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Improving Your Guitar Phrasing—part 3
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Nick Layton

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Improving Your
Guitar Phrasing—part 3
by Nick Layton

Welcome back to part 3 of my series on improving your lead guitar phrasing. In part 1 and part 2 we explored what phrasing is and why it is important for you to develop on your path to fully expressing yourself on the instrument. We last looked at the famous “Panama” solo by Eddie Van Halen as a prime example of all the great phrasing concepts we’ve been discussing.

Now it’s time to stop talking and start working with some real musical examples. In this 3rd article we are going to focus on legato phrasing. Before getting to the examples I want to be clear about exactly what legato means to us in the context of lead guitar phrasing. Legato means:  “In a smooth, flowing manner, without breaks between notes.”  As a rock guitar soloist utilizing hammer-ons, pull-offs, and sometimes tapping while picking very few notes usually creates this smooth legato sound. So, in essence, what we are talking about here is phrasing our solos and improvisations with mainly hammer-ons and pull-offs and picking as little as is necessary. Legato phrasing sounds very different from staccato phrasing that has a sharper attack and usually involves picking the majority of notes. Neither technique is necessarily better than the other; they are simply different. Think of legato, and all techniques, as tools to explore and use in your own unique way. As mentioned in previous articles, self-expression is really the goal of developing your phrasing skills. I think that you’ll find that the legato technique can be very expressive. So, let’s explore a few specific ways you can apply legato sounds to various scales, modes, and arpeggios.

We’ll start with our old friend the minor pentatonic scale. This example uses the A minor pentatonic at the 5th fret. This type of phrase is fairly common and can be played very fast and fluid. It’s well worth your while to work on legato sequences like this through all 5 pentatonic patterns. Experiment with picking as little as possible.

Example 1:

(editor note: I had to squish these graphics a little horizontally to fit on the website, Nick's graphics from his course are not like this.)


Here is a more adventurous phrase using a different position of the A minor pentatonic scale with the flatted 5th thrown in for a little extra legato “grease.”

Example 2:

legato guitar phrasing - example 2

Many great rock players such as Joe Satriani, Randy Rhoads and Steve Vai have used modal sounds to create some great liquid legato runs. This example uses a 3 note per string fingering from the E Aeolian mode to create a long run similar to what John Petrucci of Dream Theater might play. When ascending pick only when changing to a new string. See if you can play the last descending 7 notes only picking the first note. These kinds of phrases will get your pinky in shape in a hurry!

Example 3:

This example is a long descending phrase in which only the first note is picked! Everything else is articulated with the fret hand. Runs like this require great fret hand accuracy and strength to play cleanly. Pay attention also to muting unwanted string noise. You might also experiment with playing legato phrases like this on your front (neck) pick-up for an even warmer sound. This is also in E minor.

Example 4:

legato guitar phrasing - example 4

In addition to scales and modes we can also play arpeggios in a legato fashion. Oftentimes arpeggios are played one note after the other without any deviation in the order of notes. This can happen a lot when sweep picking arpeggios because many times the arpeggios are simply played from top to bottom or vice versa. Here is an example of how you might sequence an A minor 7th arpeggio using legato for a less predictable sound.

Example 5:

legato guitar phrasing - example 5

We’ll wrap up this brief look at legato phrasing with an example from the first 11 bars of my solo on “Storming the Castle”, which is the title track from my latest album Storming the Castle. To download a free mp3 of the full track plus a bonus mp3 of the backing track for you to jam on send me an email here:


Bars 1-3: The solo starts out with a bang with a fast sextuplet phrase combining tapping and fret hand hammer-ons and pull-offs. For that exotic sound I’m using the E Phrygian Dominant scale. As always practice slowly and work up to speed at your own pace. Be sure to mute the open strings to keep this phrase clean sounding.

Bars 4-5: After the tapping phrase the fret hand shifts immediately up the neck to play the fast descending legato phrase before finally landing on the E note on the 3rd string with lots of vibrato! Notice the tension that builds at the start of the solo and the resolution that occurs at the end of this phrase. Tension and release is a big key to making your solos sound interesting. I’m only picking when changing strings. Sometimes when I play this live I actually don’t pick anything and let the fret hand do all the work.

Bars 6-11: Notice the slithery legato phrasing in bars 6 and 7. These are simple to play but require the proper accents to make the notes pop out a bit more. In bar 8 I use ascending trills that lead to a descending E major arpeggio in bar 9. Again, take note of how tension and release is used here. Finally in bars 10 and 11 I keep the legato sound going with slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs, and a tapped harmonic to cap things off.

Storming The Castle Solo

To hear audio examples of many of the phrases in this article as well as learning much more about what you can do with legato phrasing check out my new downloadable phrasing course here: Killer Rock Lead Guitar Legato Phrasing

©2008 Nick Layton
All Rights Reserved
Used By Permission

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"Melodic and powerful music with an emphasis on great songs with killer guitars."

Firewolfe is Paul Kleff and Nick Layton on guitars, and David Fefolt on vocals. With special guests Jay Schellen on drums and Zack Uidl on bass.

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Other lessons and articles by Nick

Improving Your Guitar Phrasing - Part 1
Improving Your Guitar Phrasing - Part 2
Improving Your Guitar Phrasing - Part 3
Improving Your Guitar Phrasing - Part 4
Jamming With a Purpose
Lead Guitar Phrasing Lesson

About Nick Layton

Nick Layton

Nick Layton is a professional composer, guitarist and teacher living in Vancouver, WA.

His latest CD entitled “Storming the Castle”  features epic metal songwriting and virtuoso guitar playing.

Nick has also co-authored 3 powerful new phrasing courses for guitar players with virtuoso guitarist Tom Hess:
* Phrasing Concepts for Rock Lead Guitar Soloing
*Innovative Arpeggio Phrasing for Advancing Metal Players
*Killer Rock Lead Guitar Legato Phrasing

Visit Nick’s website at

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