One of the really cool things about the guitar, as opposed to, for example, the trombone or the piano, is that the guitar has options in how to produce notes — you don’t have to pick every single note. Smooth legato phrasing is a great complement to a solid picking attack, and helps make a soloist’s overall style more multi-dimensional.
Here’s a cool run that works on legato phrasing as well as economy picking. It’s a basic four-note A minor diatonic run, descending from the 5th fret on the high E string, and ascending back up:
Try it first with straight down-up alternate picking, just to get the patterns down. Once you feel comfortable with it, it’s time to work some hammer-ons and pull-offs in.
It’s okay to have a little bit of emphasis on the first note of each beat, but the way to get a good legato sound is to make sure that all the unpicked notes sound at about the same level, and are in time. Use a metronome and take it slow at first.
So far, we’re still alternate picking from string to string, which may make the first two notes of each beat somewhat challenging to keep in time at higher tempos. But economy picking might make things a bit simpler and smoother:
Playing the phrase with economy picking pairs up the pick strokes for the descending and then ascending parts of the phrase. At first, you may want to break the phrase down to just four notes at a time, first the descending part, then the ascending part. Beginning a phrase with an upstroke — much less two upstrokes — may seem awkward at first.
If you’re unfamiliar with economy picking, it can be challenging at first to get the simultaneous pick strokes to sound smooth and even. As with sweep picking, you’re not quite “dragging” the pick across the strings like a strum, but the pick strokes aren’t completely independent, either. Strive for a smooth, even sound and feel, and the proper picking motion will become more comfortable.
Once you’re able to clock it smoothly at about 120 or so on your metronome, expand the run to an entire octave:
When you hit the turnaround, transitioning from the second beat to the third and ascending back up the scale, you could play it without picking the G at all, but it may be easier to maintain a strict rhythm by picking the first note of each beat, plus it will set up the consecutive downstrokes.
Since this exercise is designed to simultaneously work on elements of picking and fretting, it helps to work on one aspect at a time. Getting the legato down first, making sure the notes are fretted smoothly and evenly, will make learning the economy picking side of it easier.