Slurs: The Classical Guitar Equivalent to 6-Pack Abs

Jack LeLane, on his 70th birthday, pulled 70 boats, each with 7 people, 7 miles in the open ocean.

He must have been one seriously in-shape old man for that one.

When it comes to guitar, that ocean can be a sea of notes, or a fast passage, or a tough stretch.

Whatever you encounter in your music, you will deal with it much more effectively if you are in shape and have the moves to navigate any obstacle.

That’s where these “slurs” come in.  In addition to being an expressive device to create certain feels or moods, they are great for the hands and can get you powerfully buff as quickly as anything I know of.

Slurs on the Classical Guitar

Slurs go by many names. Some people call them ascending and descending slurs. They are also called hammer-ons and pull-offs.  In Spain, they are sometimes called Ligado.

Whatever you choose to call them, there are certain little techniques and tricks that make them more effective and sound better, while building the strength in your hands and improving left-hand finger independence.

A slur is when you play one note with your right hand, and then the left-hand sounds another note (without the right hand playing again). This happens often in classical guitar music and is one of the tricks we can use to play fast passages.

But the real beauty of slurs lies in their ability to whip you into shape and transform the left-hand into a lean, mean, articulating machine, and in less time than anything else I have found.

Let’s go through the steps to do both ascending and descending slurs.

Ascending slurs (a.k.a. Hammer-ons) on the Classical Guitar:

-Place your first finger on the first fret of the sixth string.

-Play that note.

-Now without playing again with your right hand, bring your second finger down like a ton of bricks onto the second fret of the sixth string.

-You have just effectively played two notes in the left hand, and only one note in the right.

-Now move to the fifth string and do the same thing. Then the fourth, in the third, et cetera.

-When you get to the first, go back to the second and do the exact same thing on the way back.

-After you have done a cycle with these two fingers, you can go to the second and third fingers of the left hand. There are six different finger combinations with which you can do slurs.

Here are the possible Left-hand finger combinations:


You may not get to all of these every day, but ideally you get to them all fairly frequently.

Descending slurs (a.k.a. pull-offs)

-For these, start with your first and second fingers both on the first and second fret of the six-string (respectively).

-With your right hand, play the sixth string. (It will sound the second fret, which the  left-hand second finger is playing.)

-Now here’s the important part: While maintaining constant pressure with both fingers of the left hand, pull your second finger across and off of the sixth string.

Most important note: make sure that you keep pressing with the second finger while moving down in into the fretboard. In other words, don’t let the second finger flip off into space. There is no lifting of any finger taking place yet.

-Then you can lift both fingers and replace them on the first and second frets of the fifth string. And repeat the process.

-Move through all the strings from the sixth to the first and the first to the sixth.

-Then, as before, move to a different pair of fingers and repeat.

You can use all the same finger pairs as listed above.

As you get comfortable with these finger pairs, you can combine them to make longer and more challenging exercises.

A couple of things to keep in mind when practicing slurs on the guitar:

Notice that whenever you are doing either the hammer-ons or pull-offs on the six-string, your left hand is naturally in a C- shaped position.

A really good goal is to maintain the same C shaped position as you move down to the higher sounding strings. By the time you get to the first string, you may feel like you are hanging far out in space. While this may be a little weird feeling at first, you will get used to it.

Keep a steady rhythm in your guitar technique practice

Also, these are best done in a steady tempo using a metronome or a drum loop from GarageBand, or something similar. The important thing is that each of the two notes that you’re playing with each slur last the same amount of time.  (so it would be, “bah bah” instead of “ba-dum, ba-dum”)

Getting faster playing classical guitar

As you get good at these, you’ll be able to go faster. That is great! Just make sure that at quicker speeds you’re still performing each hammer-on or pull-off to its ideal technique. In other words, don’t let yourself get sloppy.

As one of my teachers used to famously say, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. (Please feel free to let your brain wrestle with that one for a while.)

As presented here, we are using slurs primarily as a workout. They are like the iron-pumping, lap swimming, track running portion of your daily practice.

I have found nothing else that does more good in less time than practicing slurs.

If you only have time for one exercise, descending slurs are your best option

Do not be discouraged if you find them difficult at first.  They will grow on you.  Just keep showing up!

Later, you may want to work on an étude or study piece that specifically focuses on slurs and puts them into more musical contexts.  These can be a great help in improving your skills.

Another idea, just to make your guitar practice even more difficult

Alternatively, you could plant the two fingers that are not currently playing slurs on two different frets on the fretboard, and perform your slurs holding the other two fingers as anchors. Depending on where your other fingers are, this can add some nice challenge to your workout.

Another option is to play your scales using slurs.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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