You may have noticed some guitarists adding some sort of shimmering, bell-like sounds to their guitars during their performances. You then become a little perplexed. How do they make these sounds, and what are they?
These sounds may refer to guitar natural harmonics, a technique used on an acoustic guitar. How to do harmonics on guitar?
You perform harmonics on a guitar by locating the fret position to do so, usually the 5th, 7th, and 12th fret. Then you pluck the string, lightly touching the corresponding string with your fretting hand. Some players make their harmonics ring louder by removing their fretting finger from the string once the note is played.
This article explores guitar harmonics, and how you can perform them yourself, using an acoustic guitar. We will also explore how hard it is to actually play harmonics right.
What Are Guitar Harmonics?
Guitar natural harmonics are a technique in guitar playing. It involves the player striking a string, with the fretting hand lightly holding against the corresponding string as the harmonic position. It produces a shimmering, bell-like sound like a violin if played well.
Despite the name, harmonics do not require blending your vocal into the guitar. It is, instead, a guitar-playing technique.
To play harmonics, you lightly touch a string without pressing hard. Then you strike the corresponding string. Some players may also remove both fingers from the string once the note is played, to generate maximum volume for the harmonics.
What you will hear is instead of a half-dead ghost note, you will hear a shimmering, bell-like sound similar to a flute or a violin.
These harmonics are called “natural” because they are a natural property of the string and do not require any external devices or techniques to produce. To try this, lightly press the string from the first fret, play a note from your picking hand, and slowly slide up the string.
You will notice a natural ringing effect when your finger is on the 5th, 7th, and 12th fret, where the natural harmonics are.
Natural harmonics differ from artificial or pinch harmonics, which require you to apply certain techniques to produce the harmonics.
There are two types of natural harmonics, touch and pick. Touch harmonics can be played lightly, touching the string with the fleshy part of the fingertip, not the nails. To play pick harmonics, the string could be played with a plectrum or a fingernail.
Natural harmonics can be played on any string of the guitar and at any point of the neck. However, they are most commonly played on the 5th, 7th, and 12th fret. The reason is that the harmonic effect is easier to achieve at these positions.
Harmonics is a popular playing method used in many songs. It can also be used to help guitarists tune their guitars and be used in practices to improve finger awareness, agility, and control.
Why Do Guitarists Use Natural Harmonics?
Guitarists use natural harmonics for various reasons, such as adding embellishments to their music and creating musical effects. Guitarists also use natural harmonics to help them tune their guitars, as well as a way to practice and activate their finger awareness.
Natural harmonics are used by guitarists for more than just a noble effect. In fact, you may see them being played for things such as tuning. Some guitarists even use harmonics as part of their practice and warm-up regime.
Embellishment To Their Music
Because of its distinctive sound, guitarists sometimes love to use natural harmonics to embellish the music they are playing.
You may notice natural harmonics being played in the early or later parts of the song as a way to ‘open’ or ‘close’ the performance. This may mimic how the bell rings to mark the beginning or end of many events.
The ringing sound may be a way to grab your attention or signal something major is coming, such as a sudden transition from the slow, soft part into loud guitar solos.
Create Musical Effects
Natural harmonics also are used to create specific musical effects, such as vibrato, slides, and bends.
Vibrato: Vibrato is a sound effect, usually in a rapid back-and-forth pitch variation. This is achieved by slightly bending the string and using the tremolo arm.
Slides: Slides involve smoothly moving the finger on the corresponding string once a note has been played to change the pitch rapidly.
Bends: Bends could be a more aggressive form of slides, where the picking hand stretches the string and changes its pitch.
Guitarists may use natural harmonics to tune their guitars. Tuning using natural harmonics is also the most reliable method if you do not have a tuner to help you.
Using natural harmonics also helps you to tune if you do not believe your ear too much to tune by ear.
The rule is that the harmonic sound from any string on the fifth fret should be the same as the harmonic sound from the next string down on the 7th fret.
For example, you should hear the same sound if you play harmonics on the 2nd string from the third on the 5th fret and the 3rd string from the top on the 7th fret.
You can then repeat the same process all the way until you have checked the tuning of all the strings on your guitar.
