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Nonlegato Exercises

I do not assume any responsibility for frustration, injury or death resulting from the application of these exercises.

As described in my article on articulation, for us guitar players, nonlegato means that you pick each and every note. The picking method I use, which is the basis for all the exercises in this article, is alternate picking. Alternate picking is a strict alternation between down- and upstrokes; no exceptions. Other picking patterns might be subject to future, separate articles.

I believe you should start with these exercises before moving on to the legato exercises. This material is not only considerably more extensive, it can also be adapted for legato playing should you so desire. Using these exercises helps you build up the left-hand strength and dexterity needed to become a good legato player.

When performed properly, these exercises provide training in several aspects of your playing:

There are certain "rules" on how to perform these exercises. These rules are there to help you as well as to challenge you:

In order to save space, I consistently provide only the first few measures of an exercise, just to set the pattern. It is to be understood that it is to be progressively moved up the neck, to the 12th or whatever position you feel you need.

It is perfectly okay to start from a higher position in order to take advantage of the shorter space between frets. Do not overreach and hurt yourself! If you practice regularly and consistently, you will find not only that your strength increases, but also that you pretty soon will be able to move the starting point downwards, towards the nut.

This material is only a starting-point; any exercise can be turned, twisted and folded into really tricky stuff if you change fingerings and move note sequences around.

Two Fingers

Adjacent Fingers

The first batch of two-finger exercises concerns adjacent finger pairs. It should be performed three times, once for each pair. There might not be that much of a challenge in separating your first and second fingers, but the second and third are always tough to pull apart, and when you get to the third and fourth finger, there is not much independence or strength there.

Normally, the second or third fingers wouldn't go near the first or second fret, but it is a good exercise to get that separation.

E---------------------1-3-|-2-4---------------------
B-----------------1-3-----|-----2-4-----------------
G-------------1-3---------|---------2-4-------------
D---------1-3-------------|-------------2-4---------
A-----1-3-----------------|-----------------2-4-----
E-1-3---------------------|---------------------2-4-
  1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2   etc.
  2 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 3
  3 4 3 4 3 4 3 4 3 4 3 4

This exercise can be turned upside-down and backwards:

E---------------------3-1-|-4-2---------------------
B-----------------3-1-----|-----4-2-----------------
G-------------3-1---------|---------4-2-------------
D---------3-1-------------|-------------4-2---------
A-----3-1-----------------|-----------------4-2-----
E-3-1---------------------|---------------------4-2-
  2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1   etc.
  3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2
  4 3 4 3 4 3 4 3 4 3 4 3

This one is particularly nasty, as it combines the adjacent-finger exercise with an exercise in one-finger string switching. A metronome is twice as important here:

E---------------------3-1-|-2-4---------------------
B-----------------1-3-----|-----4-2-----------------
G-------------3-1---------|---------2-4-------------
D---------1-3-------------|-------------4-2---------
A-----3-1-----------------|-----------------2-4-----
E-1-3---------------------|---------------------4-2-
  1 2 2 1 1 2 2 1 1 2 2 1   etc.
  2 3 3 2 2 3 3 2 2 3 3 2
  3 4 4 3 3 4 4 3 3 4 4 3

Other Combinations

The following exercises utilize fingers that are not adjacent and consequently stretch over a wider area on the neck. Expanding and turning these around as per above is highly encouraged:

E---------------------1-4-|-2-5---------------------
B-----------------1-4-----|-----2-5-----------------
G-------------1-4---------|---------2-5-------------
D---------1-4-------------|-------------2-5---------
A-----1-4-----------------|-----------------2-5-----
E-1-4---------------------|---------------------2-5-
  1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3   1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3
  2 4 2 4 2 4 2 4 2 4 2 4   2 4 2 4 2 4 2 4 2 4 2 4

Exercises like the following can be used to test the limits of your fretting-hand reach:

E---------------------1-5-|-2-6---------------------
B-----------------1-5-----|-----2-6-----------------
G-------------1-5---------|---------2-6-------------
D---------1-5-------------|-------------2-6---------
A-----1-5-----------------|-----------------2-6-----
E-1-5---------------------|---------------------2-6-
  1 4 1 4 1 4 1 4 1 4 1 4   1 4 1 4 1 4 1 4 1 4 1 4
  (alternate, more difficult fingering:)
  1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3   1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 1 3

Three Fingers

The three-finger exercises involve the 1st and 4th fingers together with either the 2nd or 3rd. As you get more limber and are able to separate the 2nd and 3rd fingers, you can start experimenting with 1-2-3 fingerings instead.

Note that three notes per string makes for an interesting situation. When using the strict alternate picking that these exercises require, three-note groups start with alternating down-strokes and up-strokes. String-crossing is slightly more difficult with three notes per string.

