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Power Slurs

David Raleigh Arnold

If you have no experience with playing slurs, this is not the right place to start. Start with “Beginning Slurs” instead. This exercise is for strength. “Beginning Slurs” is for control.

Beginning Power Slurs

Slurred notes in guitar music are played with one hand alone, and therefore the right-left coordination which is so important in playing other notes does not exist. Once you truly master slurs, they are very easy to maintain, because most of the work in playing the guitar has been proven to be right-left coordination. Therefore, it makes no sense to go through your guitar playing life, even if you are not yet very accomplished, playing slurs that are not as good or better than those of a concert star who practices for four hours every day, but doesn’t practice slurs intelligently.

Too many guitar players are able to play slurs just well enough to get by most of the time. They probably have a problem slurring with the fourth finger three or four times in rapid succession, for example. Some guitarists who are considered to be front rank players display appalling ineptitude in slurring by playing them weakly, playing them along instead of across the string, or missing them altogether.

Very bad training is the cause. If they practice slur exercises at all, the ones they practice are directed at the wrong goals. Meaningless finger patterns are supposed to equalize and smooth the performance of slurs and improve ability at the same time. Instead of leaving the fingers unsupported, they make the slurs easier by doing a stretch or bar while they slur. That is the way nearly all pages and books of slur exercises are constructed, and they are no good at all, because the goals of such exercises are not only poorly defined, they are plain wrong.

If you restrict yourself to practicing only those slurs in whatever you perform, you are no better off. You are not setting your goals with enough ambition. You can’t learn to shoot with a rifle in one hand and a target in the other. Exercises should be suited to the goals of the future, never to the student’s abilities in the present. If you stick to your repertoire, your slurs will never be better than passable on a good day.

A Bad Exercise

An example of a bad slur exercise is: 1⌢2, 2⌢3, 3⌢4…

The presumed goals of such exercises are:

  1. To learn to do every possible slur by practicing all of the possibilities in combinations.
  2. To increase the player’s potential finger-fall velocity by repetitious practice.
  3. To make the slurred notes sound good by “equalizing” them or “smoothing them out”.

This sort of practice will certainly fail to achieve any of its goals.

  1. By practicing combinations you are failing to concentrate on improving the action of any particular finger. When one finger is slurring, the others are resting. That is like doing weight training by running from one station to another without concentrating on anything.
  2. You cannot rely on repetition alone to build strength. You must concentrate your effort to make each slur with a hard hit of your finger in the same way that the karate master has learned to concentrate his effort to break bricks with a stroke of his bare hand.
  3. The third is seemingly the most attractive goal. If you can make the exercise sound good, you can make the music sound good, right? Wrong! The only way of telling whether an exercise that is not music sounds good is by its uniformity, because uniformity reveals control and the lack of uniformity reveals a lack of control. Uniformity is impossible when you have some notes slurred and some not. The only way you can approach it is to try to make the unslurred notes sound like the slurs. That is the opposite of what you should be trying to accomplish.

All exercises of any nature without correct goals are necessarily worthless and counterproductive.

How to Practice Slurs

Work on Power

All you can do with a slur exercise that is not real music is to get power in the fingers to get loudness in the sound. You want to work on loudness to the complete exclusion of every other consideration. To make slurs sound good, you need real music. If the exercise hurts you too much, do it for less time, never with less effort.

You cannot polish what you have not first rough ground.

Keep the Right Hand Simple

The right hand is irrelevant, so use the right hand thumb alone, or a pick of course.

Be Vigorous

Your goal is to execute the rising slurs with sufficient strength to splinter the fretboard, cut the string, and drive the fret into the fretboard. You want to execute the descending slurs with sufficient strength to break the string. One might stop a bit short of these goals, ☺ but that is the correct attitude. Do not try to make this exercise sound good or musical. Instead make every effort to make every single slur sound as loud as possible, and keep the execution precise and mechanical. It would be silly to use a metronome, because you should practice these slurs one at a time.

Get Quick Improvement

Unlike the chords, arpeggios, and scales, there is no right-left coordination issue with slurs. Consequently, very little time expended will produce prodigious improvement in a very short time, provided there is enough effort. Practice this three or four times a week. If you do it daily, you are not doing it with enough effort.