Practice And Warm Ups
Natural harmonics are also used by many guitarists as a way to practice and perform warm-ups. This is because harmonics help to develop strong finger awareness since you are required to execute plays that need accurate pressure on the fingers.
Aside from that, you also need to use your ears to listen to the sound quality, which may also help you develop pitch awareness. When practicing, guitar players may play harmonics as a scale practice.
As a result, many guitarists also use harmonics as part of their warm-up routine to ensure they can play well when the actual performance time comes.
How To Do Harmonics On Guitar?
You can execute harmonics on the guitar by first identifying the harmonic position on your guitar. Then you place your fingers well and strike the note. If played well, it should give you that ringing, shimmering round. To improve the sound quality, remove your fretting finger once the note has been played.
It may not be hard to play natural harmonics, although getting it to perfection may require some practice. However, generally, this is how you play harmonics:
Identify The Harmonic Position
Start by identifying the harmonic position on your guitar. Harmonic positions are all over the place on your guitar frets. Still, the most commonly used harmonic positions are on the 5th, 7th, and 12th fret.
The general pitch guide you can follow is as follows:
- The 5th fret produces harmonic notes an octave above the open string.
- The 7th fret produces harmonic notes an octave plus a fifth above the open string.
- The 12th fret produces harmonic notes two octaves above the open string.
You may also try to play harmonic notes on the 4th and 9th frets, although these are less common, and may be harder to execute well.
Learn To Strike The Notes Well
Once you have identified the string position, your next step is to try to produce the harmonic sound. This requires you to work on fretting and taking notes in specific unison.
On your fretting hand, rest a finger on the string position of your choice. You want to lightly press it, but not to the point of causing the string to get in touch with the fretboard. You also do not want to be too light on the string, to the point of only touching it.
Do the earlier, and you may end up with a full note. If you do the latter, you may end up with a ghost, or muted note.
On your picking hand, strike the notes lightly and quickly. If you do this right, you should hear a bell-like, shimmering sound. The sound should also be close to what you hear on a whistle or violin.
Keep trying until you get this sound produced right. If you are not able to, chances are your fretting fingers are not in the right fret position, or you are not applying the right pressure on your strings.
Improve The Ring Sound
Now that you have gotten the natural harmonics to ring right, you can now proceed and improve it. This is optional, but some prefer amplifying the sound further by using this technique.
Once you have played the note on your picking hand, remove the finger on your fretting hand from the string. This should help to reduce the vibration-dampening effect your finger may do. As a result, the harmonics may ring louder, and longer, with better sustain and slower decay.
Are Natural Harmonics Hard To Play?
Natural harmonics are hard to play, especially for beginner guitarists. This is because a precise fretting hand technique is needed to play the note well. A good sense of pitch is also required. However, things should improve with practice.
Playing natural harmonics may not be easy, especially for beginner guitarists. In fact, some more experienced players may also find the playing a little hard to execute.
For beginner players, their struggles often come from having to play at a higher level of precision on their fretting hand. The finger must press the string light enough to produce the ringing effect but not too light that a muted note is produced instead.
More experienced players may have learned to press the strings with more force to ensure clear notes when playing. When they suddenly have to switch from that mode to lightly pressing strings, things also become difficult for them.
Aside from the lingering issues, playing good natural harmonics also requires a strong sense of pitch. This is because natural harmonics produce a unique sound, which may require a keen and sharp ear to hear if it’s played right.
A guitarist should at least be able to identify the pitch of the harmonic and compare it to a reference, such as pitches made from a pitch pipe or an electronic tuner. This ensures that the harmonic sounds produced by the guitar are in tune.
What Songs Feature Natural Guitar Harmonics?
Many songs feature natural guitar harmonics, such as Yellow Ledbetter by Pearl Jam, Red Barchetta by Rush, or Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. You may notice the harmonics are used to lightly embellish the songs or to achieve a specific effect.
“Red Barchetta” by Rush
This song may be the easiest to identify the natural harmonics. This is because it was used right from the start of the song and throughout the intro as well.
