Getting Started with Slurs or Ligados

David Raleigh Arnold

What is a Slur?

A slur or ligado[1] is marked by a curved line between two (or more) notes of different pitch.[2] Of course, the first note is not slurred. Only the rest are.


In singing, a slur is more than one note on a single syllable. This effect is imitated in different ways on different instruments. By far the most important ways to slur in guitar music are by hammering on, to make a rising slur, and pulling off, to do a descending slur.

How to Slur

General Instructions

Keep your thumb straight across the neck. Failure to do that will probably defeat all your efforts. Do not worry about speed. You are trying to master something akin to a karate hit. Everything is concentration and effort. A fast tempo counts for nothing. In fact, one of the main problems with slurs in performance is that they tend to be done too soon.[3] Keep it slow, but keep time. Counting a divided beat would be a good idea, like 1 and 2 and 3… and start that on the instant that you begin to get sounds when you slur. Get the notes to sound clearly and as loudly as you can manage. Go ahead and arch your wrist outward a bit more than you usually do. It won’t hurt, it will help, and what will happen is that you will slowly ease back into a hand position with less and less wrist bending as you become more and more able to do the slurs.

How to Slur by Hammering On

Bring the finger straight down on the string at the place where you would normally fret the note with enough force and velocity, especially velocity, to cause the note to sound without the use of the right hand. It is an entirely different way of moving the finger from the way you have been fretting notes. You must hit the string, driving it straight at the fingerboard, not mash it. Of course that’s why it’s called “hammering on”. Try to move the finger without moving the hand, but don’t be fussy at first. The first goal is to get some sound from the slur. Once you can hear it, you can build on that, and try harder not to move the hand. Of course moving the hand creates problems with both speed and accuracy, but it is premature to be concerned with that before you can hear the slurred note. ☺

You could not do better[4] than to start by practicing the first line (of music, not German and French) on page 38 of the Carcassi book.

How to Slur by Pulling Off

If the second note is lower in pitch than the first, the second note is played by curling the finger with a motion that closes the hand, snapping the string and causing the note to sound. Again, It will probably help to have your wrist bent out somewhat more than usual at first, to raise the hand above the fretboard a bit more. In all cases the finger should pull move straight across the string and not along it to any degree whatever. Of course you may muffle the next string to prevent its sounding, but you should be aware that occasionally descending slurs have to be done with an open string above, so you must practice that way also, later.

Start with the second line on page 38.

Slurs Without Open Strings

Once you have made some progress with the previous, practice the next two lines on page 38. When slurring upward from a fretted note, be certain that you do not lift the finger from the first note until well after the slurred note is played. When slurring downward from a fretted note, be very sure that the finger on the note to which you are slurring downward is well placed and already pressed to the fretboard before doing the slur, or even before playing the previous note. It is very important that you make it your policy that no finger or part of the left hand moves when you are slurring except for the finger which is hammering or pulling the string at that time.

Vibration Slurs

Do not start these until you can play page 38.

Practice the top line of page 39. Hammer on the slurred note and make it sound by means of the left hand finger alone. At the same time, quiet the string above which was played just before. You are trying to imitate the sound of a regular descending slur. It's going to sound relatively weak, forever.

Thumb Glides

Practice the second line of page 39. Imitate the sound of a rising slur by playing the first note with the thumb apoyando and then playing the slurred note without apoyando. You have to keep the slurred note a bit quieter than the first note, and you must keep both notes relatively quiet to get the effect desired.

Putting Them Together

Lines 3, 4, and 5 on page 39 are an exercise in the four methods of slurring described so far. I suggest that we call the rising and descending slurs “strong slurs”, and the vibration slurs and thumb glides, which I don't expect to deal with ever again, “weak slurs”.

Many modern performers and teachers would not consider weak slurs to be slurs at all, and they would not use them either. They are not loud enough for a concert without the use of a sound system, so they have not been in style for a long time. However, using a sound system, or when recording, they offer very interesting possibilities.

So why not practice them? This exercise should be practiced quite piano, until a listener is not able to tell the weak from the strong slurs. That should be considered to be the goal of practicing this exercise. It will help greatly with control, but hardly at all with strength, and strength is of course extremely important. Carcassi marked it mf simply to encourage you to get stronger slurs, but it is not a realistic playing direction for this exercise. Some passages of this sort, if played very quietly, could be very effective if recorded or if there were the benefit of sound reenforcement.

The rest of the material on this topic in the book is an important historical source on the performance and notation practices of the time, and very useful for reference, but it’s really time to play some music. It’s important to make the strong slurs sound good when played more forte.

Make Slurs Sound Beautiful


To start on making slurs sound good, I recommend my own works Slur Etude I or Carnavalitos to start with, and then Slur Etude II in D which are both quite easy. The allegretto non troppo on page 39 of the Carcassi method, and my piece Slur Etude III in G or Jumping Canary, probably in that order, but any music that you like with slurs is good.

Power Slurs

It is also not too soon to practice power slurs. The exercise will yield astounding results in a very short time if it is practiced as directed. You will very soon find yourself able to play slur passages that you used to consider to be horrendously difficult with ease and speed.

There are many slur exercises by Segovia, Pujol, Aguado, et al., even whole books. Don’t waste one second of your valuable practice time on any of that. None of them are any good at all. After power slurs, music is all that’s left.

Trills and Ornaments

To practice trills, the only thing to do that makes any sense is to practice them exactly as you find them, and would play them, in specific pieces, so you are practicing them as music and not as aimless meaningless finger exercises. The same goes for ornaments of course.


§1 Ligado (Sp.) and legato (It.) obviously have the same parent, but they have acquired different meanings to the guitar player. Playing legato is not the same thing as slurring.

§2 If the notes have the same pitch, the curve is a tie. If there’s a dot under the curve, that’s a portamento. (todo: ref)

§3 It is not necessary to coordinate the hands when playing a slur. The brain uses about six times as much energy, in actual measured calories, in the task of coordinating right and left motions as it uses in controlling the motions themselves. Consequently, slurs tend to be anticipated, and an effort has to be made to keep from playing them too soon.

§4 A Note to Teachers: The four lines on page 38 are nothing short of brilliant in conception. The first finger has rising slurs only on the ➅ string, so that particular rising slur is practiced only with the first finger extended. The second and third fingers are used quite a bit more, which tends to make the player able to address the string better to get the pulls straight across the neck. When doing a descending slur, the first finger is able to curl more, rendering those slurs easier, but the first finger still is pulling the string and in doing so, the hand pulls toward more supination. Once having formed the habit of doing the rising slur with the first finger extended, securing an ideal hand position requires only the slightest additional supination of the left hand. The aim of informing the student’s technique is achieved not with tedious and incomprehensible directives, but by giving the student the right notes to play.

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©2002, 2007 David Raleigh Arnold