In traditional musical terminology the word legato means phrases that are played in a smooth and fluid manner. In other words, they should be connected so that there is no gap between each note. In fact, legato is an Italian word that literally means ‘tied together’. The opposite of legato is staccato – where each note is short and separate.  On the guitar, legato is achieved by using a combination of hammer-ons and pull-offs. This creates the smooth legato sound, as opposed to picking every note. Legato playing can allow for some very fast and clean scale runs, but be aware that it also requires a lot of finger strength and dexterity.  Guitarists such as Joe Satriani and Steve Vai frequently employ long legato lines in their solos.

The following licks are in the key of B Dorian. As you play through them, the basic rule is that you pick once on each string and then the following notes are all hammer-ons and pull-offs. Note that hammers and pulls are notated for guitar as slur signs above/below the notes.


Exercises 1-4 all use the one basic three note=per=string finger pattern in B Dorian. Each exercise is based around just the one motif (short musical idea) on two strings, and then the motif is continued through each consecutive group of strings. So what you really have is the one small lick that is repeated to create the longer one. This is a nice simple way of developing long legato passages. The motif in exercise one is found in the first eight notes on strings one and two using multiple hammer-ons/pull-offs. This is then repeated on strings two/three, three/four and so on to the sixth string.

Hear Exercise 1


To get the smooth and fluid sound desired for legato playing, it is very common to play unusual note groups (such as five or seven notes per beat). For Exercise two the notes are played as septuplets (seven notes per beat) and each of these is our short recurring motif. Rather than play a more standard grouping of six notes, by adding in the extra one it allows the lick to really flow. While slowly septuplets may be difficult, at speed it’s not too hard to squeeze in the extra note.

Hear Exercise 2


This lick is similar to last in that it uses septuplets. Here though the overall melodic movement is ascending. If you have trouble with this lick (or any of the others), break it down into each smaller phrase. Practice these separately and then try joining them all together – slowly at first, then start building the speed.

Hear Exercise 3


This is another ascending lick that also has an unusual grouping of notes – thirteen. Once again though, you are really just slotting in the one extra note to the more standard grouping of twelve. Since each short motif contains thirteen notes, as you move it across the strings you get a very busy and ‘rolling’ type sound.

Hear Exercise 4


Once you have some of these simpler ideas down, you can combine them to create longer and more complex hammer/pull runs. Exercise 5 uses a combination of different motifs, slides between adjacent three note-per-string fingerings, and it ascends as well as descends. Tackle it in small sections before trying to put it all together.

Hear Exercise 5

The legato licks and ideas here are all very common ones. Once you get them mastered, try them in different scales and keys. You can then use them as a guide to come up with your own fluid legato lines.