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Steven Mal

How did you learn legato and what are some exercises you frequently practice?

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I'm trying to learn legato playing and I've used various exercises for about six months now but I feel like I'm not improving much. How did you learn legato technique and what exercises do you use?

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First, tell us what you have done to practice this technique.

Next, are you using a metronome?

Are you self teaching? Or, using an instructor?

What about your playing makes you feel as if you are in a rut?

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First, tell us what you have done to practice this technique.

Next, are you using a metronome?

Are you self teaching? Or, using an instructor?

What about your playing makes you feel as if you are in a rut?

I've been using exercises and lessons from websites and videos. I could post links if you want to see exactly what I'm doing. I always use a metronome when I practice legato. Currently I am self-taught. My playing hasn't improved in months and I discovered that I don't have a lot of stamina, in addition to lacking speed.

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I don't know that examples would help. Most legato exercises are fairly straight forward affairs.

IF by "legato" you are referring to the use of hammer ons and pull offs, then that is one style of playing. If by "legato" you simply mean playing smoothly, then that's somewhat another.

Either way, I would start you off with the same advice, listen to yourself as you play.

This is the issue with many players even as they advance in capabilities. They simply are not aware of what they are playing as it will sound to the audience. Students are, of course, so focused on the notation/TAB they can't yet split their attention between the two.

Therefore, the first point to be made is to get the exercise into your musical memory banks deep enough that you are not dependent upon a sheet of notation or a TAB to play. As long as you are gazing at a piece of paper or a computer screen, your attention is not properly focused. If this means you cut back to using only one or two exercises, fine. Pay attention to your playing and nothing else. And listen to yourself and the sound of the notes as they create a musical progression with each new note.

Break the exercise down into manageable chunks. If you are having difficulties with one portion of the exercise, remove it from the whole and work only on that portion until you have it down.

If, say, you were learning to speak Italian and you were having difficulties with the pronunciation of a single word, you wouldn't need a complete conversation to practice that word. You would repeat the word several times and then place it in a short phrase to gain the mastery of how the word applies to a thought. Do the same with your practice. Hammer ons and pull offs are the inflections you use to make your musical language more interesting. Playing smoothly is the goal just as speaking in complete sentences is the goal of learning a new language.

Music is contextual. Read that sentence again.

In other words, music depends upon what you play before and what you play after each individual note. You don't speak in individual letters and you don't play guitar one note after another. Music and language are meant to flow as ideas.

While the Zen of guitar is to play one single perfect note, the goal of most students is to realize the flow of music as a language. Think of how you speak and how you use inflection to change the meaning of a phrase or sentence. Employ that same thinking to your playing, even when it is simple exercises you are approaching. Learn from the beginning that playing is another form of speaking and your intent is important.

If you are not aware of making music flow from one note to the next, you won't be playing smoothly or with intent. Exercises are simply exercises, they are best used to warm up before actually playing a song. Concentrate your efforts on what occurs during a song and only use the exercises as a method of becoming more aware of the real world mechanics of playing interesting music.

Next, record yourself as you play. Even a very simple cell phone has the capacity to record what you play. If you are not hearing yourself as would an audience member, how do you know what you are doing from the audience's perspective? Even if you are your own audience at this point, you need that distance between playing and listening to enter into your mindset.

Using a metronome should be a progressive process. Rather than setting the ticks to a whatever beat, always begin each new exercise or song on the slowest tempo your metronome will accommodate. This is typically around 40 bpm's.

That's what you play, 40 bpm's. Don't bother that it doesn't sound much like music at that tempo, just know you are going to have to master 40 bpm's before you can approach 120 bpm's.

Don't cheat and don't become impatient. Play at 40 bpm's until you can play the exercise at that tempo with your eyes closed and not miss a beat. Once there, tick the tempo up, say, five bpm's. Start the exercise over and play until you can achieve smoothness and articulation at that tempo. Only move forward in tempo when you have completely mastered the slower speed.

Do this until you can play evenly and without mistakes up to 120-140 bpms or so. That will be the point where you can move on to another exercise.

Keep a practice journal; http://oneminutemusiclesson.com/2012/06/22/how-to-keep-a-practice-log-and-journal/

This doesn't need to be more than a sheet of paper you jot on to track your practice times and your progress. However, IMO a journal is a highly effective way to keep moving forward. In the "goal" column, you want to state a simple and somewhat easily accomplished goal for the day. Not "I want to play better" which is too broad to accomplish in less than several lifetimes. Rather a simple statement such as "I want to work on developing greater speed with my 'X' finger placement". Then, concentrate your practice on that one goal. Each problem you encounter becomes another goal you will work on after you have accomplished the previous goal. Comments are aware of your flaws and your progress. Looking back after a few weeks or months gives the next boost to your continued playing. If you mastered "this", "that" is not all so difficult. It simply requires the same dedication you used to master "this".

