Holdsworth's All Hammer-on Legato

I don’t know if this goes in this place because I will talk about legato.

Recently I’ve discovered that the smoothness of Allan Holdsworth’s legato was because he only used hammer-ons, I was like WTF, really?

Can someone explain some of this technique?
And post some exercise.

I still don’t understand this technique.


Oh, I have some things to say about this :innocent:

I attempted to learn this not so long ago and it was the most frustrating thing ever! I designated two weeks for learning this but it resulted into way too many hours and anger management failures. That being said, I think it was totally worth of my suffering. The feeling you get when you can hammer-on anything is totally awesome. You get to fly all over the fretboard :slight_smile:

If you want to learn it, do not check Allan’s instructional video. He doesn’t teach it there. Actually, I’m not sure if he ever taught it anywhere. You would gain much more insight if you checked Bret Garsed’s instructional video Rock Fusion and Marshall Harrison’s video which I’ll put below.

The idea of technique is rather self-explanatory. Use only hammer-ons. When going down the string, one should hit the lower note just as another finger is being lifted from the higher note. That being said, Bret Garsed (who is stupidly amazing player, just as Allan was) allows a gentle pull-off to happen. He also picks quite many notes (as does Allan).
So, in the end, it’s not strickty hammer-ons only technique. It also requires a soft touch of pick and soft pull-offs.
By the way, slides are also allowed and encouraged. They are very legato (for guitar)
One also would find some effects to be helpful. Most obvious example is a compressor but distortion and reverb/delay helps as well.

I wanted to learn pure hammers-only legato without any “cheating”. Trust me, that was difficult. If you enjoy seeing other people in agony, you can check my Youtube channel. There’s a playlist where I documented my learnings of Holdsworthian legato. (The name of my channel is the same as my name here)


Harrison is a purist to the point of autism but he can play.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a dynamic range within in the realm of legato. Pull offs can sound plenty smooth but people tend to really grab the strings hard and therefore pull off quite aggressively. Garsed demonstrates how you can still be smooth with subtle pulls offs and picked notes.


Man, thank you for the info and references!!

That was the video that I saw about this topic.
Despite the speed of Marshall Harrison, I was skeptical about this technique, because when I tried the technique, the motion of hammering a lower note was pretty doable in slow/medium tempos, but, when I sped it up it was unworkable.

I felt like I wasted too much time in the lifting-hammering movement

Yeah I always wondered how hammer-only could be compatible with the laws of physics!
I decided that when descending on a string there must be a bit of pull-off, no matter what the purists say!

If you have access to the full Teemu interview, he demonstrates some hammer-on from nowhere legato too.


I love the bit in that vid where he breaks out the blazing shred style hammers and pulls and says “well it’s fast but it’s not good at all”.

I can’t do this so take this with a pinch of salt or whatever, but get your 4 note per string scales absolutely down in all directions just with picking first.

I think it’s an often overlooked problem with fast playing that you can cover so much neck so quickly that you can easily outrun your fretboard knowledge and then get the feeling you’ve hit a speed limit, which you then mistakenly attribute to a technique issue. Maybe that was just me.

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Another guy who took the legato style to new heights is UK guitarist Tom Quayle. He plays in a seriously tasty fusion style with some of the smoothest legato I’ve ever heard. He uses a lot of hybrid-picking so the flesh of the fingers reduces any pick-attack noise to nothing.

I’m very slowly working my way through his three-part legato tutorial which is quite good. I don’t want to play like this all the time, but it’s a really nice texture to have in the toolbox.

Check this out:

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What benefit is there in not using pull offs? To me, that classic “meowing” tone Allan often got sounded very much like the quintesential pull off.

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I either misunderstand your claim or disagree with it.
I don’t think that fretboard knowledge is linked to player’s speed abilities. Example: one can play some short 3 note looped scale fragment and take it to his/her speed limit.
On the other hand, just knowing the notes of Malsmteen’s Arpeggios From Hell (half of its theme is Em arpeggio all over the neck so you get to know your Em on the neck) doesn’t mean that one can play fast. Same goes with learning many scales all over the neck. I don’t think that it translates to the speed.

