Supercharge your legato practice


When you are practicing your picking techniques your fretting hand is working to hit the right spots on the neck. It’s a simple motion. Your finger moves to find the right spot just behind the fret wire. But is that motion of your finger towards the fretboard really a hammer on? Or is it just a fretting of the note?

When you need to fret another note on the same string you first remove your finger in order to be able to fret that other note. But if you do nothing but remove your finger, the note below it will ring out.

It is almost not possible to remove your finger without playing another lower note or the open string, unless you mute the string or remove your finger as slow as a foot on the kitchen floor when you were stealing cookies in mom and dad’s kitchen as a child. (You were weren’t you?)


So to be fair, fretting the notes is really like doing weak hammer-ons and pull-offs. So going from fretting the notes to doing actual hammer-ons and pull-offs isn’t that much of a change. And that’s exactly our challenge. The two patterns of movement are so similar that your brain can have a really hard time knowing the exact difference.


And since most of us practice legato with some amount of distortion it’s very hard for the brain to develop a clear and significant other powerful pattern that has nothing to do with fretting the notes, but everything to do with actually playing the notes with one hand only.


The result is that our legato technique never develops fully because the brain “forgets” to run the right pattern of movement and is only sort of doing hammer-ons and pull-offs. The same result at we discussed in my previous article.

This is the second reason why so many people who say they master legato has no clue as to how useful this technique can really become.

The trick to fixing this dilemma is to make sure you teach your brain that doing hammer-ons and pull-offs is NOTHING like fretting the notes. That it is a completely different and unique pattern with its own special little details very unlike the details of merely fretting the notes.

“The mind is pretty powerful. In skating, you learn to click into that zone and focus not necessarily on what you’re doing but if you’re doing it well”
Dorothy Hamill


Separation by exclusion
1. The trick is to separate the two patterns of movement when you practice by first refraining from practicing or playing using any other technique than hammer-ons and pull-offs and the occasional string shifting pick stroke for an extended period of time.

So try that for a week: Don’t play a single note with anything but legato. This is not a radical idea, this is just what works. Make sure you allow your brain to get fully used to all the details of pulling off and hammering on so it builds a high degree of familiarity with the technique and how it feels.

2. Separation by inclusion
Practice playing one sequence with legato and then with picking afterwards. Go back and forth between the two techniques playing the same sequence of notes. So you might be playing six notes down on two strings first with legato and then six notes down with picking immediately after without stopping. A simple circular loop that goes on and on.

But then as you practice shifting from one playing technique to another you keep an intense focus on really hammering on and pulling off those notes when you do the legato part, and then really refraining from doing anything like that when you pick the notes. You basically practice separating the two techniques and that’s it. That’s where you have your focus constantly.

These two simple strategies when used frequently has the power to shift the quality of your legato technique radically in a very short period of time.


Supercharge your legato practice

Why your legato technique isn’t that great

Is the legato technique hard? Or is doing hammer-ons and pull-offs easier than most other things? In my perspective it is definitely a great shortcut to playing fast, even on an acoustic nylon guitar. And if you dull down the pick strokes you use when going from string to string, it produces a fluent, liquid type of sound with no spaces in between each note that has given it its name: Legato (Tied together)

But this is not its greatest value. When you own an effective legato technique it will support all your other techniques and make you a faster, more fluent player, fast!



But this technique has a hidden challenge that very few people notice. Because the action of performing hammer-ons and pull-offs reminds the brain so much of merely fretting the notes, and because fretting the notes is very often enough to have lots of sound come out on distorted guitar, we fail to run the right pattern of movement at the right time and end up sort of doing hammer-ons and pull-offs.

This is a crucial understanding that can change the effectiveness of this technique completely

We often ending up practicing hammer-ons and pull-offs for a very limited time compared to the energy spent on other techniques like alternate picking or sweep picking, because we seem to get rapid results. The outcome of all of this is a weak technique that feels a little like cheating when ever we use it.



An effective legato technique can literally revolutionize your playing style if you start taking it very seriously and the first step to doing that is to never practice it with distortion or compression on your instrument.

