Articulation means how two notes played after each other are joined together and/or how they are separated.
The first part of articulation is how to join two subsequent notes together, i.e. the transition from the first to the second (and further notes).
Unless the notation specifies anything else, notes are to be played nonlegato, i.e. not legato (explained below). On a stringed instrument such as the guitar, it means that each note is plucked or picked individually. On a bowed instrument such as the violin, nonlegato means that each note is played with a separate, discrete stroke of the bow. On wind instruments, the stream of air is renewed to sound each note.
The word legato is Italian for tied, referring to the bows or "slurs" employed in music notation to denote such articulation. Legato is when several notes are played using just one pick attack, stroke of the bow or stream of air, which gives a more fluid sound.
On the guitar, legato phrasing means that the left hand must be strong and supple enough to sound all the subsequent notes without further involvement from the pick. The rest of the notes are sounded by fretting-hand acrobatics called pull-offs, hammer-ons and slides.
When playing a hammer-on, you fret and pick the first note as usual. But instead of picking the second note, you simply bring another finger down on the indicated fret.
A hammer-on from nowhere uses no pick attack at all. One of the fingers of the fretting hand sounds the note by simply fretting it.
A pull-off is the other way around: you fret both notes, pick the higher one, but instead of picking the lower note, you simply lift the finger from the first note, sounding the second note.
A fast combination of hammer-ons and pull-offs is called a trill.
A slide occurs when the same finger plays notes on the same string but two different frets. It is a type of glissando, sounding not only the two indicated notes but also hinting at the notes in-between.
Slides can also be performed nonlegato (with a distinct pick attack as the target pitch is reached) or "from nowhere" (sliding up from a few frets away to thicken the tone).
A bend is a pitch change brought about by pushing a fretted string along the fret wire. There are many associated techniques:
- Bend and release means bending, then relaxing the tension on the string so that it returns to the original pitch. This is most often played legato, i.e. the string is not picked a second time for the release.
- Bend and hold means that the bend is sustained. The string can then be plucked again, or manipulated in other ways—fretted, tapped, etc.
- A pre-bend is when the string is bent to the correct pitch prior to the string being plucked. This requires a great deal of practice, as it must be done by feel.
- A double-stop bend is when you fret and strike two notes on adjacent strings simultaneously, bending either or both.
- A unison bend is a special form of double-stop bend, where the bend is sounded together with the target pitch on the adjacent, upper string.
There will always be some form of break between notes if they are articulated separately—nonlegato—on a musical instrument. Articulation marks determine if this break should be emphasized or not. In practice, articulation marks in written music are in lieu of physically writing notes with a different note value.
Staccato means shorter notes, roughly half of the notated value.
Guitar players and teachers often make the mistake of using the term staccato as the opposite of legato, which is erroneous. Staccato in guitar playing is roughly equivalent to palm muting, that is resting the side of your right hand on the bridge for a muffled sound. However, palm muting not only changes the note length, but also the timbre.
Staccatissimo is a shorter, more clipped staccato, towards a quarter of the notated value. The equivalent in guitar playing would be the choppy phrasing attained by slamming the pick or finger down on the string to kill the note.
Tenuto means quite the opposite: the player is expected to extend the note as long as physically possible, minimizing any break before the next note, almost to the point of elongating the tempo.
If the composer seeks a very specific effect, it is also quite possible to write out a passage in correspondingly shorter note values with the desired breaks between notes.