The ringing effect from the natural harmonics helps to attract attention from the listeners, as well as to fill the quiet space between the notes, especially during the earlier few seconds when the electric guitar is playing solo.
The ringing notes also help to make the intro more unique, compared to if the notes are just played straight like usual.
“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield
This song also uses natural harmonics quite extensively in the song, during the introduction and the buildup phase and verses.
In the song, it could be seen that the natural harmonics are used to fill in the space between notes, as they can be rather long. In fact, the harmonics are stretched longer by adding in some vibrato effect, perhaps using the tremolo arm.
The long, single natural harmonic notes also help to build up some anticipation in the listeners to guess what notes may come next. It also may help signal that this song should be easy and light to listen to.
“Barracuda” by Heart
This song may not be using natural harmonics as extensively as Red Barchetta. Still, you may hear it in between the guitar riffs, especially in the intro.
The song is known for using a base guitar riff that sounds like a horse running or like a choo-choo train. However, along the riff, you may hear natural harmonics ringing on and off, perhaps to break the monotony of the guitar riffs.
Perhaps the composer wants to mimic the sounds of trains and horns/bells ringing along, much like in the olden days.
In fact, once you hear the natural harmonics ring out, the guitarist extends the ringing sound effect by adding some vibrato to it, perhaps with the help of a tremolo arm.
“Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica
Many may immediately think of this song when asked for an example of natural harmonics on guitar, perhaps due to its immense popularity.
However, they are not extensively used in the song. In fact, you may only hear it ring a few times throughout this long song.
The clearest example of natural harmonics being used is in the early solo. Here, the natural harmonics are used to mark a transition. Once the natural harmonics ring, the steady, medium-volume solo becomes a period of silence, with a very faint solo playing in the background.
“Roundabout” by Yes
This 1971 classic by Yes also features a great use of natural harmonics right from the beginning.
As you listen to the song, the natural harmonic rings break between short bursts of dynamic acoustic guitar solos. This is done perhaps to keep the song slow and relaxed but simultaneously allow the guitarist to nail in some complicated solos.
Some other popular songs with natural harmonics include:
- Yellow Ledbetter by Pearl Jam
- Dazed Confused by Led Zeppelin
- Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2
- Spanish Fly by Van Halen
What Are The Other Harmonics For Guitar Playing?
Aside from natural harmonics, there are also other ways to play harmonics, such as tap, pinch, or touch harmonics. These techniques may be more difficult to execute and may require more practice than natural harmonics.
If you notice why the concept of natural harmonics exists, you are on the right track. This is because there are such things as artificial harmonics.
Artificial harmonics differ from natural harmonics as you need to apply certain techniques to bring out the ringing sound, as compared to natural harmonics.
There are several artificial harmonics: tap, pinch, or touch.
Fret a note between the first and tenth frets on any string to play tap harmonics. Place your right index finger very lightly on the string twelve frets higher.
This index finger on the right hand should be very gently on the wire of the fret in question, not on the fretboard. Pluck the string with your right-hand thumb while keeping both fingers in place.
This will produce a harmonic one octave higher than the note being fingered with your left hand.
If you need an example, suppose you hit the note at the 5th fret of the top string, you would use your right hand to softly touch the seventeenth fret of the same string.
Tap harmonics are similar to touch harmonics, with some minor differences. It can be seen as an offshoot of Eddie Van Halen’s famed tapping technique.
The note is played and fretted as usual, but instead of striking the string with your pick or thumb, you “tap” the string against the guitar’s fret at the harmonic position with one of your picking hand fingers.
Pinch harmonics are probably the most difficult to play and will require a lot of trial and error at first. Be patient when picking up this technique.
Begin by holding down any note on the fretboard. Then, with your picking hand, grab a guitar pick between your thumb and index finger, just so it peeks out beneath the bottom of your thumb.
Strike the string and twist your hand so that your thumb brushes lightly across the vibrating thread. After picking it, the thumb immediately deadens the string, producing the harmonic sound.
Here is the difficult part. Choke up your pick a little so that when you strike the string, it feels like you are hitting both the pick and the thumb simultaneously. If you make too much touch with your thumb or apply it too late, the string will go dead, and the sound will be muted and muffled.