I mean this very literally: If you have distortion or another form of compression on your instrument as you are practicing you hammer-ons and pull-offs you are not practicing!

Am I being brutally tough here? No! The legato technique is by definition the discipline of both fretting and activating the note using your fretting hand only. And, since there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to develop a very effective technique that works perfectly on an electric guitar with a clean sound, why would you then remove the accurate feedback you get from practicing with a clean sound?


Compression makes a weak note louder and a loud note will weaker. This equalizes the notes you play so you can’t hear the difference between an effective hammer-on and a weak one and this is a total disaster to your results. Why? Because practicing is the process of performing an action, determining whether that action was up to standard or not and then doing it again.

If you remove your ability to determine whether what you are doing is working or not you are absolutely guaranteed to waste your time.

But it’s even worse than that: Because you are not only not learning, you are practicing doing the wrong thing and thereby building an ineffective technique that has to be unlearned at a later point. So is a massive waste of time. The kind that works against you primary objective and the very reason you are practicing.

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions”
Ken Blanchard


1. Pick you favorite legato sequence. Something you can practice in a loop with no breaks. Connect your guitar and add nothing to the sound. No distortion or compression nothing.

2. Then practice it at a tempo where you can exaggerate the hammer-ons and the pull-offs and I mean to the point where they can’t be much louder. Make sure you are not overdoing the pull-offs in order to protect your finger tips, but make sure the hammer-ons are as loud as humanly possible. Do not compromise and take your time.

3. This will add up to a ridiculously slow tempo but decide to stay there and keep doing it, not aiming for speed at all.

4. If you haven’t been focusing very much on this technique lately your fingertips will start hurting pretty quickly. This is a sure sign you are not using this technique to it’s fully when you play on a daily basis and you need to be a little patient when the soreness sets a limit to how much you can practice in the beginning.

Do this for a week each night for at least thirty minutes. No rushing. Care for every single hammer-on and pull-off and don’t compromise. Go for quality only, not speed.

Then after a week of this, test to see what this did to your level of control. Crank up the distortion and feel the added power of your left hand. Then imagine what practicing like this will do to your legato technique one month from now.

Why your legato technique isn’t that great

How to develop your own unique playing style

You don’t have to try to sound different. You don’t even have to try to come up with your own playing style. All you have to do is obsess about your preferences, about what you like.

There is no mystery to the direct musical expression of who you are: It’s simply what you prefer. It’s your preferences. It’s a simple as that. So finding your own voice is not hard at all, you are doing it already.



If all you do is trying to play like another person, then that’s your style right now. Your playing is a tribute to another artist and that’s your voice – right now. Then it might become something different in the future as your preferences change. You go on to other things, become interested in other artists and by allowing yourself to be absorbed by the mimicking activity, by the fascination of “what if I could play just like that?” you discover what you like and unveil your preferences.

As you move on you take your best findings with you and what you like the most about someone’s playing becomes part of your playing. This happens automatically with no mental effort on your part whatsoever, because the things you take with you are the things that brings you the most pleasure. Just like picking the best dishes from a buffet. Nothing could be easier.


As time passes you pick the best pieces and naturally incorporate them into your own playing until they all come together into that sound that comes out when you play. Is it original? Is it special or significant? Yes it is. To you. If you’re honest. Because, it’s the best of the best. For you. It doesn’t get any better than that. You can’t artificially construct a playing style that other people find original, special and significant. It just doesn’t work that way.

But, you might find that, because a lot of other people are somewhat like you, they tend to like the same things you do and therefore they find your playing style special, unique and significant. But you might also find that this is not the case. There is no control because who is control of what they like? All there is, is your fascination with your instrument and your music.

Sequences represent a chance to be inspired, not by something in a finished form ready to be used as it is, but by the very building blocks of melodic creation.


What you can do in order to influence the direction of where you end up, is look at what you expose yourself to. The more different kinds of musical flavours you try, the more you realize what you like and what you don’t like. So the number of preferences you have grows in number allowing the style you build to become more refined and more specifically yours.

