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Harmonics - Part 2

When we last met we were talking about harmonics – those pleasant chime-like tones that are a great effect and can really take your playing up a notch.

We also were in the middle of discussing the many ways that harmonics can be played (see last week’s post for great info on natural harmonics).  As we stated then, natural harmonics are great but you are limited to playing them on open strings only. 

What if you want to use them for any song, regardless of the key?

Fear not!

Artificial harmonics are your answer…

Artificial harmonics 

Artificial harmonics aren’t really “artificial”.  The principles behind how they work are the same as natural ones – use nodal points at specific locations on a ringing string and you’ll get a harmonic overtone.  What’s different is the techniques you have to use to get them.

Some are pretty easy and some are admittedly pretty advanced.  Regardless of what you end up practicing and getting good at, you’ll surely be able to inject some spunk into your playing.

Tap The Well

Thanks to Mr. Van Halen, pretty much any technique that involves using your picking hand to tap the fretboard has become common.  That applies to harmonics as well.

Tapped harmonics involve some quick “mental math”.  To play one you need to fret a string and then tap the string at the nodal point created by the now-shorter string length.

Sounds complicated but it really isn’t.  Let’s try one out:

  • Fret the low E string at the 2nd fret as you would if you were going to play an F# (remember, that means putting your finger between the 1st and 2nd fret)
  • Go up 12 frets in your head. So if you’re on the 2nd fret, go up to the 14th fret.
  • Take your picking hand and tap the string directly over the 14th fret. This is important - it has to be right over the fret and not to one side or the other.

The result?  An artificial harmonic of an F# that is one octave above the fretted note. 

Remember when we discussed natural harmonics?  I mentioned that the best nodal point locations were right over the 5th fret, the 7th fret, and the 12th fret.  The same is true with tapped harmonics - you just have to do the mental math to make sure where you are tapping is either 5, 7, or 12 frets above the fretted note. 

So, if you are fretting a C note on the A string (3rd fret), your best locations to tap for harmonics is the 8th fret, the 10th fret, and the 15th fret.  Pretty simple, right?

This technique can be used with any fret hand position, and that’s what makes it so versatile.  Eddie make tapped harmonics an integral part of his playing.  For great examples of what this technique can do, check out: 

  • The intro to “Women In Love”
  • The solo section to “Dance The Night Away”
  • The funk-slap barrage intro to “Mean Streets”
  • The intro and ending of “Spanish Fly” (proof that the technique works even on an acoustic - and a nylon string at that!)

Tip:  it helps to bring the harmonic out if you use a bit of distortion.

Pinch Me - I Must Be Dreaming

Harmonics can be generated without having to move your picking hand anywhere near the neck - all you have to do is develop your technique for playing “pinch harmonics”.

As with tapped harmonics, a good dose of distortion helps the harmonic to ring out better.  And yes - you can do this on an acoustic guitar as well.

BONUS​ - you can use pinch harmonics with either open or fretted notes, making it a great trick no matter what key you are playing in.

To play a pinch harmonic properly it does take a little bit of practice.  The trick is to hold your pick so the side of your thumb very lightly touches the string you are picking.  Your thumb makes its own nodal point so - as long as you don’t touch the string so much that you mute the note - a harmonic should ring out.

It’s called a “pinch” harmonic because the best way to pull it off (no pun intended) is to pretend you are “pinching” the string as you pick the note.

Pinch harmonics aren’t as predictable as a natural or tapped harmonic, though.  That’s because the nodal point you are making with your thumb is at a random point along the length of the string. 

Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top uses this to great effect in the solo to “La Grange” where the harmonics seem to go all over the place.  What he is doing is using pinch harmonics at different spots by moving his picking hand back and forth over the pickups from the bridge.  Different positions for your thumb create different nodal points, therefore different harmonics.

Pinch harmonics are used a lot by Zakk Wylde as well - check out the solo to “Mama, I’m Coming Home”. 

I Can’t Plucking Believe It!

Plucked harmonics are an advanced technique and, from my experience, aren’t used that much in rock guitar; it is more used in the jazz and acoustic genres.

To play plucked harmonics you will have to approach it as a hybrid technique that combines parts of natural and artificial harmonics.  In a nutshell, what you do is take the index finger of your picking hand and place it in the exact position where you would if you were going to tap the harmonic.  Lightly touch the string as you would if you were playing a natural harmonic.

Instead of tapping, you then take one of the other fingers (normally your thumb with a thumb pick on it) and then pick the string.  You get the clarity of natural harmonics along with the versatility of artificial ones since you can use the technique anywhere on the neck.

As I said, this technique is fairly advanced, but don’t let that stop you from exploring it.  My recommendation is to listen to Lenny Breau - a great guitarist that took the technique to a different level.  There are many videos on YouTube that show him explaining how to do it, and he does a very comprehensive job of it. 

Check it out and prepare to get your mind blown!

Conclusion

Harmonics are more than a “trick”.  Used in the right contexts they can make rock leads sound amazing, and they can breathe life into jazz or acoustic passages in a way that many other techniques just can’t touch. 

I encourage you to take some of your valuable practice time to work on all of the different ways to play them that we discussed.  Your playing vocabulary and expression will certainly benefit!

Well...that’s it for this week.  I’ll catch you on the flip side.

Until next time - peace out!

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