You’ve probably heard those light, high-pitched guitar notes that seem to float over the rest of the ensemble a fair amount in the music you’ve listened to. Those kinds of notes are called harmonics, and they’re to be found in just about any style of guitar music, from the “pig squeals” associated with heavy metal to the gentle chord harmonics popular in modern folk guitar. The sonic options of harmonics are wide, and be useful to just about any guitarist. In this piece, we’re to learn about the different sorts of harmonics and how to start playing on your guitar today.
What Exactly Is A Harmonic?
On the guitar, a harmonic is when a note is played in one of several specific ways that result in a thin-sounding note than is higher-pitched than the note that fret typically produces. On a technical level, when you play a harmonic you are isolating something called an overtone. When you pluck a note on your guitar through conventional means, that note is going to contain a bunch of these overtones. When you let a guitar note die out naturally, you’ll then start to hear subtle, higher-pitched frequencies continue to ring out after the bassier frequencies begin to fade away. These higher pitched frequencies are overtones.
So when I say that playing a harmonic means isolating an overtone, what I mean is that playing a harmonic means isolating one of those specific higher frequencies that’s usually just another part of the note you’re playing. Playing a harmonic is essentially just playing a part of the note you would typically be playing, which is what gives harmonics their thin, ambient quality.
With all that being said, all types of harmonics on guitar be sorted into one of two categories: natural harmonics and artificial harmonics. While both natural and artificial harmonics are examples of the concept described above, they are played differently and have different tonal qualities to match.
Natural harmonics have a gentle, chime-like texture and will continue to ring out even after you take your hand off the guitar, which can make them extremely useful. They are produced by resting your finger securely over the fret you want to play, but not actually pressing down all the way. When you play a typical note, you’re going to want to press down the string so the wire touches the wood of the fretboard, thus temporarily cutting the string short. But right now we are not trying to play a typical note, so please break any ingrained habits you may have and do not do this!
When playing natural harmonics, it is acceptable to press the string down a little bit, if the familiar motion feels comfortable to you. Pressing down the string at all is not strictly necessary, as you can produce a nice natural harmonic simply by placing your finger firmly on the fret and leaving it at that, but many newcomers to harmonics find that pressing down the note a little makes the technique feel more similar to conventional fretting and helps them get going. However, make sure you do not press the string all the way down to the wood because, as previously mentioned, you will then be playing just an ordinary old note. Now, with all that in mind, let’s try playing your first harmonic.
Try placing the index finger of your fretting hand over the 12th fret of the 6th string, and try fretting that note as described above. Although it is possible to get a clear natural harmonic tone using the very tip of your finger, as you would when conventionally fretting, when playing harmonics try instead using the center of your fingertip, just a little bit above the spot where your fingerprints converge into a bullseye. You’ll likely have a much easier time holding down the string and getting a nice harmonic tone when using this part of your finger.
Keep plucking that 12th fret note under you are to get a nice clear harmonic tone ring out. Don’t worry if you don’t get a clear sound to ring out on your first try–most people don’t! Don’t let it discourage you, just keep at it under you get the harmonic to ring out. It probably won’t take as long as you may be expecting.
Once you do manage to a clear natural harmonic to ring out, take note of everything you did. Notice exactly which part of your finger you used to hold the string down with and how hard you pressed down on the string, and then commit both those things to memory. They will be your key to getting that nice natural harmonic sound each and every time you go for it.
There is, however, one important caveat that comes with natural harmonics: they only work cleanly on specific places on the fretboard. Remember that great harmonic sound you got playing the 12th fret of the 6th string? Now try sliding your fretting hand all the way down to the 1st fret of the string, and do exactly what you did to produce that harmonic earlier. Chances are, all you’re hearing is a dull, atonal thud. Don’t worry, you’re not doing it wrong. That’s what happens when I try it too.
While it’s true that you can get some semblance of a natural harmonic on just about every fret with enough technique and practice, even the world’s most skilled guitarists would be hard-pressed to get a natural harmonic half as decent on the 1st fret as a beginner could get on the 12th. With that in mind, the spots where anyone can get a nice, strong natural harmonic sound include any string on the 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 17th, and 19th frets, with the 12th fret notes being the most distinct of all of them.
Fun tip: You can easily play multiple natural harmonics at once by a barring a fret the way you would a barre chord, but then playing a harmonic instead of pressing down. Many guitarists like to tune t to an open tuning (meaning the open strings are tuned to the notes in a specific chord), and then play entire chords as harmonics by implementing this technique.
Although most associated with the world of hard rock and metal, artificial harmonics can be found in any style of guitar imaginable. They are easiest to play on distorted electric guitars, but are certainly playable on clean electrics and acoustic guitars as well. Artificial harmonics can be a trickier to play than natural harmonics, but their distinctive, squawking sound and the fact that they can be played anywhere on the fretboard make them a great tool for any guitarist to have.
While it is possible to play an artificial harmonic without a pick by scraping the exact center of the string with the nail of your forefinger, this technique can be difficult to pull off and I highly recommend learning artificial harmonics using a pick first. When playing an artificial harmonic using a pick, you’re going to want to readjust your grip on the pick so that only a tiny sliver of the pick, ideally the pointy part of the tip, is poking out. Once you have readjusted your grip on the pick, rest the sliver of pick that’s still poking against your 5th string.
Now fret the 5th fret of that 5th string and pick the string with a hard, snapping, downward motion. You can play artificial harmonics anywhere, but I’ve found that this spot of the guitar is particularly easy to get them to ring out. As you pick down try your best to have the overhanging part and/or index finger briefly graze the string. While that graze is the tricky part of artificial harmonics, it’s also one of the most important. Without it, you’ll just be playing ordinary notes.
Much like natural harmonics, it’s uncommon to get an artificial harmonic to ring out clearly your very first try. But unlike natural harmonics, it’s uncommon to suddenly get it soon after. Artificial harmonics are tricky, and getting them to ring out is really very tactile and rooted deeply in muscle memory, and there’s no shortcut that I know of to get that muscle memory.
While everyone figures them out at their own pace, pretty much every guitarist has that moment where the concept just clicks, and all of a sudden they’re able to play awesome, squealing article harmonics like nobody’s business. My advice is to just keep plugging away it, trying to pick notes following the method described above, and eventually, you’ll get it. I promise. It might take more than a day, but, if you’re working at it, it probably won’t take more than a week.
Quick tip: If you’re using an electric guitar, you’ll probably have a much easier time getting both natural and artificial harmonics to ring out (but especially artificial harmonics) if you use your bridge pickups and have your tone knob set all the way to the treble end.