The same thing goes for licks. The more and the more diverse licks you analyze and learn the greater variety of ideas you have to choose from. But this of course leads us right back to my favorite soloing tool: Sequences.


Sequences represent a chance to be inspired, not by something in a finished form ready to be used as it is, but by the very building blocks of melodic creation. They are little predictable systems of notes that you then combine into unpredictable melodies that sound both well-known and new at the same time.

The more of them you discover and learn, the broader becomes the base from which you choose the ones you like the most. The lucky bunch of sequences that you take all the way to mastery will determine your choice of notes when you improvise and compose more than anything else.


How to develop your own unique playing style

The true source of original soloing

“How do you just come up with stuff?”

People often ask me how I “just play stuff” or how I come up with new lines and licks on the spot. How do you practice doing that?


For some people the answer is licks: They have been learning one lick after another for years and have been playing around with combining and changing them in different ways and then they gradually built the ability to “just play stuff”

But these are the same people who often run out of licks when they jam and improvise with others. I remember that feeling so well. Like having only so much stuff to play and when I had used up all my stuff I didn’t know what else to play.

I absolutely hated that feeling because it made me feel like an amateur. Mostly because I was stuck with the idea that a professional would be able to keep playing great lines indefinitely.


I once thought that the solution to that problem was to learn even more licks and then to “stretch” those licks by playing them multiple times and changing them so I wouldn’t use them up too quickly in a solo.

But it didn’t really seem like improvising and that was definitely the skill I wanted. Everyone told me that improvising was like composing music in real-time, but what I heard most people do was using the same pre-composed little entities (licks) over and over again. Changing them a little and playing them in different ways, but it was still the same basic ideas being used over and over again.

Depending on how you treat the ingredients of your favorite curry dish, you will get different results when you cook but it’s all going to taste like curry!



Another problem I had with this approach was that licks are really bits and pieces of someone else’s solo. And since most people base their solo work on this approach, most of what we hear is the same old stuff processed in new ways. It’s the same curry we’re feeding ourselves over and over again.

It does develop from generation to generation because each player adds a little of his own to the mix, wich then again enters other people’s playing style through learning his licks and on it goes.

I couldn’t let go of the idea that there was a way of learning how to truly improvise. To truly be able to compose on the spot instead of merely rearranging pre-learned bits and pieces.

It turned out that the answer wasn’t in the re-arranging but in the bits and pieces. Your brain simply cannot “just come up with stuff on the spot”, it has to re-arrange learned entities. The only reason we are able to “improvise” our way to making sense when we speak, is that we have words.

Words that we have learned so we can form sentences that then eventually creates meaning. But the brain needs these basic building blocks before it can build something meaningful. No bricks, no building.

“Creativity is a continual surprise.”
Ray Bradbury



Imagine an author basing his or her stories on bits and pieces of other people’s stories. Even though most authors do this to some extend, their stories are not made up of tiny stories but words. Words are the smallest component. Those are our building blocks.

If we use the same insight in our world of improvising great solos, you could say that, as long as we base the majority of our musical vocabulary on licks, we are really trying to write stories by putting little bits and pieces of other stories together. To truly improvise, we need to focus on learning the equivalent of words in speaking and that is sequences.


Sequences belong to no one. They are neutral, predictable and the tiniest building blocks of melody. By practicing them we train our fingers to move in all directions and we teach our ear different pathways through scales and arpeggios.

When we then start combining these sequences and add rhythm to them, they disappear into thin air and become melodies based on your unique preferences in the moment, in real-time, as you play. Now.

The lines I play in this video are all created as I play. I don’t know what I am going to play before I play it, just as we most often don’t know what we are going to say before we say it. It’s not anymore special than the ability to form sentences and anyone can learn to do it:


The human ear likes predictability but is bored if it is not mixed with the unpredictable. Sequences are predictable systems and like the spices of your favorite curry they are of little value by themselves.

But when you mix them and stir them using your personal preferences you create something that is not only an original expression but your original expression. And this expression is not chaotic since it is created from a base of systematic little sequences. That’s why it sounds like music and not just random notes.

Then you go from having access to only 10 spices to having every flavor there is on the planet at your disposal. Now you can move outside having to cook different variations of the same curry and really create some magic.