E-------------------------------1-2-4-|-2-3-5-------------------------------
B-------------------------1-2-4-------|-------2-3-5-------------------------
G-------------------1-2-4-------------|-------------2-3-5-------------------
D-------------1-2-4-------------------|-------------------2-3-5-------------
A-------1-2-4-------------------------|-------------------------2-3-5-------
E-1-2-4-------------------------------|-------------------------------2-3-5-
  1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4   etc.
  (tougher fingering:)
  1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
E-------------------------------1-3-4-|-2-4-5-------------------------------
B-------------------------1-3-4-------|-------2-4-5-------------------------
G-------------------1-3-4-------------|-------------2-4-5-------------------
D-------------1-3-4-------------------|-------------------2-4-5-------------
A-------1-3-4-------------------------|-------------------------2-4-5-------
E-1-3-4-------------------------------|-------------------------------2-4-5-
  1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4   etc.
  (tougher fingering:)
  1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
E-------------------------------1-3-5-|-2-4-6-------------------------------
B-------------------------1-3-5-------|-------2-4-6-------------------------
G-------------------1-3-5-------------|-------------2-4-6-------------------
D-------------1-3-5-------------------|-------------------2-4-6-------------
A-------1-3-5-------------------------|-------------------------2-4-6-------
E-1-3-5-------------------------------|-------------------------------2-4-6-
  1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4   etc.
E-------------------------------1-2-5-|-2-3-6-------------------------------
B-------------------------1-2-5-------|-------2-3-6-------------------------
G-------------------1-2-5-------------|-------------2-3-6-------------------
D-------------1-2-5-------------------|-------------------2-3-6-------------
A-------1-2-5-------------------------|-------------------------2-3-6-------
E-1-2-5-------------------------------|-------------------------------2-3-6-
  1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4 1 2 4   etc.
E-------------------------------1-4-5-|-2-5-6-------------------------------
B-------------------------1-4-5-------|-------2-5-6-------------------------
G-------------------1-4-5-------------|-------------2-5-6-------------------
D-------------1-4-5-------------------|-------------------2-5-6-------------
A-------1-4-5-------------------------|-------------------------2-5-6-------
E-1-4-5-------------------------------|-------------------------------2-5-6-
  1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4   etc.

This last one is rather tough and unless you have big hands or are really limber, you can safely start it on the 7th fret or so. It could also be avoided altogether.

E-------------------------------1-4-6-|-2-5-7-------------------------------
B-------------------------1-4-6-------|-------2-5-7-------------------------
G-------------------1-4-6-------------|-------------2-5-7-------------------
D-------------1-4-6-------------------|-------------------2-5-7-------------
A-------1-4-6-------------------------|-------------------------2-5-7-------
E-1-4-6-------------------------------|-------------------------------2-5-7-
  1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4 1 3 4   etc.

Four Fingers

Basic

This is the simplest of the four-finger exercises and thus works well as a warmup for the trickier stuff that follows:

E-----------------------------------------1-2-3-4-|-2-3-4-5--------------
B---------------------------------1-2-3-4---------|---------2-3-4-5------
G-------------------------1-2-3-4-----------------|-----------------etc--
D-----------------1-2-3-4-------------------------|----------------------
A---------1-2-3-4---------------------------------|----------------------
E-1-2-3-4-----------------------------------------|----------------------
  1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 etc.

However, it can be twisted and turned into almost anything. The following are a couple of examples of what can be done with it. At any rate I would advise you to use your own imagination. The most important thing is to find weaker aspects of your playing and then practice them ruthlessly.

E-----------------------------------------4-3-2-1-|-5-4-3-2-------------
B---------------------------------4-3-2-1---------|---------5-4-3-2-----
G-------------------------4-3-2-1-----------------|-----------------etc-
D-----------------4-3-2-1-------------------------|---------------------
A---------4-3-2-1---------------------------------|---------------------
E-4-3-2-1-----------------------------------------|---------------------
  4 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 4 3 2 1  etc.
E-----------------------------------------4-3-2-1-|-2-3-4-5-------------
B---------------------------------1-2-3-4---------|---------5-4-3-2-----
G-------------------------4-3-2-1-----------------|-----------------etc-
D-----------------1-2-3-4-------------------------|---------------------
A---------4-3-2-1---------------------------------|---------------------
E-1-2-3-4-----------------------------------------|---------------------
  1 2 3 4 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 4 3 2 1   etc.
E---------------------------------------------------------1-2-3-4-
B-----------------------------------------1-2-3-4-----------------
G-------------------------1-2-3-4-----------------1-2-3-4---------
D---------1-2-3-4-----------------1-2-3-4-------------------------
A-----------------1-2-3-4-----------------------------------------
E-1-2-3-4---------------------------------------------------------
  1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 etc.
 
