A harmonic is a tool that helps you create variety in your musical ideas. It’s a lot like playing any other note on the guitar, except that harmonics have a very distinct bell-like sound to them, and they give you access to notes you wouldn’t otherwise be able to play.
With harmonics, we are definitely moving beyond the standard list of techniques every guitarist should master. You don’t need to be able to play harmonics to be a pro guitarist, or even a widely recognized guitarist. But it can open up a new world of ideas you, and give you a wider palette of colors to play with.
Let’s talk about the four ways to play harmonics on the guitar.
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1. Play Natural Guitar Harmonics
Natural harmonics are used in a variety of different styles of music. When you touch a string lightly with your fretting hand, typically directly above a fret, and then pick it, you’ll get a natural harmonic.
There are different locations on the fretboard where harmonics are more prominent than others. The fifth, seventh and 12th fret are the easiest places to get a harmonic to sound, and to a lesser extent, the fourth and ninth fret.
For example, if I wanted to play an A note as a harmonic, I would place my index finger directly above the fifth fret of the fifth string. Again, this is different from fretting, where you need to apply pressure to get a proper sounding note. When you want to play a harmonic, you need to touch the string very lightly.
Harmonics have a bell-like tone, and tend to have a lot of sustain. Combined with various effects, you can create some really interesting sounds. Even just distortion can affect harmonics in an interesting way.
Check out the chorus section in Metallica’s “I Disappear”:
2. How To Play Pinch Harmonics For Guitarists
Sometimes called “false harmonics”, pinch harmonics are produced when you “pinch” the string between your thumb and your pick. When you do this with an acoustic guitar, or an electric guitar with a clean sound, it just sounds squeaky. But when you pinch a note with a distorted electric, you get a ping or a squeal, which can be very satisfying.
Eddie Van Halen is known to have popularized pinch harmonics, but today it’s hard not to listen to hard rock and metal without hearing them. Just think of Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society, etc.) or the band Disciple.
Beginner guitarists tend to have a bit of trouble with pinch harmonics, because they take the concept of “pinching” a little too literally. So here’s what you need to do. First, hold the pick close to the tip. Then, pick in a downwards direction as if you were “digging in” to the string. Let your thumb brush up against the string while you’re picking it. Focus on just one string – the G is usually the easiest to produce a pinch harmonic on. With some practice, you should be able to get a “ping” at least, and over time, it will become more second nature.
3. Tapped Harmonics Playing Tip
Tapped harmonics are generally considered advanced technique, or at the very least, intermediate . There are basically two types of tapped harmonics – those that are played exactly 12 frets above the original note, or those that are played somewhere in between.
Here’s how it works. First, you would fret a lower note, like the E on the second fret of the fourth string. Then, you would “tap” the note exactly 12 frets above on the same string (in this case, the 14th fret), with your fretting hand. The effect this produces is very close to a natural harmonic. Meanwhile, if you were to tap on frets in between the second and 14th frets, you would produce an effect that’s closer to a pinch harmonic. You’ll see what I mean if you tap above the 9th fret.
Again, Eddie Van Halen is a great guitarist to watch if you want to see some cool tapped harmonic ideas in action. The interlude section in “Dance The Night Away” features tapped harmonics pretty prominently, but you can also watch the many guitar solos he’s performed over the years for additional clues.
With natural harmonics, it can be hard to gain access to every note in the 12-tone western scale. But with tapped harmonics, you can turn any note into a harmonic.
4. Harp Harmonics
This is the most difficult technique of any mentioned here, but just so you know, harp harmonics tend to be used more on acoustic guitar than on electric guitar.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re holding a standard open E chord with your fretting hand. Now you would take your picking hand, and place your index finger exactly 12 frets above the original note. If you’re starting on the sixth string, that would be the 12th fret. Now, you would pick the note with your thumb behind your index finger. Then, you would repeat the process for each string, moving your index to higher frets when you need to (i.e. 14th fret on the fifth string, 13th fret on the third string, etc.). Some guitarists can do this rapidly and seamlessly, playing entire six-string chords as harp harmonics.
Pretty much every artist on CandyRat Records tends to use harp harmonics in their playing. But I’m rather fond of Phil Keaggy’s playing, so that’s who I will highlight here.
Throughout the following video, you can see Keaggy playing a ton of tapped harmonics. When he stops to tune the electric guitar, you can hear him playing natural harmonics. And at about the 10:26 mark, you can watch as he plays harp harmonics on his acoustic guitar. Amazing stuff. Keep in mind that he’s only playing with nine fingers as opposed to the 10 us mere mortals have.
The above list is just a starting point, since harmonics can be combined with other techniques and playing styles. In fact, there is one more way to sound random harmonics on the guitar, and this is by playing a trill with your fretting hand and lightly muting the string with your right hand while gradually moving it towards the fretboard. But this is really nothing more than an effect.
In general, harmonics could be considered an effect. But they have been written into notable pieces of music, because composers recognize how beautiful they can sound. Incorporating harmonics into your playing can add a layer of interest to your riffs and solos.