In other words: There is no shortage of material, no running out of licks, you can tell the never-ending story, it’s a pleasurable flow of ideas created in the moment with no thoughts or considerations involved.


When I experienced the first results from practicing sequences, licks quickly became a way of studying someone elses playing and not a source of soloing material: “How does he get the great sound on the end note?” or “What is that cool combination of notes in the middle of that lick?” and what I gained from it were insights I could use in my own playing, but I never learned another lick ever again. Ever.

I practiced emulating someone else’s way of doing vibrato of sliding up or down to the notes, of putting emphasis on a certain note of a scale to get a certain sound, or using the pick and fingers to get a specific sound, and so on – but my motivation to learn what someone else had played note for note disappeared completely. Simply because learning sequences and rhythm and combining both over and over again was so rewarding and fun.

“The principal mark of genius is not perfection but originality, the opening of new frontiers.”

Arthur Koestler


1. Learn rhythm
Let me give you the simple method I used to turn sequences into music: The first thing is to realize that there is no interesting melody without rhythm so you must become a master of rhythm very quickly and you can.

The skill is really this: Being able to tap your foot at a steady beat while being able to clap, strum or pick any rhythm on top of it. If you lose the ability to keep that basic beat going with your foot, you don’t know what you are doing anymore.

2. Learn sequences
Secondly you must learn and practice a ton of sequences because it trains your fingers and hands to go in all directions at any point in your solo – and it trains your mind to construct unpredictable melodies by combining predictable sequences and rhythm, giving you just the right combination of both.

Anyone can play a bunch of random notes from a scale, but that’s not really going to be interesting to listen to. That’s like throwing random words together. Practicing sequences gives you the ability to make musical sense when you play.

3. Improvise VERY slowly
The third step is to practice using your sequences. Practice playing a sequence using a certain rhythm pattern. Practice playing a few notes from a sequence and then ending it on a great sound note, adding sliding bending, vibrato or what ever technique you master to spice things up. Practice combining two or more sequences in different ways.

But all this is play. It’s improvising but doing it very slowly with a lot of time to come up with and practice each little lick you create. Because that’s what you really do. You create lick after lick after lick. You quickly forget about each lick once you have created it and practiced it ten or twenty times because you move on to something else.

There is little structure to this kind of practicing. You slouch back in your couch have fun coming up with one little line based on the sequences you know. Then you refine it until it sounds right. Play it a couple of times and then you do it again.


This playful discipline of creating great sounding lines and runs by combining different sequences and rhythms becomes what you do when you play with the band. Only now you master it to the point where you do it in real-time, on the spot, with no hesitation. You simply and naturally become faster at it as you do it every day until the point of mastery.

Now the notion of “running out of licks” becomes ridiculous. There is nothing to run out of. There isn’t a library of precomposed stuff but instead a library of building blocks that forms more new and original licks than you can play in a lifetime.


At some point you have become so fast at creating little interesting lines that you can start practicing with music. When you do, pick slow ballads for jam tracks. This gives you a reasonable amount of time to find the right notes as the music plays in the background.

Then go for tracks that are faster until you master those as well. Focus on having fun all the way. You are either stressed or you are creative. You can’t push yourself and get good results at the same time.

Those are really the steps. Enjoy the process!


Human beings have a distinct tendency to search for what is objectively “right” and “wrong” even when it has no relevant function and therefore, if you like the point of this article, you might get an inclination to view a lick based approach as wrong or bad. It isn’t. It gives you results far faster than the sequences approach since you will be able to play great sounding solos much sooner in your development.

Instead of looking at licks as an inferior concept, use them until you don’t have to anymore. Go from one way of having fun to another. In my experience, truly improvising is far more fun and creates a whole new world of interesting solos, but that does not make a licks based approach a bad thing to pursue as it enables you to have more fun faster. You can do both and at the same time.


The true source of original soloing


Human beings love games. This is as big a mystery as the fact that we love music. It doesn’t really seem connected directly to survival, but it is still a very ingrained part of the human psyche. Making practicing a game has the potential to change your results completely. It will fire up your passion, bring out the genius in you and speed up the learning process many times.

