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Guide To Guitar Harmonics: Master The Art

guitar harmonics

From Theory to Practice: Understanding Harmonics on Guitar

Guitar harmonics are created when you lightly touch the string at specific points, producing beautiful bell-like tones with shimmering qualities. These nodal points create resonant frequencies and overtones that give your music a unique and ethereal sound. 

The appeal of guitar harmonics lies in their unique timbre and ability to add a shimmering quality to the music. Harmonics are widely used in various playing styles, such as fingerpicking, tapping, and artificial harmonics, enriching the guitarist’s repertoire and enhancing the overall musical expression.

In this article, I’m going to give a rundown of everything you need to know about guitar harmonics.

Have you checked out some of the other guitar techniques that can truly elevate your playing?

The Physics of Guitar Harmonics

Guitar harmonics are produced when the vibrating string is divided into segments that vibrate at different frequencies. These segments, called nodes, are points along the string where there is no displacement or movement. The frequency of a harmonic is determined by the length of the vibrating segment. The shorter the segment, the higher the frequency.

Your finger basically acts like a bridge, dividing the string into smaller vibrating sections. These sections are half, a third, or a fourth, the length of the entire string, depending on where you touch. Since the length of the vibrating part (wavelength) affects the pitch (frequency) of the sound, these “mini-strings” create notes much higher than the original.

When you pluck a guitar string, it vibrates not just at its normal frequency but also at higher frequencies called overtones. These overtones add richness to the tone. Now, here’s the cool part: by gently touching the string at specific points, you can highlight these overtones while dampening the fundamental frequency. And it will create those beautiful bell-like sounds.

Overtones are higher-frequency components present in a sound alongside the fundamental frequency. They contribute to the timbre and richness of a musical tone.

Resonance, on the other hand, happens when the natural frequency of an object aligns with the frequency of an external force, leading the object to vibrate more intensely due to the matched frequencies.

In the case of guitar harmonics, the natural harmonics are excited through touch to produce a clearer, more resonant, and distinctive sound.

Types of Guitar Harmonics

There are three major types of guitar harmonics:

Natural Harmonics

Natural harmonics, also known as open-string harmonics, are a type of harmonic that is produced by lightly touching an open string at a specific point, called a node. This causes the string to vibrate differently, producing a producing a one octave higher note. The most common nodes to use for natural harmonics are at the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets, but other nodes can be used to produce different pitches.

Natural Harmonics

To play natural harmonics, lightly touch the guitar string at specific nodal points and cut the string into fractional segments. These points correspond to integer fractions of the string length, such as 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, and so on.

When you lightly touch the string at these positions, you prevent the string from vibrating fully, resulting in the production of higher-pitched harmonic tones.

To play natural harmonics, place your finger over the desired fret (e.g., 5th, 7th, or 12th) without pressing the string down. For instance, to produce a natural harmonic at the 12th fret, lightly rest your finger over the metal fret marker without pressing the string to the fretboard. The result is a clear, chime-like sound.

While the “sweet spots” for natural harmonics are usually at the 5th, 7th, and 12th frets, they can be played at other places on the neck too. For example, playing a harmonic at the 4th fret creates a sound two octaves and a major third higher than the original note. This technique is used in the song “Red Barchetta” by the band Rush.

To play natural harmonics like a pro, click here!

Artificial Harmonics

Artificial harmonics, also known as false harmonics, are created by using a combination of a fretting finger and the picking hand to produce harmonics on non-nodal points of the string. 

Artificial harmonics are slightly harder to play than natural harmonics. Unlike natural harmonics, artificial harmonics allow the player to produce harmonics at various pitches and intervals.

The technique for artificial harmonics involves fretting a note with one finger and then lightly touching the string twelve frets above that note with another finger, usually the pinky. The picking hand plucks the string while the pinky creates the harmonic. 

For example, to play an artificial harmonic at the 5th fret, fret a note with your index finger and lightly touch the string above the 17th fret with your pinky. This technique enables the production of harmonics with greater versatility and complexity.

