Want to take your guitar playing up a level? If so, setting your sights on guitar harmonics may be the best next step. This popular technique adds flair and extra dimension to your playing, opening up a whole new world of playing possibilities. Today, we’re going to break down the basics and share some tips to help you play naturally.
What Are Harmonics?
Anyone who wants to play harmonics should first understand what they are, and to do that, it’s essential to know the difference between fundamental notes and overtones.
Any time you play a note on a string instrument, you create multiple pitches. The fundamental pitch is the one you hear, and it’s also the named note (for example, A). Overtones, on the other hand, are less audible pitches. They sound above the fundamental pitch.
Harmonics describe the sounds created above the fundamental pitch—in other words, they are amplified overtones. It’s worth noting that harmonics occur every time you play, but unless you’re specifically playing them, most of the time you can’t hear these notes. Playing harmonics intentionally makes the amplified overtones sound louder.
What Are Guitar Harmonics?
Learning how to play guitar harmonics opens up a whole new world of sounds, as you can suddenly hear sounds that weren’t audible before. To achieve this, you have to dampen a note so that it produces a high-pitched chime.
While it sounds simple, getting those overtones to sound takes a lot of practice. You should also know that there are two ways to play harmonics on a guitar: natural harmonics and artificial harmonics.
Natural harmonics come from the vibration of an open string, and they occur naturally on the fretboard. Artificial harmonics, on the other hand, come from playing a harmonic on a fretted string. Both tend to sustain very well, and they allow you to create some super interesting sounds when you combine them with other effects.
How to Play Natural Harmonics
Let’s start by breaking down how to play natural harmonics. The most critical thing is to use a light touch; finesse is the name of the game, regardless of whether you’re playing an electric or acoustic guitar.
The method is straightforward: use your picking hand to pluck the guitar string at the same time that you touch it gently with your fretting hand. Then you lift your finger off the string right after you pluck it. Practice playing natural harmonics by following these steps:
- Fret. If you’re right-handed, place your left (your fretting hand) gently on a guitar string. Most beginners start in the twelfth fret, which produces clear string harmonics.
- Pluck. As you are gently touching the string above the fret, pluck the string as you normally would with your picking hand (for right-handed players, this would be your right hand).
- Release. Rapidly remove your fretting hand finger, which should let the string ring. This technique changes the string length, allowing natural harmonics to amplify.
Natural harmonics occur in several locations on the fretboard, but as a beginner, you should start with the most common and distinct ones: those located on the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets (in that order).
How to Play Artificial Harmonics
Another way to play harmonics on the guitar is with artificial harmonics, which are for more advanced guitarists. It’s best to hone your natural harmonics skills before moving on to this technique.
Artificial harmonics are produced in three ways: tap harmonics, touch harmonics, and pinch harmonics. Try all three of these artificial guitar harmonic techniques to see which one you like best and which one is easiest. Keep in mind that pinch harmonics are the ones that generally take the most practice to dominate.
Touch harmonics are an excellent place to start your foray into the world of artificial harmonics. With this technique, you fret a note on the fretboard and, on the same string, touch a note an octave above it.
Here’s how: start by pressing down on any fret as usual with your fretting hand. Next, move your picking hand twelve frets up from that position (your finger should be over the fretwire). Once the note is fretted and you’ve got your index finger in place, your right-hand thumb will pluck the string while you take your right index finger off the string, allowing you to chime the note.
This technique will allow you to play harmonics anywhere you like on the fretboard.
Tap harmonics use the same technique as touch harmonics: you move up twelve frets to play the note. The difference between the two is that you tap the string to sound the harmonic instead of using your thumb. This technique requires finesse: tapping too hard will deaden the sound. A light tap is all you need to dampen the overtones.
You may hear pinch harmonics referred to as “false harmonics,” which gives a satisfying ping or squeal sound.
You can perform pinch harmonics on both acoustic and electric guitars, but they’re especially common on the former. Electric guitars use distortion to produce a sort of “scream” that’s characteristic of rock music. Eddie Van Halen is famous for popularizing this kind of playing.
To get this sound, pluck a string with your pick at the same time you dampen it with your thumb. The dampening from your thumb should create the high-pitched sound that defines the pinch harmonic, as opposed to a muffled note you might create otherwise. Beginners often have trouble, so play around with the angle and by exposing less of the pick.
11 Tips to Guitar Harmonics
Now that you understand the basics of guitar harmonics, here are 11 helpful tips for guitarists of all levels.
1. Try the Twelfth Fret
The first and best tip for guitar harmonics is that beginners should start trying to play them on the twelfth fret. The reason for this tip is that harmonics are most distinct on the twelfth fret and therefore easier to produce, notably if you’re playing on an acoustic guitar.
Make sure to touch the string directly above the twelfth fret, very lightly, as if you were trying to mute it. You’ll know you’re doing it correctly when you’re capable of producing a bell-like note. This note should continue to sound even after you have removed your finger.