Game01.pngPracticing already is a game

No matter how far back you go in history, from ancient Greece to the modern-day eighty billion sports industry, games has been an integral part of the human experience. Not because games are inherently exciting but because humans find them exciting. It’s inside us. It’s inside you. You are made to take on challenges and you love watching other people take on challenges, for no apparent reason.


The cool thing is that practicing already IS a game: You have a target or a goal to reach. You have rules for what you can and cannot do: If you do the ineffective hurtful thing like practice too fast while making  mistakes all the time, you will be penalized with a poor technique in the end.

If you follow the rules of your brain and body and practice in the most effective way, you will eventually win through, score the goals and get the price. Some of us keep score when we practice whether it is in our head or on a piece of paper, we do keep some track of what we do and where we are. So all the elements of a good game is already there.

The sad thing is that most of us doesn’t recognize how much of a game practicing already is so we neglect making it a fun exciting one. We enter the playing field unprepared haphazardly throwing the ball around. We play around with the ball trying to bring it through the hoop but with no real engagement. When we succeed it feels nice. When we don’t it doesn’t really matter. This is what we usually refer to as a recreational activity.

That’s how most of us practice, most of the time.

Imagine if you were trying to win the world championship in this way: Both teams wandering around the court, throwing the ball around and losing it to the other team constantly. It would be the most boring match you had ever seen and none of the teams would ever live up to what they can really do. In order for the game to pull out the best in us, we must take it seriously. Not serious as in survival, but serious as in important.

When we enter the game like it was a very important matter, all of who and what we are is engaged and brought to the surface. This is where genius and “talent” is born. This is where you are using all of your capacity to win the game and get the price. You fight like it meant the world to you.

You even hurt yourself in the process and keep on going like nothing happened. The pain is meaningful. You had to tackle that guy so you paid the price and you did it willingly. The game remains just a game, but now it is turned into an engaging and exciting activity that you can’t seem to get enough of. Gone are all your worries. There is just the game. Just the results you want and the battle to get them.

This is how most of us rarely practice.

Most of us use practicing as a recreational activity, most of the time. And that’s when we engage very little to none of our capacity to learn and learn fast. If you want real results you must make it the game it already is. That’s when the magic happens.

So how do we do this? I don’t even have to answer this because it is so obvious already. We already said that a game has a goal or a target that let’s you know when you have won. It has rules that you must follow and you must keep and know the score at all times.

  1. A goal or target
  2. Rules of the game
  3. Keeping score


Do you know when you have “won the game og practicing?” Or are you never really winning because you’re always behind? Is winning defined as reaching your ultimate skill level and so you are in a game that lasts years? What would that do to a football match? A game that lasts five years… how many people would find that exciting?

In order to know when you have won, you must have a specific short-term goal. No goal right in front of you means no game. If you don’t know what scoring really means because you don’t know what you are aiming at in the short-term, the game goes from serious to recreational in a heartbeat. There is no game left.

Game02.pngYou must know what scoring means in order to win

So get clear on a realistic but exciting goal for the next four weeks, decide what you have to do to get there and launch. Did you win the four-week match? Did you reach the level you wanted? Or did you lose? (More on creating a good short-term goal here)

If you won, great! Figure out why so you can do it again and again. If you lose, great! Use it to get better: Was your goal too big? Did you really set yourself up to fail because it was too much too soon? Or did you not practice enough or in the most effective way? Be your own coach.


It is not up to us to create the rules of the game. They are there already. All we need to do is to look for them. The rules of the practicing game are the rules of how your body and mind learns in the most effective way. This has been my obsession for a couple of decades now.

You constantly try to improve the way you practice. When you practice. How many practice sessions you have during the day. How many small and large breaks you take. Learning some things requires you to be very focused and aware of what you do. Learning other things allows you to watch TV as you do simple picking exercises.

Some things you can practice without your guitar on the road. Some things you can practice in your head or by doing almost invisible rhythmic exercise with your hand all day. Some things you can learn just by reading a book and taking notes.

