Originally Posted by Reanimatorhead
I've been playing a lot of legato since I started years ago, but it sort of happened accidentally. I never thought of it as a distinct type of playing until just a few years ago. In fact, for years I thought of it as "cheating," since it always seemed so much easier than alternate picking. And we were all supposed to aiming at being speed pickers, right?
A lot of my early influences like Iommi, Blackmore and Lifeson did a lot of hammer-on stuff, even if they weren't really "legato" players. That's probably where I got it from. Once I discovered that Holdsworth relies on hammer-ons, it became a natural progression.
Here are a few things that might help:
--Many of the great legato fusion players use really thin strings. Holdsworth uses 8-38s, as did Shawn Lane. Don't underestimate the importance of this. Hammer-ons take a lot more effort with high-tension strings, and one key to evening out the hammer-ons and getting the phrasing down is to not have to really mash down on the strings to get a sound. This is especially true if you want to hammer-on the first note of a phrase or the first note on a given string. You should be able to get a nice note with a hammer-on in any situation. Also, another key element of legato playing is slides and slurs with the fretting hand--much easier to do with thin strings.
I use 8-38s, and I can maintain the sustain of my notes as I'm sliding up and down the neck with almost no effort. For me, 10-46s always sound like shit by comparison--I have to fight the guitar to get anything out of them.
--Legato fusion guys pick more than you think. It's not all hammer-ons. The key is to develop a picking style that de-emphasizes the attack. Pick closer to the neck and work on softening the picking stroke so that the notes are *exactly* as loud as your hammer-ons and justly slightly more percussive. Once you've got this going, you can use picked notes as a phrasing tool, much the way sax players choose when to play each note with a new breath and when to play an entire phrase (or portion of a phrase) with a single breath. The distinction is very much the same as picked vs. hammered-on.
Shawn Lane was the sickest at this--he could play the same crazy fast phrase entirely picked or entirely hammered on, and it sounded equally good.
--Compression helps. If you're not using a compression effect, then being able to turn up the master volume is a good substitute. It smooths out the attack and boosts the body of the note, so you get more out of a hammer-on. Use a guitar that is loud acoustically, and an amp that has nice sustain.
--As for exercises, I don't have any specific ones. Just take a phrase--any phrase--and try to play it entirely with hammer-ons. Start slow and focus on keeping the notes in proper time. The tendency with hammer-ons is that your ring and pinky fingers hammer down too fast compared to when you're placing them for picked notes. It's like those fingers are anticipating having to fret harder and sort of "wind up" for the punch, which gets everything out of time. Focus on getting them in time.
In practice, I usually pick the first note of the phrase and usually the first note on each string, but it's important to have the option not to do that, and I avoid it fairly often--especially when I'm jumping over several strings for a crazy angular phrase ala Eric Johnson.
--Related tip: finger independence is very important in legato work. Most traditional hammer-ons don't work like that, since the hand gets "anchored" to the neck and it's tough to get fingers working totally independently. My legato got a lot better when I stopped anchoring my index finger to the fretboard most of the time during runs. I generally lift it when I'm using other fingers, which forces that independence. Yes, it's "bad technique" and causes stress--that's why you use those 8-38s.