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Legato and Staccato
from Jeff Scheetz’s Rock Tricks
When you hear the words legato and staccato, it may make you think of an excessively fast, Italian sports car. And as cool as that might be, it’s unfortunately not the case – these two terms actually deal with specific techniques on the guitar, and with music in general.
When we talk about these techniques, we can usually use common terms to describe each way of playing. Legato is usually described as “smooth, fluid” playing, and staccato described as “choppy, broken up” playing. Listen to players like Allan Holdsworth or Steve Vai to hear examples of legato technique and Al Di Meola or Steve Morse to hear some great staccato playing. It should be noted that all of these players are incredibly proficient and use both techniques, but their individual styles may lend them to lean on one style over another.
So if it’s not a sports car, what is it? The simple definition for legato is “in a smooth, flowing manner,” meaning there are no breaks between notes. Playing legato means that you are holding each note out right to the very last second before moving to the next one. On the opposite end of the musical spectrum, staccato means, “each note is sharply detached or separated from the others.” As you’re probably able to surmise, playing staccato means cutting off each note, and keeping the notes short.
The legato technique is often associated with hammer-ons and pulloffs. This should be no surprise; when we’re performing hammer-ons, we are playing in the ultimate legato style. We are holding a note as long as we can before hammering another one right on top of it, and eliminating any break between the two. Of course, we can make our hammer-ons a bit more staccato by palm muting with our right hand – even when we are playing in a legato style with our left, we can make the overall sound staccato by using our right.
And the concepts of legato and staccato are not limited to lead/solo playing – we can also use these with chords. This is controlled in much the same way – use your hand to palm mute for a staccato sound, or alternately mute the strings by grabbing with your left. Likewise, if you want to play rhythm in a legato style, you’ll want to let each chord bleed into each other, for a smoother, flowing feel.
A place you will hear these techniques frequently is in bass lines. Often bass players will be thumping away on the low G, and you’ll hear a big difference as they move between legato and staccato styles – it will have a big effect on the rhythm of the song. If you’re putting together a song where the rhythm really needs to be pumping along, you’ll want the bass player in a staccato frame of mind.
So practice playing whatever scale strikes your fancy, up and down and both ways. Remember that when you’re playing staccato, you want each note to have the same value; you don’t want to hold one out a little bit longer and then cut one off too short. Everything is too staccato for a lot of beginning and intermediate players – they’re not even letting the notes ring out. You want to make sure each note gets the same value – it’s the “feel” of those notes that will vary. Practice both techniques, so you can find out which style fits you the best!
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