Legato 101


What is legato? Well, its playing a continuous and fluid series of notes with out using much picking. Guitarists play this technique by the usage of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and right (or left if your a lefty) hand tapping. Legato provides for very fluid sounding runs and licks. Legato also serves as a great means for playing wide intervocalic licks at high speed.


Hand Strengthening Exercises

The first exercise that we will be getting into is called “trills.” In order you get your fingers moving, you have to spend the time developing the muscles. I like to compare hand strengthening legato exercises with body building. As you develop your muscles, you will increase your flexibility, speed, and control. Work our your hand hard, but never over work it. You want to feel the burn in your hand but then relax it. Come back 2-3 minutes later and do another set of trills.

If you do about 3 sets a day, ( make sure you take a day or 2 off to recuperate, you don’t want CTS or tendinitis! Stretch out good! ) soon you will be able to trill longer, stretch farther, and play faster. A trill is performed by playing two notes as fast as you can in repetition. You want to hammer and pull off every note with only picking the first note. Try trilling the 1st and 2nd fret of the E string. Then Move to the B string and so forth.

Make sure that you use every set of fingers that you have. This way they should all equally develop. Most importantly, TAKE THE TIME TO DEVELOP your pinky finger. That is a very crucial part of guitar playing. I can’t stress enough on how critical this is! It may seem hard at first, but remember that this is like weight lifting. At first you won’t put up much weight, but as your muscles strengthen and stabilize, you will get fast increases in gains. It will be hard at first to get that pinky moving, but before you know it, your pinky will become one of your most important playing fingers.

The next part of playing legato is getting strong pull offs. A strong left hand will take you a long way. Working on this exercise while sitting at the television, reading, etc….., will help your left hand a lot. Just make sure you can hear the note being pulled off with out an amp.


The next step in hand strength development is to get all 4 of your fingers working together. Here are a series of exercises that are guaranteed to give you one hell of a work out. These exercises will help smooth out your legato technique. Make sure you do these exercises to a metronome!

The whole point of legato is to have a really smooth and fluid sound. When you start hand strengthening exercises, concentrate on fluidity and smoothness. If you begin learning the technique this way, it will automatically apply to your playing when you develop ripping speed. This is of extreme importance because unlearning a bad habit is 10 times worse than learning it correctly the first time.

Memorize the first lick. Then apply the new finger patterns to it each time.


I guarantee that if you work on patterns like this as exercise a couple of times a week, you will have a a killer legato in a short period of time.

The last legato hand exercise that we are going to look at are what I call “flutters.” These are really cool sounding licks when played up to tempo and are great for strengthen your legato. The first 2 notes of the lick are the only ones that are picked. To execute these properly, you sweep the first 2 notes and let your fingering hand take over the rest of the lick. Palm muting the first note of the lick will help accent the note. The result is a cool sounding lick that is easy to play fast and is a good way to develop speed.



Putting Together Phrases

Now that you’ve eaten your “Wheaties,” taken your vitamins, and got some meat on your legato hand, it is time to put together some licks that you can actually use in a musical way. Putting together long legato phrases follows the exact same idea as putting together long alternate picking runs. It is best to use several small phrases and string them together. Here are some phrases and finger patterns for you to get down with your legato hand in the key of E minor (G major).


This is where it becomes important to have memorized the major scale positions. Connecting these scales to create long licks is the key to making continuous legato runs. Now we are going to combine some of these phrases and finger patterns into some licks. This lick starts out with a ‘flutter’ then ascends. This is in the key of A minor (C major).


As you can see, all we did is take a few small patterns and string them together into a longer lick. Here is another lick that uses the exact same idea in E minor.


Remember to pick the string at the beginning of each phrase. Basically, what this all comes down to is weather you know how to connect your scales or not. By now you should have an understanding of how to link together phrases. This leads me to my next point, sliding. Slides are a very crucial part of legato playing. Sliding allows you to fluidly move in and out of patterns as well as opens up the possibility of flying all over the neck in a legato fury. Here is a Joe Satriani lick that I used to practice a lot which helped my sliding an position changing tremendously.


When playing that lick, you only want to play the first note. You should not have to pick the string more than one time. This lick is also a great endurance lick for building strength.

Now that you’ve got the tools to put together long legato phrases, lets put on together using everything mentioned above. If you are having a hard time playing this lick, remember to break it down in to manageable phrases. Remember, all long licks are just the sum of a lot of smaller pieces.


Once you can start putting together licks like that, there is no stopping you! In the next part of this master class we are going to explore some ideas with legato that will hopefully help you create some awesome licks!

Please note: At this point in the lesson, you should already have a decent control over your legato hand and some good endurance. You should also be putting together your own phrases and licks. If you aren’t at this point in your playing, then go back to earlier parts of the lesson and work on these things.


Pentatonic Ideas

Using legato to implement 3 and 4 note per string licks is a great way to break out of that box. The phrase “think outside the box” is something you hear a lot in business. Legato is a great way to take something that can be very cliche, boring, and overused, like the pentatonic scale (listen to any 80’s hair band guitar solo), and do something exciting with it. From my own experiences, I can tell you that I do a lot of pentatonic speed picking, string skipping, ect… licks because I think they sound VERY catchy at high speeds. For some really cool pentatonic legato ideas, check out Shawn Lane and Rusty Cooley (especially his 4 note per string pentatonic legato string skipping licks! INSANE !!!).

We are going to start off with something simple so you get the idea. Here is a really good lick to practice getting your speed up. It is an E minor pentatonic lick and definitely one of my favorite to play.


Once you get that lick under your fingers, you can just rage on it at insane speeds. Let’s expand on that idea with some octaves. Here we go.


Now that is a cool lick. Let’s try a more advanced legato lick using the pentatonic scale that incorporates some tapping into it.


I’ll take a pentatonic scale with super sized legato and a side order of string skipping please! (Try that one at a McDonalds drive-thru)


Let’s expand on that Idea. Here is a pretty wild lick!


By now, you should have an idea of some of the really neat possibilities that exist when combining legato and the pentatonic scale.