Stamina is developed by playing, nothing else will do. I've played for decades but I've also been stopped several times by injuries which require I set the guitar down for a period of time. Most often, when I come back to play again, I physically have to start more or less from scratch and rebuild what I had lost.

First, there is no way to come to guitar with stamina. Playing a steel strung instrument hurts and can be tiring after a short while. The more you do it, the less it hurts and the longer you can play but even nylon strings require some amount of stamina to conquer. Pushing yourself needlessly through discomfort helps not at all. Know your limits and push through just enough to surpass your previous best.

Practicing daily at least six days per week is your best schedule. If you only fit in ten minutes per day, that still helps. Don't rely on marathon sessions of hours two days per week. You will lose most of what you had learned in the between times. Just keep each practice productive. Don't count the time you spend tuning your guitar before each practice. You do tune before you practice, right?

We tend to have multiple mechanisms for delaying what we find unproductive or distasteful. Identify those things you might be doing which waste your practice time and eliminate them. On the other hand, we all tend to have our personal talisman that we rely on for an extra bit of confidence. Whether it is the simple preparation of a cup of tea or arranging the lesson books, recognize the things you do which make you feel prepared for the work ahead. A talisman is not a time waster and should be seen as the psychological boost it provides. They just don't need to be incorporated into your overall practice time. A talisman fails when it turns into a crutch.


Your practice time is only as good as the time you put into preparing for your practice. That time should be spent wisely and not haphazardly. Make sure you are prepared to play once you sit down and begin. The same would be true if you were to take lessons from an instructor. You are wasting their time and your money if the first ten minutes of the session are spent in you doing all the futzy things you must accomplish before you can actual pluck a note. Therefore, once you sit down to practice, short of a fire or a heart attack, practice is your only task.

We all reach plateaus in our playing. This is completely normal and, if this is your real problem, simply give it time. Stay focused!

If you have committed to a lesson plan, stick with that plan through to the end. Most self taught students tend to jump around chasing the next bright shiny thing. If this is you, stop doing that!

Lesson plans are laid out to repeat certain skills and information which you have already covered. This repetition is what cements the concept into your skill set. Without it, you falter. Therefore, take a lesson plan which has been well reviewed and start the lessons from the beginning and play through until the end - or when you reach your physical limits of capability. Very few players make it through all levels of the Mel Bay instruction plan but an innumerable more begin and never finish the first book because they become impatient.

Learning a new skill and a new language such as music is difficult work and should be seen as such. Take your time and stick with the program. No one comes to guitar a skilled player. Due to the equal temper tuning of standard guitar tuning, even a skilled musician who has played another string instrument may have a certain learning curve for the guitar. So take your time, keep your journal and, most of all, listen to yourself play.

Without further input from you, this is the best advice I can offer. If you have further questions, I'l try to answer to the best of my ability through the forum. At times, it pays to take a few lessons from a qualified instructor even if you are only there to better a certain technique.

Playing with stamina is, IMO, a lesson in learning leverage. Hand strength is secondary to realizing how leverage plays into forming chords or playing legato lines. Since leverage can vary from player to player and from one guitar neck profile to another, there's no easy way to instruct someone on how to develop leverage. I often suggest a student begin by removing the guitar nut from their multiple other problems.

The break angle of the strings over the nut creates the highest tension at the first fret. By placing a capo on the second fret of the guitar you will have removed that tension from your playing issues and the simple function of developing leverage should become less problematic. Unless you are playing with another instrument which cannot easily be changed in key, a capo is, IMO, a student guitarist's best friend. Use the capo as you develop your stamina and remove it when you feel you are ready to address the nut and the string tension is provides.

Of course, string gauge also plays into tension. There really is no reason for a student to be using anything above 11's for their string set.

That's about it for now.

Try this lesson on for size; http://www.justinguitar.com/en/IM-154-LegatoScales.php

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Thank you for your reply! This is all great advice, some of it I've already heard before. I'm not dependent on notation or tabs. I'm currently practicing at 50bpm for most exercises. I'm also practicing trills. I rarely miss a day of practicing; I usually practice every single day. One problem I have is practicing too much, for too long (one practice session for 2-6 hours at a time) instead of shorter individual practice sessions. Unfortunately, I still need to get a capo. I've been using justinguitar.com and guitarlessons365.com for over about six months now, along with various other websites too. It sounds like I've just hit a plateau and need to be more patient and more diligent, and continue practicing.

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I often think the way guitar is most typically taught is all wrong.  It is a misguided process which perpetuates itself as each new instructor follows the same path they were forced into following back when they first picked up a guitar.  

Unfortunately, IMO, most music instructors only follow the same worn down, worn out path so many have taken for decades.  Most do not actually think about how best to learn and, therefore, how best to teach, the techniques and the rules of music theory which apply to guitar.  

I haven't been involved in teaching in several years now.  People have asked and then backed down when I offer to teach them on the condition they do apply their time and effort to learning.  

