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Tom Quayle Modern Guitar Part 15: Timing With Legato

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 51 **

Hey guys and welcome back to my column. For this issue's lesson, we’re going to be looking at something very close to my heart and a topic I find myself teaching in my private lessons on a very regular basis. I want to talk about the concept of timing and rhythmic awareness when it comes to legato playing. Interestingly, guitar players very often do a lot of work on timing and rhythmic awareness, but some unique challenges are presented with this particular technique that many guitar players aren’t even aware of and thus never tackle.

This issue stems from the way that many of us, myself included when I was younger, learn the legato technique. We tend to learn legato as a physical technique only (which of course it is) where we learn a physical pattern with a particular number of notes in it. This means that we always see the first physical note of the pattern as the first note of the phrase and the last physical note as the last note of the pattern.

An example of this would be a simple pattern such as taking the 4th, 5th and 7th frets on the D and G strings and playing a pick, hammer, hammer phrase on each string going 4, hammer 5, hammer 7. This pattern gives us a six note phrase where we physically execute it thinking of the 4th fret on the D string as the start of the pattern and the 7th fret on the G string as being the end of the pattern. Once this pattern is under the fingers, we attempt to speed it up as much as possible with no regard for any rhythmic context or subdivision, but rather just the physical motion of the technique.

Why is this a problem? Well, let’s set up a particular rhythmic scenario based upon the pattern I mentioned earlier. I want you to play a full bar of 16th notes in 4/4 plus a single 16th note on beat one of the next bar. This gives us 17 notes in total, 16 in bar one and a single note in bar two. The pattern we are playing has six notes in it and does not divide equally into our 17 note rhythmic phrase, meaning that we cannot complete it fully within this rhythmic framework. In fact, the phrase will end one note early on the 5th fret of the G string. Most guitar players only ever practice this technique using physical patterns that always complete, with no rhythmic awareness. If I ask them to play this pattern but end on beat one of bar two, they will almost always complete the physical pattern, ending on the 7th fret of the G string on the second 16th note of bar two instead of the first 16th note. The need to complete the physical pattern is much stronger than their ability to control their rhythmic resolution. This is as a result of only practising the physicality of the technique rather than apply it to a particular rhythmic scenario.

This is a unique issue for legato since, if you were picking every note in the phrase, you could accent the first note of each beat (in other words the first note of each group of four 16th notes) and thus keep track of where you are in the bar. With legato, you can’t accent in this way and players get lost in the rhythm, instead of keeping their place by tracking where they are physically in the pattern and thus feeling the phrase should finish when the pattern completes rather than when the rhythmic framework has completed.

You can check this out for yourself with the exercises that I present for you in the video and tablature. Be very honest with yourself here and try to play the exercises without reading them from the TAB at first. See if you can perform these exercises just from their description in the video using a metronome and keep track of where you are rhythmically. If you can’t then you should learn the phrases from the TAB and start to slowly become more aware of your timing and rhythmic framework rather than just the physicality of a pattern that you have learnt. The rhythmic framework of the pattern is everything, giving the pattern a musical context and having control over your rhythmic awareness will enhance your improvisation, rhythmic vocabulary and time feel.

Good luck with these exercises—they will take some practice but WILL make you a better player!

See you next time,


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