E---------------------------------------------------------4-3-2-1-
B-----------------------------------------4-3-2-1-----------------
G-------------------------4-3-2-1-----------------1-2-3-4---------
D---------4-3-2-1-----------------1-2-3-4-------------------------
A-----------------1-2-3-4-----------------------------------------
E-1-2-3-4---------------------------------------------------------
  1 2 3 4 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 4 3 2 1 etc.

The last one is based on an arbitrary "awkward fingering" and is supposed to teach the fingers to play out of sequence. I will leave it up to the student to find the most awkward fret combinations and practice the hell out of them:

E-----------------------------------------1-2-4-3-|-2-3-5-4-------------
B---------------------------------1-2-4-3---------|---------2-3-5-4-----
G-------------------------1-2-4-3-----------------|-----------------etc-
D-----------------1-2-4-3-------------------------|---------------------
A---------1-2-4-3---------------------------------|---------------------
E-1-2-4-3-----------------------------------------|---------------------
  1 2 4 3 1 2 4 3 1 2 4 3 etc.

Extended

This is a more extensive set of four exercises for all four fingers. It is in 4/4 time where each beat consists of 16th-note sextuplets, consistently with the fingering 1-2-3-4-3-2.

The first exercise uses adjacent frets (1-2-3-4) and the subsequent three utilize separation between finger pairs in some way: 1-3-4-5, 1-2-3-5 and 1-3-4-6.

Basic version:

E-------------------------|---------------------------|--------
B-------------------------|---------------------------|--------
G-------------------------|---------------------------|--------
D-------------------------|---------------------------|--------
A-------------------------|---------------------------|--------
E-1-2-3-4-3-2-(repeat 3x)-|-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-(repeat 3x)-|-(etc.)-
  1 2 3 4 3 2               1 2 3 4 3 2 1

After playing it in the 12th position, reverse and shift directions:

E-------------------------------|-------------------------------
B-------------------------------|-------------------------------
G-------------------------------|-------------------------------
D-------------------------------|-------------------------------
A-------------------------------|-------------------------------
E-15-14-13-12-13-14-(repeat 3x)-|-14-13-12-11-12-13-(repeat 3x)-
   4  3  2  1  2  3                4  3  2  1  2  3  

Repeat this on all six strings.

The next variation separates the 3rd and 4th fingers:

E-------------------------|-------------------------
B-------------------------|-------------------------
G-------------------------|-------------------------
D-------------------------|-------------------------
A-------------------------|-------------------------
E-1-2-3-5-3-2-(repeat 3x)-|-2-3-4-6-4-3-(repeat 3x)-
  1 2 3 4 3 2               1 2 3 4 3 2

The reverse version looks like this:

E-------------------------------|-------------------------------
B-------------------------------|-------------------------------
G-------------------------------|-------------------------------
D-------------------------------|-------------------------------
A-------------------------------|-------------------------------
E-16-14-13-12-13-14-(repeat 3x)-|-15-13-12-11-12-13-(repeat 3x)-
   4  3  2  1  2  3                4  3  2  1  2  3 

The third variation separates the 1st and 2nd fingers:

E-------------------------|-------------------------
B-------------------------|-------------------------
G-------------------------|-------------------------
D-------------------------|-------------------------
A-------------------------|-------------------------
E-1-3-4-5-4-3-(repeat 3x)-|-2-4-5-6-5-4-(repeat 3x)-
  1 2 3 4 3 2               1 2 3 4 3 2

Again, reverse at the 12th fret and work your way back down:

E-------------------------------|-------------------------------
B-------------------------------|-------------------------------
G-------------------------------|-------------------------------
D-------------------------------|-------------------------------
A-------------------------------|-------------------------------
E-16-15-14-12-14-15-(repeat 3x)-|-15-14-13-11-13-14-(repeat 3x)-
   4  3  2  1  2  3                4  3  2  1  2  3

The last variation separates two pairs of fingers, the 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th:

E-------------------------|-------------------------
B-------------------------|-------------------------
G-------------------------|-------------------------
D-------------------------|-------------------------
A-------------------------|-------------------------
E-1-3-4-6-4-3-(repeat 3x)-|-2-4-5-7-5-4-(repeat 3x)-
  1 2 3 4 3 2               1 2 3 4 3 2

By this point, you should really be feeling that lactic acid in your fretting hand, but there are still 12 frets to go after you reverse it, and at least five more strings following that:

E-------------------------------|-------------------------------
B-------------------------------|-------------------------------
G-------------------------------|-------------------------------
D-------------------------------|-------------------------------
A-------------------------------|-------------------------------
E-17-15-14-12-14-15-(repeat 3x)-|-16-14-13-11-13-14-(repeat 3x)-
   4  3  2  1  2  3                4  3  2  1  2  3