However, I do feel the capo is an essential learning tool which is ignored by virtually all instructors.  Rather than make it easy for a student to play without pain and discomfort, not to mention difficulty, instructors do what they did when they were students and repeat the same mistakes.  The idea of "no pain, no gain" was cemented in their brain and they feel obligated to put it into the head of each student with equal fervor.  They approach teaching with more stick and far fewer carrots than needed.   

Pain, discomfort, difficulties and frustration are all negative inputs.  I would rather focus on the positives and the benefits of rewards which come from picking up the instrument to create music.


The question was not asked in the op, however, I tend to start students (who have not played music prior to reaching my way of study) with open tunings.  While most guitarists will play more often than not in standard tuning, open tunings, IMO, simplify the learning process when it comes to the guitar.  Progress is faster and more rewarding to the student as they begin to hear real music being created by their efforts when they first learn an open tuning.  Rewarding progress is what keeps most humans attuned to learning new, more advanced ideas.    

With, say, open D or open G, the student is learning where steps and intervals are placed on a single string as they play a simple tune on just the first string.  The same idea is repeated on the second string after the student has mastered the first twelve frets of the first string.  In the most common open tunings, this is where "the action" will occur as the first three strings are predominantly melody lines and the last three serve as rhythmic accompaniment.

This approach of beginning with open tunings has several benefits IMO; the concept of musical intervals is best associated with the sound of intervals as they exist in physical space between notes and, the student is quickly playing up the neck which gives a certain boost to their belief they are learning to play "advanced" techniques early on rather than after months or years of dreary study.  While their friends are still playing simple tunes in first position, my students are working their way up the neck and becoming accustomed to the techniques and the sounds which follow their path to the twelfth fret.  

Since open tunings, such as open D, will repeat the open string note on multiple strings, the student is faced with a much less formidable task of learning the layout of the fretboard.  Learn the first strings notes in open D and you have the same layout on the fourth and the sixth strings.  The second string open A is also repeated on the fifth string.  Now the student can learn those first two strings and soon be playing more complicated music without the need to learn an entire fretboard arranged like the jigsaw puzzle of individual note positions found in standard tuning.  

Pattern playing becomes more comprehensible IMO when the student begins with open tunings.  The sound of notes as steps/intervals in a key signature is more quickly and clearly cemented into their memory banks also.  The shift from Major to minor sounds will be easily accomplished with little fuss.  Pentatonic and blues scales reduce the bulk of what must be learned early on while giving the student the tools they will later need to create musically interesting improvisations.

Allowing the student the freedom to simply create an improvised solo with the pentatonic scale on, first, one string and then two and three comes early in the learning process and gives, I think, the mental boost a student requires to keep them thinking about the creative process of playing music.  Since the pentatonic scale has no "wrong" notes, the student quickly learns how to "make music" once they've mastered the five places to put a finger down on one string.  And, should they accidentally hit a note above or beneath the right note, we can discuss how listening to your playing allows you the ability to turn a wrong note into a right note by easy adjustments which sound musical to the listener. 

Chords in open tunings are, at first, a single finger barring the first three or four strings, all of which occur up the neck and away from the high tension of the nut.  The dreaded first position F Major barre we all struggle with isn't discussed until the student has built up their confidence and their ability to play simply barre chords which produce musical results.  

Now, using only one fretting hand finger, the student can play accompaniment to numerous songs quickly rather than after months of study and effort.  Common chord progressions such as a I-IV-V tend to make more sense as they can be seen as simply steps away from the tonic chord.  When we get to the CAGED method in standard tuning, the repeating patterns of the concept make more sense as the student has already experienced the ascending and descending patterns of open tunings.  

IMO the simplicity of open tunings makes for much faster assimilation of the many musical concepts related to playing a guitar.  


By the time the student gets around to learning standard tuning, they already have built up an enormous amount of confidence in their ability to play, and to create, music.  The most common music theories associated with the guitar have been shown to apply in a very understandable manner and are set in the student's instincts.  IMO teaching in this way gives the students far more incentives to continue to progress and far less frustration with the complexities of the fretboard.

I honestly do not know whether any other instructor goes about getting the students the most rewarding benefits as quickly as the approach I take.  My readings and discussions with students and other teachers suggests they do not.  They slog on through the same difficulties each generation of players has faced, just as they were taught.  

In my experience, most instructors don't even begin to consider how an individual student best learns new data and new concepts.  They simply take a one size fits all approach which, IMO, turns more students off than encourages them to continue on by seeing constant progress. 


Again, the question wasn't asked but this is how I feel playing/teaching should be approached.  Each student is unique and each student will have their own way to best learn.  They will have their own goals, which are seldom to spend the first year playing very simple songs in first position.   Whether it's called "thinking outside of the box" or something else, I see little benefit to the student in forcing them through the same rough road techniques the instructor learned when they first picked up a guitar.   

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