You test and try out each way of getting better, constantly noticing what works and what doesn’t. Every time you find something that works you know that you have found a new rule to the game for you. Something you have to do in order to win the game and not get penalized with poor results or physical injury which will send you out of the game completely.


The third thing you must do in order for practicing to be an exciting game is to keep score. If you fail to keep score you have no way of knowing whether you have won or not. When it comes to guitar practicing, keeping score is measuring two things:

  1. How much you do and
  2. What you get out of it.

Keeping score makes the game exciting. If you’re at a football match and you don’t know the score, it’s hard to get excited about it.

You measure what you are doing and to what extend that brings you to your goal. You measure activities and results. A pad of paper and a pencil is all you need and for some reason it tends to be much more effective than an electronic device. Write down the date, how much time you practiced or how many repetitions you did or both. And then measure the results you get from that activity once every week or month.

Measuring your results too often will lead to  frustration. It’s like asking “are we there yet?” every other second which will just frustrate you. But find some measurable entity that you can write down like speed for instance. I very often use this as a measure even when I am not practicing fast sequences. I might not ever want to play the sequence, the chords, the scale, the arpeggio very fast, but the faster I can play it the more control I tend to have over it at lower levels of speed.

“If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?”
Vince Lombardi

You could measure the activities you engage in to get to your goal every day – and then measure how close you move to your goal once a week or month. Measuring activities gives you a feeling of having won the game every day. Seeing the actual results on paper will make it real in a more tangible way than having them in your head.

As the days go by your notes accumulate and each time you sit down to practice you see that growing list of things you did, exact minutes and hours you spend, the exact number of repetitions you made. The simple act of deciding how much, how many or for how long you want to practice and then measuring to what extend you do it is already game enough for most of us to get excited about it.



Creating a serious and fun game inspires passion like nothing else. It turns a mundane practice regimen into an exciting project you can’t let go of. But don’t expect yourself to always be playing a practicing game as you wouldn’t like to be in a constant never-ending sports game.

Create a game of mastery and play it. Pick a tiny thing that you want to take all the way to mastery. That’s your goal. Then decide what you are going to do to get there and launch. Measure the time you put in, the repetitions you do and write it down. And at some point you will want to leave the game. Go back to recreational practicing for a while. Until you feel the urge to get serious about another game of yours.


The fire within


Passion cannot be constant. Passion is an exception from the
normal, not a state that can be held on to forever. Just like
falling in love.

Normal is balance, passion is not. It makes us obsess about
that one special thing, leaving other areas of our lives
to be dealt with later.

With passion you can storm the hill and take the castle. But
you cannot win the war without the normal, the balanced,
the consistent and the intelligent.

The rush of passion opens up new pathways, makes the impossible
possible and deflates your inner sceptic. But it will not
succumb to pressure and it will not appear in a climate of stress.

It appears when you allow yourself to be excited, childish and
playful. When necessity and making-a-living leaves room for
the unreasonable, the impractical and the unjustified.

Rely on the normal to take you to the ultimate level: Get
serious about your development. Be an adult about it. It’s not a
silly hobby, it’s your life.

And when passion does come, follow it in whatever direction it
takes you. Obey the inner drive and its aim. Forget what you
“should” be practicing. Demand no reason from this impulse,
just follow it until it leaves you.

Then go back to your very effective normal.

The fire within

The ultimate vibrato exercise

I used to be very frustrated about my vibrato because no one had told me how to practice it. I knew how to do it, I just couldn’t do it and remain in control at the same time. Then I came up with this simple exercise and the challenge literally disappeared over the following weeks.

Vibrato consists of two elements: Pith change and speed. So if you want to control your vibrato you must control how much the pitch changes and how fast or slow it oscillates.  You do this by using a metronome and practice it like any other thing. Watch me demonstrate the exercises in the video.

  1. Practice bending a semitone
  2. Use a metronome and increase tempo gradually
  3. Make sure you practice with each left hand finger
  4. Practice bending half a semitone
  5. Practice vibrating eighth notes, sixteenth notes and triplets.

The ultimate vibrato exercise