Right hand technique isn’t everything on guitar. I’ve had many students, past and present, desperate to improve their picking technique while completely neglecting their left hand. This approach can be counter intuitive, as it is the left hand that is responsible for fretting notes on the guitar (or the opposite way round if you’re left handed!) Paul Gilbert often talks about the left hand being the steering and the right hand being the gas, with one of his quotes being “if you can’t steer, then don’t press on the gas!” From my personal experience, I found that improving my left hand dexterity helped me with every aspect of my guitar playing, even if, at the time, I had no desire to become a lightning fast shredder. Although, funnily enough, just from slowly improving my left hand technique, I found that speed soon came as a natural by product of my hard work. Therefore, in today’s online guitar lesson, I will offer you 6 exercises to get your legato playing up to scratch, with tabs for each one.
What Is Legato Playing?
The term legato is not just used for guitarists. It is an Italian term, and literally translates to “bound” or “tied together.” Legato is an indication for performers to play a passage of music in a smooth, connected manner, without breaks between the notes. This can apply to violinists, vocalists or even synth players. However, since this is a guitar website, we will be focusing on the term as it applies to guitar players. When us 6 stringers, or 4 stringers if you’re a bassist, talk about legato playing, we are usually referring to using hammer ons and pulls to sound notes instead of picking them. This gives legato playing 2 different advantages over picking:
- The amount of picking you do is reduced, often to just once per string. This puts the focus on the left hand to do the majority of the work, as opposed to having to synchronise your movements between both hands.
- Objectively, legato playing sounds smoother, and some passages will sound more musical with this approach.
That said, of course there is still a time and a place for devastatingly fast alternate picking sequences. However, before you start looking at those, perhaps your left hand would benefit from development before switching the focus to your other hand.
Legato Exercises For Guitar
The following exercises should be practised slowly at first. Furthermore, the use of a metronome to assist in your practice is highly recommended. Let’s start with an exercise that is based around the A natural minor scale. It uses pull offs to descend through the sequence in position 1, before ascending back up the same sequence of notes:
In order to get the most out of this technique, it is important that when descending, you only pick once at the beginning of the sequence. There should be no picking for the B string descending sequence in bar 1, or the G string sequence in bars 1 and 2. The only time to pick again should be for the B string and E string sequences in bar 2. This will ensure that you develop the strongest possible left hand technique.
There are a number of variations on this exercise. Here is one of them:
In the example above, we are beginning the sequence on the second note of exercise 1, instead of the first. This places a completely different set of notes on the beat, and is especially useful to conceptualise when you are practising with a metronome. If you really want to give your fretting hand a great work, then try starting the exact same phrase on every note in the sequence, giving you a different phrase each time whilst still playing the same pattern.
Exercise 3 is a 4 finger legato idea, built around the D natural minor scale:
The exercise above actually makes a great warm up, as your fingers will feel nice and supple afterwards. The idea is to only perform the sequence using hammer ons, even when descending, in order to build up proficiency with this specific technique. Addionally, it’s crucial that you always use the same fingering; fingers 1, 2, 3 and 4 in that order. This will help to get your little finger working if you are not used to using it.
There are so many different variations of exercise 3. Here is just one of them:
Here, we have switched the fingering from 1, 2, 3 & 4 to 1, 3, 2 & 4. This exercise now incorporates pull offs, and gets you used to moving your fingers in different orders. To get the most out of this idea, try experimenting with each different permutation of finger order and see what you come up with, the possibilities are numerous and some are much harder than others.
Below is an exercise that I frequently use as a lick in my improvisations:
Legato playing doesn’t just have to be all about hammer ons and pullf offs, as Exercise 5 makes use of slides to connect each different position as you move in an almost diagonal pattern up the fingerboard. I really like the different finger combinations used here. Make sure you use your little finger as much as possible!
Here is the 6th and final legato exercise:
This is another idea that frequently crops up in my own playing. Here, we are running legato patterns through various positions of the A natural minor scale, descending the guitar neck until we arrive at position 1, using slides to connect the shapes smoothly. This exercise can be performed with minimal picking and at a high tempo, as restricting the pattern to just two strings means that you often get the same pattern on both strings.
Here is a YouTube video I created demonstrating every exercise in this article:
I hope you have enjoyed the exercises that I have presented today. If you’d like to check out some guitar players who specialise in legato, then check out Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Richie Kotzen to name a few. However, without a doubt, your first port of call should be Allan Holdsworth – one of the most influential guitarists for modern technique ever. His legato style will leave you scratching your head thinking how he played some of those lines, so definitely give him a look if you are unfamiliar with his playing.
Until next time,