Once you feel comfortable playing harmonics on the twelfth fret, you can try playing them on the seventh and fifth frets. Along with the twelfth, these three are the most common frets for harmonics. On the other hand, the fourth and the ninth fret are slightly more difficult to get a harmonic to sound on.
2. Play Directly Over the Fret
If you have experience playing harmonics, this tip will be evident to you, but it’s worth repeating for beginners. Your left-hand finger should be directly over the fret.
Under normal playing circumstances, your left-hand fingers go just behind the fret, but harmonics require you to play directly over it. This placement will produce the strongest sound when you’re playing harmonics in the three most common frets mentioned above, the twelfth, seventh, and fifth.
Pay close attention to precise placement, and over time you will achieve a cleaner harmonic.
3. Play Loudly
By design, harmonics are quieter than non-harmonic notes. If you want to balance the harmonics with the volume of the other notes, you may want to try playing them loudly.
Sure, playing this way can feel pretty odd. When you’re playing regular notes, they would sound awful if you played them with a lot of force. But give loud playing a try when you want to produce harmonics, and you may be surprised by how much doing so balances things out.
4. Place Your Right Hand Near the Bridge
Another useful tip for getting the best sound on harmonics is to place your right hand near the bridge—in other words, you should move it away from the fretboard. Often, it takes small adjustments to create the best sound, and this small trick may allow for better tone quality and make your harmonics easier to hear.
Placing your right hand farther back has another advantage. This position helps you avoid muting other frequencies while you play the note, something learners may struggle with while trying to master harmonics.
If you’re playing artificial harmonics, keep in mind that this trick will not help you. But for natural harmonics, chances are you’ll hear the difference.
5. Acoustic vs. Electric Guitars
It’s vital to be aware that harmonics change depending on whether you’re playing an acoustic or an electric guitar. Acoustic guitars deliver a clean and vibrant bell-like sound, while the harmonics produced by electric guitars are more scream-like—especially when it comes to pinch harmonics.
Aside from creating a different tone, the sweet spot for producing harmonics also changes depending on the guitar type. Listening carefully is the best way to figure it out, so let your ear be the one to guide you.
6. Finger Position
Finger position is a critical thing to pay attention to when learning to play harmonics—especially the position of your picking hand. Ensure that your index finger is always straight. Pay close attention also to the distance between the thumb doing the plucking and the index finger doing the harmonics. If you don’t have the right distance, your harmonics won’t sound right.
7. Create Scale Patterns
Once you feel comfortable with harmonics, you might want to try creating scale patterns. Plenty of guitar players strum harmonics, which is fine, but playing entire scales with harmonics can be a lot of fun.
8. One-handed Harmonics
This next tip is for more advanced guitarists who are already capable of producing harmonics, and it’s to try playing harmonics one-handed. Though more difficult, your other hand becomes free to do other things.
The technique involves using just your picking hand to produce the overtones. For one-handed harmonics, you’ll have to hold your pick differently. Instead of using your thumb and index finger, you hold it with your thumb and middle finger, freeing your index finger. After you pluck the string, touch it lightly with your pointer finger to create the harmonics.
Initially, it will feel strange to play harmonics this way, but the freedom it allows your fretting hand opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
9. Descending Harmonics
Playing descending harmonics on your guitar is another more advanced skill. It’s a lot of fun to try, and you don’t focus on a specific fret to play harmonics. Instead, you slide your fretting hand to produce a range of different tunes.
The technique involves starting by hovering over any string and picking a note. Then, you merely let your fretting hand slide down the guitar strength while you pick. Try this on the low E string first, as descending harmonics work especially well there.
10. Tune Your Guitar with Harmonics
No piano or tuner handy? No problem! You can use harmonics to tune your guitar instead, which is actually a very precise way of ensuring you get the right sounds.
The method here is similar to the one you would use for fifth fret tuning. Just as you do with that method, harmonics allow you to utilize different strings’ notes as references for the one you’re tuning. You’ll have to make sure your sixth string E is in tune (as long as you’re using EADGBE tuning), as it becomes your reference string.
11. Listen for Harmonics
Our final tip to playing guitar harmonics naturally is less about technique and more about trying to identify harmonics in music. Once you have a base level of harmonics-playing ability, it’s an excellent exercise to do. So give it a try: listen to your favorite songs, and see if you can identify the harmonics.
When you do hear them, pay attention to how the harmonics add to the song. Doing so will help you consider ways you can use harmonics in your repertoire.
You will find no shortage of fantastic songs with harmonics out there. Bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Metallica, and U2 utilize them a great deal in their music. Here are some examples to orient you:
- Harvest Moon by Neil Young
- Blurry by Puddle of Mudd
- Theory of a Deadman by Santa Monica
- Black Mountain Side by Led Zeppelin
- Talk by Coldplay, interpreted by Antoine Dufour
As with any skill, mastering harmonics requires patience and plenty of practice—but it will add lots of depth to your guitar toolbox. The beautiful sound you produce—and the world of possibilities that open up to you—will have you hooked on guitar harmonics.