Examples of artificial harmonics can be found in Eddie Van Halen’s iconic “Eruption” solo, where he combines tapping and artificial harmonics to create a dazzling array of sounds. Steve Vai’s “For the Love of God” also features an impressive use of artificial harmonics to add depth and emotion to the melody.

Check out the performance yourself!

Fretted Harmonics

Fretted harmonics are a type of artificial harmonic that is created by lightly touching a string at a specific point, called a node, while also fretting the string at another point. This causes the string to vibrate differently, producing a higher-pitched note.

To play a fretted harmonic, simply lightly touch the string at the desired node with your finger while also fretting the string at another point with the same finger. It is important not to press down too hard on either the node or the fret, or you will not produce a harmonic. Once you have touched the string, pluck it as usual. You should hear a higher-pitched note than the fretted note.

Our Suggested Guitars To Play These Harmonics

While many guitars (mostly electric guitars) can produce harmonics, some models and brands are particularly renowned for their ability to make these tones sing. To play the harmonics on guitars, we recommended some models that are best suited. 

How Do You Play Guitar Artificial Harmonics?

Playing artificial harmonics on the guitar involves a technique where you create harmonics by manipulating the strings in specific ways. There are several types of artificial harmonics, including harp harmonics, tapped harmonics, and pinched harmonics, each with its unique approach:

Harp Harmonics

Harp harmonics involve lightly touching the string with your picking hand (usually your thumb) at specific nodal points while plucking the string with your other fingers or a pick.

The touchpoint on the string is typically 12 frets (an octave) higher than the fretted note. For example, if you’re fretting a note on the 5th fret, the harmonic touchpoint would be at the 17th fret.

Place your thumb gently on the string over the harmonic point without pressing it to the fretboard. Simultaneously, pluck the string with your other hand, allowing the harmonic to ring out.

Tapped Harmonics

Tapped harmonics involve tapping the string with your picking hand while simultaneously plucking the string with your other hand (usually the fingers).

Tapped Harmonics finger technique

Choose a specific fret for the fretted note and tap the string lightly above that fret with your picking hand, creating a harmonic. Simultaneously, pluck the string with your other hand to produce the harmonic sound. This technique is often used in guitar solos for its unique tonal quality.

Pinched Harmonics

Pinched harmonics, or artificial harmonics, are produced by pinching the string with your thumb and a pick or finger at specific points along the string.

As you pick a note or chord with your pick or finger, your thumb simultaneously makes contact with the string at a harmonic point, which is typically 12 frets (an octave) higher than the fretted note. This pinching action creates a harmonic overtone, producing a distinct squealing or screaming sound.

Pinched harmonics require precise control and timing to hit the correct harmonic points and achieve the desired effect.

Click here, and know the Tips and Tricks of artificial harmonics!

Mastering Harmonic Techniques

Mastering harmonic techniques begins with precise finger placement and pressure. For natural harmonics, lightly touch the string directly over the nodal point, avoiding excess pressure that might dampen the sound.

types of guitar harmonics

For artificial harmonics, the fretting hand must accurately fret the note while the picking hand touches the string at the correct distance to produce the desired pitch. Consistent practice and experimentation with finger positioning will yield better control over harmonics.

Refining picking and vibrato techniques are essential for expressive harmonics. When picking harmonics, use a controlled and precise motion to strike the string, maintaining the right amount of force for a clear sound. Vibrato can be applied to harmonics to add richness and depth. 

Utilizing finger or wrist vibrato while sustaining a harmonic note can create captivating nuances in the sound. Here is an amazing example by guitarist Alan Gogol. Watch how he uses harmonics to create such an amazing melody-

Mastery of harmonic techniques allows guitarists to incorporate harmonics seamlessly into chords and melodies. By integrating natural harmonics into chord progressions, you can create intriguing textures and add unique embellishments to your compositions. 

Furthermore, using artificial harmonics in melody lines can produce breathtaking and intricate phrases that stand out in solos.

Understanding the links between harmonics and normal fretted notes allows guitarists to craft harmonically rich passages that engage listeners while revealing their technical abilities. 


Sharif Leen
Latest posts by Sharif Leen (see all)

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