Technique: Harmonics

Difficulty: Advanced | Guitar used: Fender Stratocaster | Tuning: Standard

In this lesson I’m going to investigate the four common techniques used on the guitar to sound harmonics. I wise man once told me that notes are made up of a fundamental (which is the loudest element) and several harmonics. Usually we only hear the fundamental but on the guitar you can use techniques to play just the harmonic element of a note whilst dampening the fundamental.

Natural Harmonics

These are the easiest to sound and you’re probably already familiar with these. Lightly rest a finger directly over any string at the 12th fret then play the note. Natural harmonics can also be found at the 5th and 7th frets although you may need a bit of gain on the amp to hear them clearly.

Artificial Harmonics

This is basically a technique to play natural harmonics anywhere on the fretboard. You already know that you can sound a natural harmonic 12 frets above an open string so it makes sense that if you were holding a note on the 2nd fret, it’s natural harmonic would be on the 14th fret.

So keeping with this example fret the 1st string, 2nd fret with your fretting hand. With your picking hand, lightly rest your first finger over the 1st string, 14th fret and play the string with your pinky (or with a pick held by the thumb and third finger) whilst keeping the first finger over the 14th fret to sound the harmonic.

With practice this can be used to create new sounds and textures beyond standard picking. Check out this video at 1:32 to see them in action- Doyle Dykes.

Pinched Harmonics

Where would metal and hard rock be without the pinched harmonic! If you are learning this then do yourself a favour and use an electric guitar and crank up the overdrive. If you have any neighbours, do them a favour and use headphones!

Hold the pick so that only a small amount of it can be seen behind the thumb. Strike the string in one motion and aim to dig into the string with the pick whilst pinching with the thumb. There’s lots of  places where you can get cool sounds outside of the standard 12th and 7th frets- try the 2nd, 4th and 9th frets on the 1st, 2nd or 3rd strings. Metal guitarists combine this with the whammy bar to great effect!

Tapped Harmonics

I think Eddie Van Halen was the man who popularised this technique. Fret the note as usual but instead of picking the note tap the string directly over the fret 12 (or as indicated) frets higher. The trick is to release the ‘tap’ movement quickly and smoothly. This technique is commonly used in rock soloing but also by acoustic players using open tunings.

Example: Harmonics in action

  N.H    T.H              P.H        A.H   A.H       A.H        N.H
|---------------|--------------|------------------|---------------------|
|--------0[12]--|--------------|-----------3[15]--|-------------[7]v----|
|--------0[12]--|---------[7]\-|-----0[12]--------|---------------------|
|------9--------|-----7--------|---2--------------|-4[16]pb5r-----------|
|---------------|-7s9---9------|-3----------------|---------------------|
|-[12]----------|--------------|------------------|-----------0---------|

This is is a short progression I’ve written that shows all four harmonic techniques in action and some subtle additions.

Bar 1 starts off with a natural harmonic on the low E string and then introduces tapped harmonics. Strike both the 2nd and 3rd strings with your picking hand’s first finger. Bar 2 has a generic pentatonic lick leading to a pinched harmonic. Bar 3 contains a Cadd9 chord but you play the 3rd and 2nd strings using artificial harmonics.

In bar 4 you bend up to the fifth fret from the fourth, play an artificial harmonic on the 16th fret then release the bend! The final note is a natural harmonic on the 7th fret with a twist….You need to apply vibrato to the harmonic by bending the string behind the nut- literally push down on the string behind the nut of the guitar whilst the harmonic is left to ring out. This is a great way of creating vibrato when you’re not actually fretting a note!

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