Or I completely misunderstood what you meant :sweat_smile:

@alexvollmer, oh yeah, Tom Quayle is another monster!
Is that three-part legato tutorial for sell or is it on YouTube?

I guess that in the end it’s just a matter of personal preference :thinking:
Another rationalization that I’ve heard few times is that by using only hammer-ons (only one approach to make sound), one gets more even attack. It kinda makes sense but I personally had hard time making my fingers to the attack evenly. Anyway, I’m not prepared to defend this claim :zipper_mouth_face:

A long while ago I took one private lesson with Bret Garsed-I believe it was around the time Big Sky came out, actually got it from him. Anyway, he talked about his technique and slowly demonstrated his all hammer-on legato. I remember, very vividly, that he didn’t do pull offs. Instead, he aggressively lifted his finger while at the same time hammered with another. By lifting his finger the way he did-imagine the way a beginner trys to do pull of for the very first time, not actually pulling the string towards the floor-he creats some sort of momentum than the hammering finger that follows builds upon. Does that makes any sense? I’m certain that’s what he told me, because I remember thinking…no f#$^%g way I do that. :slight_smile:


@Medium_Attempt these are available as full-blown lessons for purchase on his website: http://tomquayle.co.uk

IMO they are totally worth the money.

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I maybe ought to have made a distinction between static speed i.e. playing a fast repeated pattern in one spot and something like “fluency” or speed over the whole neck.

I take it for most of us it wouldn’t be enough to play to play the Paul Gilbert lick in one spot and and then go “oh good, now I can play fast”.

Hey gang, one of my favorite topics… :slight_smile:

Regardless of whether one “believes” that all hammer-ons can be done, Holdsworth is on record striving to use the technique. This does not mean that he never uses other techniques, nor does it suggest that he does it all of the time. It does inform the approach he evolved throughout his lifetime. Ultimately his choices in the moment were undoubtedly a question of art and preference and not some book of rules.

(Is the ability to hammer on ascending questioned? Is one secretly pulling off when ascending with hammer ons? Is two hand tapping a la Stanley Jordan et al, impossible? Suffice it to say the evidence of all hammered lines are numerous.)

Getting the optimum “dance” on the strings is an exercise in subtlety, but IMHO, well worth it. The side benefits to the practice, such as increased finger speed, forced attention to connecting notes, and relaxation while playing, are immeasurable in their value.

How many tend to grip with their index finger? How quickly does one get over that bad habit while pulling off in practicing all hammer ons? Hammering suggests an approach that expands the variety of pull off textures possible.

Gabel, Harrison, Quayle, Graham… All these folks suggest fantastic exercises and hints that take the mystery out of the approach, so I second the recommendations.

Have fun!



He definitely uses pull offs for articulation effect, along with the whammy bar, left hand tapped notes, and everything else. All of the techniques that Troy’s project points to involve using special choices for special circumstances. It’s not like AH created an all-tapping religion. :slight_smile:

Perhaps consider the SynthAxe technique he developed? Easier for me to do all taps on a “YRG” (see Tom Quayle’s review) than to pull off.

Wow! That’s cool!
Thanks for sharing his explanation of the technique :+1:

@alexvollmer thanks for the link. I’ve already added it to my list. At the moment, I have too many instructional videos so I promised myself to go through all of them and learn all that I can before buying anything new.

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I can actually do this pretty easily, funny though, I envy picking ability above all, I sort of consider legato “cheating”. Though it took me a solid 2 months to develop the finger strength to do this. In my teens I used to run through scales and Satriani solos for 5hrs or more a day. To me this is a very easy technique to master, unlike picking there are no tricks to legato, it’s ALL finger/hand strength, as well as learning to smooth out the motions over time. Now, it may be easier for me since I am left handed playing guitar right handed. I will admit I don’t do a lot of chromatic playing like in the example but I may be able to help with any questions on this topic since it’s the one technique I feel i have some mastery of :smiley:

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Here’s Rick Graham demonstrating all hammer-ons, just to give a close-up look at the technique. Pretty crazy.


Here’s the ultimate legato party-trick from GG:


Thank you all for your feedback!

How do you have to practice legato?
With clean channel or distortion?