• Michal Šinka

How To Write For Guitar So That Your Guitarist Loves You - Part 6

After having discussed the sustain effect so typical for the guitar last time, let's talk about legato today. Generally, the legato articulation indicates that notes are supposed to be connected as smoothly as possible. However, in guitar notation you will never encounter those super long slurs ranging over several bars that you commonly see in string or piano parts. The reason is that legato has quite a different meaning in the guitar language.

Man playing acoustic guitar
The moments before a hammer-on...

(All the musical examples in this article come from the solo guitar suite Ballad Stories composed by Milan Tesař)

Articulation vs. Performance Technique

For a guitarist, legato is a performance technique rather than articulation. Well, actually, it's both, since the application of the legato technique eventually leads to the smoothness of the legato articulation (more on this later). Nevertheless, the primary meaning of legato for a guitarist for sure is different than for, say, a violinist.

Why? A violinist plays the slurred notes under a single bow (or connects the bowing imperceptibly), so that a continuous, uninterrupted and smooth flow of notes is achieved. The main goal here is fluency and smoothness. However, guitar legato is used for a different purpose. It actually produces a slightly different timbre. That means, a guitarist will play legato not only to achieve fluency and smoothness but primarily

  • to produce the specific legato timbre, or

  • to play faster.

Let me explain.

Hammer-On and Pull-Off

The reason for both of the above lies in the way the guitar legato is executed. Notes under a slur are played by hammering on or pulling off the string with the fingers of the left hand. That is, the first note under the legato slur is plucked (picked) with the right hand, however, all the other slurred notes are only played using the left hand - hammer-on for the upward motion, pull-off for the downward motion. (Both hammer-on and pull-off are collectively referred to as legato.)

In case of hammer-on, the same finger is both setting the string vibrating as well as fretting the pitch. In case of pull-off, the left-hand finger is de facto plucking the string while another finger is fretting the pitch, however, the pluck happens very close to the fretted note. In both cases, the result is a slight change in timbre.

Legato based on choice of timbre
Choice of legato based on timbre: the last two notes could easily be played legato as well but the composer chose not to mark them that way because he wanted the more articulated non-legato timbre.

Note that while the left hand is playing legato, the right hand has nothing to do. So, what if we combined the right-hand pluck (picking) with hammer-ons or pull-offs in the left hand? The result is the ability to play much faster. Some guitarists, especially the electric ones, have developed this technique so much that their speed is just insane. (Allan Holdsworth, for example).

Legato on fast notes
Legatos make it easier to play fast notes

The Constraint

As you may have guessed already, the limitation when scoring legato for guitar is that it can only be achieved between notes on the same string. That means small intervals only - four (at most five in higher positions) frets apart, i.e. pitch permutations within 2 (or 2.5) tones. The only exception being the interval between the fretted notes and the open string which may be bigger, in case that the open string is part of the slur.

Legato - large interval
An example of a large interval under a slur - this is only possible because the second note is an open string

This is given by the way the legato is executed (see above). Though it is technically possible to perform a hammer-on on a different string than the one last plucked (picked), it is rarely used and it sounds weak.

If you need bigger intervals to be connected as smoothly as possible, you may want to use glissando instead of legato. More on glissando in a future article.

Just a side note, bigger intervals played "legato" would also be attainable by combining the left hand legato with the right hand tapping technique. However, this requires a high level of virtuosity so you should make sure that your guitarist can play it first. Or you can have your guitar part recorded by Remote Guitar Tracking, as we have players that can do that! ;-)

When Legato Actually Means Smoothness

I have mentioned above that the application of the legato guitar technique eventually leads to the smoothness of the legato articulation as we know it from e.g. string instruments. Note that skilled guitarists can achieve very smooth and well-connected playing without the use of the legato technique, simply by smoothly plucking or picking with the right hand (hence my explanation above about employing the legato technique mostly with different goals in mind than just smoothness).

However, there are situations when using the legato technique is the only way to play smoothly - fast groups of notes such as quintuplets, sextuplets, etc.

Important caveat! All of the notes in such a slurred tuplet must be playable on one string and within reach of the four fingers of the left hand plus the open string! If not, the note to be played on a different string will have to be plucked by the right hand again and the difference in timbre will be audible! However, that may also be your compositional intention. For example, you can specify the phrasing of a sextuplet as three groups of two notes each by breaking the legato slur after the second and again after the fourth note (even if a change of strings is not required). The difference of timbre between the plucked and non-plucked notes will automatically take care of the correct phrasing of the sextuplet. This is a very common way for guitar composers to achieve the desired phrasing of note groups.

Legato - note groupings
The use of legatos in the 32nd run automatically subdivides the phrasing into three groups of two notes each. It is also much easier to play than it would be without the legatos.

Phrase Markings?

One last thing. You may wonder how you should denote musical phrases for guitar when slurs are reserved for a different purpose. The answer is simple. You don't. Even though some literature on music notation recommends using dotted slurs for this purpose, don't do that. It's unnecessary and you will only end up confusing your guitarist by doing so.

I hope you have found this article useful and that it will help you create better guitar music. Remember, if you need any advice on whether or not your guitar part works well, you can always sign up for our free one-on-one guitar playability feedback. Please, let us know how you like this series or what you would like us to cover by sending us a message on Facebook or Instagram.

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