Perfect Legato Technique

Weekly Newsletter #12

October 28, 2021

Welcome back to the Max Rich Music Weekly Newsletter! 

This week I’d like to highlight the importance of proper legato technique. Legato playing, as it is used on guitar, is the ability to pluck one note and play a series of subsequent notes using only your fretting hand. This is done through the use of slurs, commonly referred to as hammer-ons and pull-offs. 

Think of the best legato players in the world: Allan Holdsworth, Guthrie Govan, Steve Vai etc. What do they all have in common? Efficient motion and loud, powerful legato. So powerful in fact, that they don’t even need to pick anything in order to play, they can simply play using their left hand only! 

Everyone who plays guitar has certainly been exposed to this concept at one point or another, but most fail to master it for a very simple reason. 

Players who consistently have trouble playing crisp, clean hammer-ons are usually trying to “aim” as they bring their finger toward the string. This desire to manipulate your finger as it moves through the air is the basis for all the technical flaws in this technique. 

Watch closely how you set up before doing a hammer-on. Play something really easy, like a hammer-on from the 5th to 6th fret on the low E string, using your index and middle fingers. How far away from the string is your middle finger when you cock it back before attacking? Where is the tip of your finger pointed? 

These questions can help diagnose a crucial flaw in your technique. To begin with, how far the finger is from the string before the hammer-on is a very important part of the process to get correct. If the fingertip is too close to the string there won’t be enough momentum to make the hammer-on sound crisp and loud, instead it will be dull and very quiet. 

The cause for a quiet and weak hammer-on can be three-fold: 

1)The fingertip is too close to the string and therefore can’t gather enough kinetic energy to make the string “pop” once the fingertip makes contact. 

2)The finger actually decelerates as it travels through the air. By slowing down as you approach the string you are removing kinetic energy and momentum from the equation and as a result, the flesh of your fingertip actually wraps around the string slowly, muffling the string like a pillow. 

3)The finger is not curved enough in order for the fingertip to make contact with the string, but instead the soft, fleshy pad of the finger makes contact. This soft pad of the finger results in the same pillow-like smothering of the string as mentioned in number 2. 

The deceleration of the finger is usually a result of answering the second question posed a few paragraphs ago, “where is the fingertip pointed, prior to attack?” 

If the tip of your finger is pointing toward to the ceiling, over your shoulder, or really anywhere other than the string itself, then it is necessary that you will have to try to manipulate the direction of your finger as its traveling toward the string in order to make contact on the tip of the finger. 

Having to manipulate your finger as it’s moving is the very cause for slowing the finger down and losing all the momentum from the attack. This is what I mean when I say, “never aim while doing a hammer-on”. The desire to aim will inevitably slow you down and cause a weak sounding hammer-on that is quiet and useless. 

Instead of aiming, it is vital, as you cock your finger backward while preparing for the hammer-on, that you do so using only the big knuckle. 

Start with both index and middle fingers fretted on the low E string on frets 5 and 6. Make sure both fingers are on the fingertip and not the pad of your finger. As you bring your middle finger backward to prepare for the hammer-on, focus on only moving it from the big knuckle. If done properly you will only be able to go a certain distance backward, however, the shape of your finger will stay the same as when it was fretted. 

This hook shape in your finger will ensure that the point of contact on your fingertip is pointing directly at its target, allowing you to simply engage using only  the big knuckle. By removing the two smaller knuckles from the equation we get a fulcrum point (the big knuckle), which functions like a hinge. Allowing the curved finger to move backward and forward along the same axis without ever having to “aim” as you move toward the string. 

For a clear example of this technique, check out this video here

Essentially, you are trying to eliminate all movement in your finger except the movement of the big knuckle. Since the big knuckle is the strongest of all three, it also has the largest amount of fast twitch muscle fiber. This allows for a very fast engaging of that knuckle. If the curve of the finger remains steady, then you can easily attack the string with great speed, very little effort and achieve a loud and powerful hammer-on, all while remaining tension free! 

Pull-offs are actually very different from hammer-ons and actually should not even be called “pull-offs”. The correct name should be “pull-downs” because that is essentially what you are doing. 

In order to execute a great sounding pull-off (the note to which you are pulling off should be capable of a louder volume than the initial plucked note, if done correctly), it is mandatory that you actually pluck the string with your pull-off finger. If you were to actually pull your finger off the string, which many beginner and intermediate players do, then you’ll hear a very quiet and weak note instead of a loud, powerful popping note. 

By pulling your finger off, basically a reverse hammer-on, you are actually releasing the string late. What is happening when you get a weak sounding pull-off is that you are releasing the fretted tension on the string, which always results in a dead note or no sound at all, and from there are removing your finger from the string. This two-step process must be avoided, and luckily can easily be avoided by pulling down toward the ground instead of pulling off in the same direction from which you began the hammer-on. 

Place both index and middle fingers back on frets 5 and 6. Now, begin to slowly engage tension in your middle finger, but this time in the small knuckle closest to the tip of the finger. Begin engaging this tension by imagining pulling the fingertip toward the ground. While doing this, make sure that your index finger doesn’t bend or allow the string to move behind the middle finger. 

Eventually enough tension will build up and the tip of the finger will shoot past the string toward your palm and will essentially pluck the string, creating a crisp and loud pull-off. This is the correct form for executing a pull-off. 

After the pull-off is complete, the big knuckle has moved backward, away from the neck, simply as a result of the recoil from the built up tension being released. 

Now after that pull-off is done you must return to a neutral position from which you can attack again, either using a hammer-on or simply fretting another note. In order to return from the pull-off to an attacking position, you must relax the middle and front knuckles of the finger while maintaining the position of the big knuckle. 

If executing back to back slurs  (hammer-ons followed by pull-offs repeatedly) then the actual shape of the motion of your finger will slightly resemble a half-circle. Attacking the finger using only the big knuckle creates the curved part of the upper half-circle. Then pulling down toward the ground creates more of a vertical path or the straight line of the half-circle. The relaxing of the finger and allowing the fingertip to return to pointing at the string again resembles the lower part of the half-circle. 

When doing fast slurs back to back, it is this half-circle shape that must be employed. Hammer-ons utilizing the big knuckle only, and pull-offs utilizing mainly the small knuckle. However in pull-offs, the middle and big knuckles move, but this is simply a result of following through after the string is released. 

By mastering this seemingly simple idea, you can actually transform your playing so that you can actually attack strings without even picking! Think of all the best legato players out there, all of them have this technique mastered, and it’s easy enough for anyone else to do it too! 

Hopefully you’ve found this newsletter and the attached video helpful. If so please consider signing up for the newsletter here, or for those who are truly dedicated to the instrument, you might like to consider a private lesson.  

I offer discounts to all the members of the newsletter, so if you are looking for personalized help with any guitar-based subject, I’d be happy to work with you.  

In addition, any member who refers a friend who goes on to take a private lesson will receive a free 30 minute lesson as thanks for the referral.  

Thanks for reading and remember, stay relaxed!  

Max Rich