How often have I heard (or more than likely said!) ‘you need to play more legato’
With legato on guitar there are many problems as well as many solutions.
Very often I find that my students simply don’t hear their legato issues. This is usually a result of chopping up phrases in order to learn the piece. Then after some time you hear the choppy melody as being correct. My take on all music, with the exception of a few special circumstances, is that it is always composed of linear (horizontal) lines. I mean that even if you are simply playing from one chord to the next, the chords are not vertical clusters of notes disconnected from each other but are each a collection of individual notes and each note moves by step or leap to another note in the next cluster, or chord if you like. (remember that music, speaking in scientific terms, is sound over time which suggests a linear connection between sounds)
You should try to hear the melody correctly before trying to play the piece. I can hear the music when I look at the score, but if you can’t it might not be a bad idea to try one of the following:
1) play each phrase using only melody notes. Try to make the melody sound exactly as you would like it before moving on.
2) listen to some recordings. Be very careful with this suggestion as I often hear many choppy interpretations on recordings.
3) sight sing the melodies
All three of these methods are an attempt to do one thing: get you to hear the melody correctly before you start to butcher it by trying to play the other supporting voices. After you have the right sound of the melody in your ear, then try to play the music while trying to maintain the melody’s original sound. Also remember that in the case of contrapuntal music there can be more than one melody (look at the Bach Bourree in E minor for a perfect example of music with 2 distinct lines to maintain)
Unfortunately, for guitarists, just about everything is against us on our instrument
1) Left hand: to create a legato line you must:
a) in the case of a position shift make the position shift at the last possible moment as fast as possible. To fix your shifting try subdividing the beat and making sure your shift happens after the last subdivision (in a fast piece subdividing with 16ths may suffice whereas a slower piece may need sextuplets or 32nds)
b) when crossing strings always try to use different fingers (if this is not possible I have found that practicing across the break making the movement as fast and clean as possible can yield wonderful results as well…..but only as a last resort)
2) Right hand: when trying to maintain legato it is crucial that you never place the finger on the string before plucking…think of it as scooping the string. You need to set the string in motion without stopping the previous note (remember this is not always the case….there are many instances on guitar where you can easily plant a finger before plucking without sacrificing legato….it’s only if the melody remains on one string for 2 or more consecutive notes)
Now on to the good stuff: the tricks!
1) If you need to make a position shift as well as a string crossing: see if you can’t use some sort of small barre to remove the string crossing….if this is possible, now you only have to deal with the shift
2) leave the melody note on: see if you can’t get the melody note before the break to use a left hand finger which won’t be needed for the note(s) immediately after the break…..this way as the finger holds the melody note, the other fingers can prepare and land the next note(s)
3) *trick: if the last suggestion is impossible sometimes you can let the melody note go and leave other notes ringing while preparing for the next note(s) …..try it!! Unbelievable….if this is done well, it seems even though the melody note is gone, the remaining notes can trick the ear into still hearing the lost note/legato
4) and finally one of the most useful tricks in a professional guitarist’s arsenal to create the illusion of legato is this: (first the situation) let’s say you have a melody with a large position leap in the middle, and this leap causes a break in the phrase (this is taking for granted that you cannot use an open string(s) to provide the legato while you leap). The problem here is that most of the time we are so focused on landing the notes after the break at the right time (metronomically speaking) that we actually cut the notes, before the break, short. What makes this worse is the sooner you cut notes after you pluck them the more noticeable it is (in this instance you can think of guitar as a percussion instrument….when we pluck a string we instantly get the loudest sound from the note and after that the note decays until it is inaudible). So the solution here is to give the note it’s full value or more (this will mess with timing in a minimal way, but it will also let the note decay some as well) and then make the leap as quickly as possible to the next note(s) landing them just a little late. If this is done well the effect is that the note before the break gently fades out and the break is reduced to the point of being negligible
If legato issues plague your playing try some of these techniques out and see if you too can’t become a smooth player.