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Harmonics (Part 1)

As we all know, the guitar is a pretty killer instrument to play.  Part of what makes that true is that there are tons of tricks and techniques that you can do to make your playing much more personal and expressive.  That makes the guitar unique as you don’t really have a lot of flexibility with some other instruments (such as a piano). 

With guitar, though, you can do all kinds of neat stuff.  Have you ever heard someone play where some of the notes sound almost chime-like, almost like a bell?  That is called a harmonic.  It is a technique that really can add texture, dynamics, and excitement to your playing. They sound great in just about any style – from acoustic to rock guitar with screaming distortion – and, for the most part, can be pretty easy to pull off.

Let’s take a look at what a harmonic is, how they work, and also talk about several different ways to play them.

What is a harmonic?

First off, are you a Beatles fan?  

Take the solo in “Nowhere Man”.  Have you ever wondered what made that last high-pitched note ring out so well?  That’s a harmonic.

Second question:  are you a Yes fan?

Cue up “Roundabout”.  After that cool fade-in part right at the beginning, you’ll hear a single acoustic guitar.  The first note that’s played is a low bell chime, then several others played in rapid succession.  Those are harmonics.

A harmonic is defined as “a flute-like a tone produced on a stringed instrument by touching a vibrating string at a nodal point” (thanks, Mr. Webster).  In layman’s terms that’s saying that if a string is ringing out and it gets touched at a specific point along the length of the string, it will ring out that bell-like tone.  It also will sound at a pitch that is a specific interval that is related to the pitch of the original note that is played.

How harmonics work

The “nodal points” that our definition referred to are located as shown below:

The best way to visualize this image is to consider the “0” point as the nut, and the “1″ as the point where the string passes over the bridge.  From 0 to 1 could be considered as an open string.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though…

See the image that says “1/2”? That is where the length between the nut and the bridge is divided exactly in half.  And guess what?  That happens to be exactly over the 12th fret.  It’s very important to note that I said over because when you “fret” note at the 12th fret you put your finger behind it (in between the 11th and 12th fret).  

Harmonics that are created at different nodal points have different pitches, but they are all related to the original note.  For example, if you are on the G string and play a harmonic (we’ll discuss how to play them in a little bit) at the 12th fret, you’ll get a G note but it will be pitched an octave up from the open string.

Now do the same but play the harmonic over the 7th fret.  You’ll get a clear harmonic that sounds like a D note, but up an octave from the “fretted” note at the 7th fret.  Move to the 5th fret (the “1/4” point on the diagram above) and you’ll get a G note that is two octaves above the open G.

For most purposes, the harmonics at the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets are the ones that are used the most.  Without a doubt the others can be used but it can be hard to easily locate where the nodal point actually lies because they don’t naturally line up with a particular fret.

Natural Harmonics

Playing natural harmonics is probably the easiest.  They are played by lightly placing your finger over a nodal point (again, the 12th, 7th, or 5th frets are the best options to use) on an open string and then strike it.  

Simple enough, right?  There are a few things to watch out for though:

  • Finger pressure is very critical.  All you do it lightly touch the string – don’t actually press down on the string like you would when normally fretting a note.  Putting too much pressure won’t let the harmonic ring out clearly.  Not only that but with low string action (as can be found on most electric guitars) you may actually hit the top of the fret and mute the note altogether.
  • Your finger must be placed right over the fret.  Getting off that point even a little bit will not divide the string length properly and you won’t hear any harmonic at all.

One thing to note when playing natural harmonics is that you are limited to open strings.  That can be a big deal depending on the key that you are using.  If you are playing in the key of B or Db, for example, there aren’t may open string harmonics that will fit in well.

So, what do you do in the case where you are playing in a key that doesn’t lend itself to open string harmonics?  That’s where some advanced techniques come into play…

Summary

Harmonics are a great way to add style, flair, and color to your playing.  They are very pleasing to the ear and used in the right ways you can get some very interesting effects that will take your playing to a different level.

Natural harmonics are great and easy to play, but you can take it even farther by using advanced techniques.  We’ll discuss those in next week’s post so…as always…

Stay tuned,

….And peace out!

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