What are Harmonics and How to Play Them

If you have been playing guitar for a little while, you’ve probably heard of harmonics – those high-pitched or bell-like notes. You definitely have heard them in songs by bands like U2, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and many others. If you are already familiar with the topic – read along and go through the basics again. If not – buckle up and dive into this new technique. 

Harmonics are actually played every time you pluck a note. Most of the time, however, you do not hear them. What you hear is the fundamental (sometimes called the first harmonic). The fundamental is the loudest sound produced, but it is accompanied by several harmonics. When a string is plucked, it creates vibrations from the guitar’s bridge to the nut and thus many other overtones – or harmonics – are created as a result of shorter frequencies along the fretboard. There are various ways to produce guitar harmonics. You can play natural harmonics which are harmonic instances that occur naturally on the fretboard as well as artificial harmonics. The latter uses techniques that allow you to play harmonics no matter where on the fretboard you are.

Natural Harmonics Vs. Artificial Harmonics

It’s important to know that there is a difference between the types of harmonics you can play on your guitar.   The natural harmonics, also known as “open-string harmonics are played on an open string, while the artificial harmonics are when you play a harmonic on a fretted string. Although all harmonics are actually artificial, the latter technique is the one commonly referred to as “playing an artificial harmonic”. 

Natural Harmonics

The easiest way to produce a harmonic sound is through the use of natural harmonics which occur at various locations across the fretboard. However, the most common and distinct natural harmonics are located on the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets.

Natural harmonics are created by making the string vibrate in fractions. For example, half of the length fraction results in a 12th fret harmonic, a third of the length fraction results in a 7th fret harmonic, a fourth of the length fraction results in a 5th fret harmonic, etc.

Here is also a fun fact: When you play a harmonic note, you’re playing the same note as the fretted or open note. So a harmonic on the 12th fret of the A string is the same note as fretting the 12th fret on the A string. A harmonic on the 5th fret results in a 2 octave higher note than the open string you’re playing it on. And lastly – a harmonic on the 7th fret results in an octave higher note than the fretted 7th fret.

When it comes time to actually playing natural guitar harmonics there are a couple of things to be aware of: to isolate the harmonic, you’ll want to very lightly press on the string at either the 5th, 7th, or 12th position (or any other position you want to experiment with). Be sure to place your finger above the metal part of the fret – this will produce the clearest sounding harmonic rather than if your finger is in between two metal frets. For beginners, you may find it easier to actually pluck a string first and then lightly touch the string with the tip of your finger at the 5th, 7th, or 12th fret. Alternatively, if you rather place your finger on the string first, you may find that the harmonic rings more clearly if immediately after you pluck the string, you quickly remove your finger.

Apart from natural harmonics, which are somewhat restrictive, you can also use artificial harmonics which allow you to produce that signature high-pitched harmonic sound, anywhere on the guitar. Here are 3 different types of artificial harmonics you can play:

Touch Harmonics

Simply fret a note on one of the strings. Place your right-hand index finger (for right-handed guitarists) on the note twelve frets above the fretted note, as if you’re going to chime that note. So your finger should be over the fretwire. With both the note fretted and the right index finger in place,  use either your thumb or a pick and pluck the string – then you will be able to hear the harmonic quality of the note. You will produce a note which is an octave higher than the one you’re fretting.

Tap harmonics

Tap harmonics are the same as touch harmonics up until the “pluck the string” part.  You fret a note, but then tap the fret twelve frets higher than the note you’re fretting.  Try to do so in a way where your finger quickly touches the string exactly above the corresponding metal fret and then is removed.

Pinch Harmonics

This technique is definitely the most difficult type of harmonics to play. They are done best while holding the guitar pick in a way that less of the pick is exposed so that there is less distance between the end of the pick and your thumb. What you should aim for is plucking a string with your guitar pick while almost simultaneous lightly dampening the string with your thumb. Once your thumb dampens the string, it will create that “scream” sound known as a pinch harmonic.

Guitar harmonics are just another technique you can add to your guitar skills toolbox. Getting them right can definitely take time and practice, however doing so allows you to create more unique sounds. It is best if you try all guitar harmonic techniques to see which ones you like the most.

If you want some further reading materials on the topic, check out also these articles here and here. For more guides, tips and tricks we invite you to join Neli’s Guitar Family and subscribe to her YouTube channel! If you are ready to dive into the world of guitar (or ukulele) you can sign up for a lesson HERE – the first one is 50% off!

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