The Exercise

Do each of the six tasks for 45 to 60 seconds without intermission. Time them with one eye on an ordinary watch or clock, and don’t stop or pause between them for any reason. Try to play the slur as loudly as you can, and all notes should be precisely even in time. Too much speed is the main problem with slurs in performance. The lack of necessity to coordinate the left hand with the right is the probable cause. It makes no sense whatever to work at trying to get a faster tempo. Do not on any account change the order of the tasks to reduce fatigue. A few weeks at 13½ to 18 minutes per week will make you very good at this.

Task 1. Hammering On, Ascending Slur or Ligado ||: repeat :||

Start with the 3rd finger at the 11th fret. Parentheses indicate the string. Your 3rd finger moves from string to string but always is at the 11th fret. You hammer on the 12th fret. Here the tilde ~ indicates a slur.

    (1) (2) (3)       (2) (3) (4)      (3) (4) (5)      (4) (5) (6)
||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4 :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4 :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||

You continue by descending to the 10th fret and proceeding in reverse.

    (6) (5) (4)       (5) (4) (3)       (4) (3) (2)       (3) (2) (1)
||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4 :|

Then descend to the 9th fret and proceed as you started.

    (1) (2) (3)       (2) (3) (4)      (3) (4) (5)      (4) (5) (6)
||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4 :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4 :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||

Then descend to the 8th fret...

    (6) (5) (4)       (5) (4) (3)       (4) (3) (2)       (3) (2) (1)
||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4  :||: 3~4 3~4 3~4 :||

and continue in the same manner until the alloted time, not to exceed one minute, is up. It doesn’t matter how far you get. Slow and loud and sounding bad is better than fast and light and sounding good. Again, these are not for polishing.

Task 2. Pulling Off, Descending Slur or Ligado.

Start with the 4th finger at the 12th fret and do the same thing that you just did, except pull off 4~3 instead of hammering on 3~4.

Task 3. Combine them.

It is necessary to make sure that you have substantially the same hand position whether you are doing rising or descending slurs. That is the only reason for this task. It is after the previous two in order to prevent any recovery or rest. Force the finger to move, and continue to hit the string as hard as you can, no matter how much you have to slow down. If you cannot continue, then go on to the next task, but from now on do each task for 45 seconds instead of one minute. Cut the time as much as you have to, but keep the effort up, and keep practicing each of the six tasks for the same measured period of time.

    (1)   (3)        (2)   (4)        (3)   (5)        (4)   (6)
||: 3~4~3 4~3~4 :||: 3~4~3 4~3~4 :||: 3~4~3 4~3~4 :||: 3~4~3 4~3~4 :||

Descend, reverse and continue as before.

Task 4.

Do Exercise 1 again but use 2~3, not 3~4.

Task 5.

Do Exercise 2 again but use 3~2, not 4~3.

Task 6.

Do Exercise 3 again but use 2~3~2, 3~2~3, not 3~4~3, 4~3~4.

Take No Breaks

No rest is allowed until you finish them all. It is crucial to get to the point where your finger really doesn’t want to do any more, and then force it to continue for some number of seconds. A term in weight training research for the state of not being able to think of much except how much you want to stop is the “agony point”. You must do the exercise with your eye on a watch face or on a clock, and no session should exceed one minute for each of the six tasks, totalling six minutes. If this ever becomes easy, it will be time to start at the ninth or tenth fret and work up the neck instead of down, onto the short frets. It should not be necessary to do these often or regularly once you have mastered them. You will have mastered them when you find no slurs anywhere which present you with any trace of a difficulty. If you follow directions, that won’t take long.

Put Them to Work

This exercise will greatly benefit your performance of any music which you may play which has slurs in it. If you don’t play anything with slurs in it, maybe it’s time you started. The music listed in “Beginning Slurs” is still good for control.

Returning to Parnassus

Tech is good for a lifetime. These are good whenever you need to brush them up, which with any luck at all won’t be very often. If you ever need to practice a slur exercise which is not music again, come back to these. There is no exercise anywhere more precisely suited to its goals.

A final Observation

Slur exercises are not “tech” like Dynamic Guitar Technique, because right-left coordination is not a factor with slurs. Nevertheless, there is an important principle common to both. The excellence of these exercises results from correctly marrying appropriate tasks to the correct goals. The failure of my predecessors and colleagues to fully comprehend how exercises should be formed is the reason for their failure to write decent exercises.


Richard Sayage suggested the term “power slurs”.

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©2002, 2011 David Raleigh Arnold - http://www.openguitar.com