Legato Playing – Step by Step Technique Part I

Frank Zappa

When I first started playing guitar, all I wanted to accomplish was speed. Man, I was hooked on Ritchie Blackmore, Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Santana, and later Frank Zappa, Pat Metheny, and Alan Holdsworth. Jamming along with my favorite records had me imitating their sound and their speed. The only way I could get remotely close to that was to to let the scales flow in the left hand; little did I realize that my timing was all whack, having never sat down to slowly practice an efficient, step-by-step approach to woodshedding this beautiful way of playing the guitar: Legato.

When I now teach this technique to students, I start at the very beginning, no matter how long they have been playing guitar for. It is important to take it extremely slowly, focusing on how easy it is to do this first exercise – not on how fast you will play it;

Speed is the result of slow and accurate practicing!

Example 1

Start this first exercise by placing all four fingers of the left hand on one fret each (frets V to VIII). The first bar has the fourth finger pulling off (p.o.) and hammering on (h.o.) and every bar can be repeated or soloed as desired. Make sure to do this slow enough so you can keep all fingers close (!) to the fretboard after each pull off. If done too fast, you will notice that there’s no control over that exaggerated pull off, and your fingers will learn an inefficient, if not bad, technique. So, take your time, focus on ease and relaxation, and increase speed only slightly every day. This way, you will give your system time to learn in an efficient manner.

Exercise two will increase the challenge a bit, still working with a purely technical idea:

Example 2

This should be practiced on all individual six strings. Take your time on this before going on to the next set of exercises, which combine these first two elements.

Ex. 3

Example 3
Example 3 continued

Exercise 3 uses only hammer-ons and one should pay close attention to the rhythm of triplets (sixteenth-note triplets to be accurate). Practice first with a metronome to even out the rhythms, which can be played as eighth-note triplets as well. With concentration and perseverance you will quickly notice your improvement in feel, which will in turn enable you to execute this difficult passage in an absolutely even and unhurried playing style – something that is of utmost importance for legato playing.

The same approach should be taken for the following exercise as well as the application-riff at the end of this first installment.

Example 4

The following application-riff is in the key of A-major/F#-minor. Move it around to different keys and play it along with some music. The next installment will get even more into playing applications that built progressively on this unit’s foundation work.

Riff 1