Bass guitar is all about groove. Groove is all about playing fluidly. Knowing that, it should be common knowledge that legato is one of the most important bass guitar techniques.
So what is legato?
Legato is a string of notes, or a melody, that is played in a fluid motion. To make notes fluid, they must be played without being picked or plucked.
In fact, they must be played without any assistance from your picking hand at all. The only time it should come down is to pluck the first note.
This means if you were to play a pattern ranging from fret one to two, you would only pluck the string on fret one.
This technique is called a hammer on. Hammer on’s are simply notes that are played without the assistance of the picking hand. This is done be hammering onto the next note. The opposite, if you were to play the second fret to the first fret, would be a pull off. This is when you simply pull off your finger to the next note without plucking the note.
Great, so you can play a note without picking it. How will this help you as a bass player though?
It will help you to play fluidly. Let’s say you were to play fret five, six, and then seven. When you play or strum each note, the notes are inadvertently separated by the plucking. There is a slight pause in between each note as your finger frets and your picking hand plucks. If you hammer on the note, there is no pause; the notes are seamless, a single fluid motion, creating a fluid pairing of notes.
If every note was fluid and seamless pieces wouldn’t have any contrast or texture. This leads us to the purpose of using legato; to add a different element to your playing that cannot be obtained by simply picking.
Legato is a technique. Just like any other bass guitar technique, a string of hammer on and pull off notes connected by sliding is simply supplementary. Techniques are used to add to our pieces, to help us draw attention to certain sections. Attention cannot be drawn of the entire piece is created of the same techniques.
When you get a hang of playing a string of notes without picking, and you understand the difference between a fundamental (picking) and a supplement or technique (legato), the next thing to do is experiment.
Try playing some of your favorite licks as legato licks. When you do, resist the urge and temptation of using your pick; legato is great for building finger strength. You will notice that some licks sound better when picked than when played as legato. This is an important lesson, as it will show you how important contrast truly is.
It is important that you take a section of time out of your day to practice. Although legato isn’t a one-cure-all technique, it will take just as much time to master as any other technique. It will also be an invaluable tool, so break out that metronome and get working. Good luck!
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