Contrast exists in every facet of the world: day and night, happiness and sadness, love and hate, male and female (note I did not say opposite, I said contrast).
In music, legato is typically seen as the contrasting element to staccato. In essence, you can’t really have one without the other.
From a broader perspective, we’re really just talking about the difference between long, flowing notes, and choppy, deliberately shortened notes. But that difference is important.
As a developing guitarist, you can’t ignore the fundamentals. So let’s talk about legato.
What Does Legato Mean?
“Smooth” and “flowing” are a couple of adjectives often used to describe what legato is. But what we’re really talking about here is the transition between two or more notes. When you play legato style, there isn’t supposed to be a break between the notes you play.
This should explain the basic contrast between legato and staccato. Staccato notes are meant to be abrupt. Legato notes are suppose to be flowing.
On the guitar, hammer-ons and pull-offs are most often associated with legato notes. With staccato style, you could play either rhythm or lead guitar parts. With legato style, we’re almost always talking about lead guitar, whether that’s a full-on guitar solo, or just a melody part.
Review: What Is A Hammer-On?
We’ve looked at what hammer-ons are in an earlier lesson, but let’s take a moment to review.
In addition to picking, there are other ways of making notes sound on a fretted and stringed instrument such as the guitar. A hammer-on is just one example of this concept in action.
For instance, when you pick the third string, a G note would sound (assuming you’re in tune). Using one of your fret-hand fingers, you could “hammer down” on a higher note on the same string, such as the A on the second fret. If you wanted to, you could hammer yet another finger down on a higher fret (again, without picking), such as the B on the fourth fret.
The lack of picking is what makes the transition between the notes “smooth and flowing”.
Review: What Is A Pull-Off?
Again, we’ve discussed what pull-offs are in an earlier lesson, but it’s worth reexamining so you can more easily grasp what “legato” means.
Just like with hammer-ons, you can make a note sound on your guitar without picking using the pull-off technique.
Let’s try the previous example in reverse. Place the ring finger on your fretting hand down on the fourth fret of the third string. Place your index finger behind it at the second fret. Then, pick once. When you hear the B note sound, you would “pull off” your ring finger, and then your index finger. Note: merely lifting your fingers will do nothing. Both hammering and pulling are aggressive techniques, requiring some force. This takes some practice and patience.
Again, the lack of picking is what makes the transition between the notes “legato”.
Legato & Lead Guitar
As I mentioned earlier, legato typically only applies to lead guitar. Don’t get me wrong – you could have a rhythm guitar part that uses legato notes, but then you would be playing a riff as opposed to a defined chord progression. Typically, you’ll hear sections of legato notes in guitar solos or melody lines.
Allan Holdsworth, player of Carvin guitars, is considered one of the masters of legato, with his effortless hammers and pulls, his big stretches, and his lighting-fast fingers. There are no better examples to follow, so I would recommend watching him perform for a while. His rhythmic playing is made up of clean, complex, and “echoey” jazz chords, and his legato lead style mimics that of a saxophone.
Seriously. Holdsworth says he never wanted to play guitar in the first place, but that’s what his parents bought him. He was a big fan of the saxophone. So what did he do? He moved saxophone lines over to the guitar, and it sounds amazing. His tone is fantastic, partly because he’s trying to emulate other instruments with his guitar. His “distorted” sound is sweet and full.
It’s one thing to talk about legato, but to hear it and see it are entirely different things. This will help reinforce the concept a lot better than I could by trying to explain it to you.
Put It All To Work
We’ve talked at length about legato, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. Now it’s time to put your newfound knowledge to work.
I’ve put together a couple of simple examples for you to try. Keep in mind that the more notes you hammer or pull per string, the more smooth and flowing the line will become. For the sake of simplicity and simplicity alone, I’ve deliberately made it so you’re only hammering-on and pulling-off once or twice per string, but you’ll want to take this a step further if you’re serious about working on your legato style. Also note: “H” represents a hammer, “p” represents a pull.
The first example uses just hammer-ons. We’re going to use the E minor pentatonic scale for this. Let’s take a look:
Now you’re ready for the second example. Again, we’ll be using the E minor pentatonic scale to keep things. This one uses just pull-offs: Try it out when you’re ready:
Finally, we’re ready to start mixing it up. Here’s an exercise that uses both hammer-ons and pull-offs, and as with the others, it uses the E minor pentatonic scale. Give it a try:
Is legato just about hammers and pulls? Well, not necessarily. You could play smooth and flowing lines without hammering on or pulling off. It’s just that these techniques allow for more speed and control. When an experienced guitarist hears “legato”, this is almost inevitably what they automatically jump to.
As I said at the outset, legato is just one tool to help you create contrast in your playing. By mixing and matching with other techniques and staccato notes, you can create a style all your own. But differentiation is important. Some songs will lend themselves more to legato notes, and some songs will lend themselves more to staccato notes. And of course, there’s everything in between too.