work in this lesson i'd be really grateful. Donating a dollar or two will help me find the time to make more useful lessons like this.