Legato means smooth. In the world of guitar, the best way to legato phrasing is by doing hammer-ons and pull-offs. But that doesn’t mean the more hammer-ons and pull-offs we do, the more legato we sound! I used to think that but seeing players like Brett Garsed, Tim Miller etc. shattered all that thought. They pick quite a lot but it’s still legato! We have to approach legato as a sound instead of a technique. Hammer-ons and pull-offs are just techniques to get a legato sound. Some might argue legato can only be done with hammer-ons only ala Allan Holdsworth but that’s a little too extreme for my hands! If you’re of that camp this might not be for you! (am a fan of Allan Holdsworth though!)
As written earlier, one of my biggest legato influences now is Brett Garsed. I used to do all the left hand only legato runs and although I got quite okay (never good!) with it, it didn’t flow with my improvisation. Worst of all, I love playing high up the neck and that’s when my left hand failed to sound the notes as the distance between frets gets more cramped. Besides that, I would need some drive to make the technique work and I’m working more towards playing clean nowadays. I needed a new technique while retaining that legato sound! A visit to Brett Garsed’s website changed everything. I went through some of the lessons there and I got it! By picking more, it eases the left hand (right hand if you’re playing left handed!) and I can now go all around the fretboard! More importantly, I can now do legato runs CLEAN without any drive!
Now on to some tabs. This is how I would do a linear run up and down a C major scale as inspired by Brett.
Note that every string is started with at least 2 pick strokes (unless it’s only 2 notes per string) followed by hammer-ons or pull-offs. I find this to be a lot smoother sounding compared to just picking once every string change like how legato would be taught generally unless we hammer-on each string change but that’d be lots of left hand work (I used to do that!)! This technique also helps me in playing jazz 8th-note runs more fluidly. We can also add in some hybrid picking which I will cover in a different post. Of course there are players who can rip legato runs CLEAN with very little right hand involved like Guthrie Govan and Tom Quayle and I have seriously no idea how they do that! So far this is what works best for me until I find something better!
Update: There’s no fixed pick strokes for this to work. The above example shows every string is started with an up stroke first but it can be done with down stroke as well.