Master fingerstyle guitar harmonics with this article
Guitar harmonics are a magical effect in Fingerstyle Guitar

Would you like to better understand and unlock the secrets of guitar harmonics? We will discuss how to play harmonics on the acoustic guitar with this comprehensive guide to fingerstyle guitar harmonics.  

If you pluck a guitar string and let it vibrate normally, the string vibrates along its whole length, from the bridge all the way to the nut. This is called the fundamental.

To produce a guitar harmonic, lightly place your finger on a node without applying pressure to push the string all the way down to the fretboard, then pluck the string. Instead of hearing the fundamental, you will now hear a guitar harmonic.

However, the harmonics you produce make your guitar sound a little different. Let's discuss what makes the bell-like, shimmering sound of guitar harmonics.

What Are Guitar Harmonics?

When we pluck a string on the guitar normally, the sound we hear is a combination of the fundamental frequency plus the overtones. The strength of these various overtone sounds is what constitutes the ‘timbre’ or what we would recognize as the “guitar sound”.

The timbre, which is a fancy word for "tone quality", is simply how the guitar sounds to a listener. For example, the classical guitar has a different timbre from the acoustic dreadnought guitar owing to the different type of strings that we use.

Similarly, we can change the timbre of our guitar by using harmonics. When we isolate these harmonics and play them, the timbre is noticeably different than if we were to simply fret and pluck the note normally.

What Types Of Guitar Harmonics Can You Play in Fingerstyle Guitar?

In fingerstyle guitar, you can play natural harmonics, harp (or artificial) harmonics, and tap (percussive) harmonics. Pinch harmonics are generally not possible with fingerstyle guitar, unless you are using hybrid picking.

Harmonics are used in fingerstyle guitar to create a change in timbre to the normally plucked string. This can give an “unearthly” or "spaced-out" feel to the music. Alternatively, tap harmonics are an exciting way to add a burst of colour to your arrangement.

You can also use harmonics to extend the range of the instrument. For example, you can play very high notes with harmonics in a lower fret position. We will show how this is possible in a table below.

Easy Guitar Harmonics To Play In Fingerstyle Guitar

The easiest guitar harmonic to play can be found at the twelfth fret, or the midpoint of the string. Touching this node will produce a harmonic that sounds one octave above the fundamental.  

Producing a Guitar Harmonic at the Twelfth Fret
Be precise when placing your finger on the node. Notice that the node is located exactly above the fret, not between or behind the fret.

The natural harmonic at the twelfth fret also produces the best harmonic sound: it is the easiest harmonic to get a loud, clear sound from your guitar.

Which Frets Have Guitar Harmonics?

There are harmonics at the twelfth, seventh (or nineteenth) and fifth (or twenty-fourth) frets. However, most commonly we will use the harmonics at the twelfth fret.

The following table shows the notes that are produced from natural harmonics in standard tuning. The notes on the 12th fret sound one octave higher than the open string, and the notes at the 7th (or 19th) fret will sound one octave and a fifth above the open string.

Open String Note Harmonic at 12th Fret Harmonic at 7th (or 19th) Fret
B B F♯
E (high) E

The node which produces the third harmonic is located at both the seventh or the eighteenth frets. This harmonic sounds an octave and a fifth above the fundamental.  Use this node to create higher sounding notes in lower positions.

A guitarist playing a really high note
You can find higher notes in lower numbered frets with harmonics, instead of having to play way up on the neck.

You may also use the fourth harmonic on some strings, which sounds two octaves above the open string. The node for this harmonic is located above the fifth fret, and also above the twenty-fourth fret. But since most acoustic guitars don't have that many frets, you have to use dead reckoning to find this node's location.

How To Play Artificial Harmonics On The Guitar

To extend the harmonics available to us on the guitar beyond the ones in the table above, we can use a technique called artificial harmonics.

To play an artificial harmonic, stop a note with the fretting hand, and touch the node with a finger of the right hand whilst simultaneously plucking the string with another right hand finger (usually the thumb or ring finger).

Illustration of the technique to produce a guitar harmonic
This technique is sometimes called "harp harmonics". The index finger touches the node and the thumb or ring finger plucks the string.

Example: How To Play 'F' As a Harmonic

We will stop the note in the first fret on the first string, which is the note ‘f’. We need to calculate the midpoint of the string, which is the location of our octave harmonic.

We no longer touch the twelfth fret because we have effectively shortened the string by stopping it with the finger. Therefore, the midpoint of the string is one fret higher, and the second harmonic node is now located at the 13th fret.

You can combine other techniques with guitar harmonics to produce special effects on the guitar. The following techniques are taught in more detail in the online course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!

What Are Cascading Harmonics?

Cascading harmonics involve the mixing of natural or artificial harmonics with regular stopped notes or open strings.

To play cascading harmonics, use the same technique that you use for playing artificial harmonics. Use one finger from the plucking hand, such as the ring finger, to pluck a string normally.

Place your index finger on the node and pluck that string with the thumb. The effect is caused by repeating these steps across many strings.

Playing the third harmonic at the 18th fret
Pluck the harmonic note with the thumb and touch the node with the index finger. This leaves the other fingers free to pluck normal notes.

Tommy Emmanuel has popularized this technique. He will hold a chord with the left hand and arpeggiate across the strings, combining normally plucked notes with artificial harmonic notes.

How To Play Percussive Harmonics on Fingerstyle Guitar

If you smash down with the flat part your finger at the node on an open string, this will cause the string to vibrate with harmonics.

Percussive harmonics give you an alternative from the delicate flute sound of plucked harmonics. With percussive harmonics, you get harmonics that sound at a louder volume.

Percussive harmonics are best produced using the second or third harmonics. Remember that the second harmonic is at the twelfth fret of the guitar and the third harmonic is at the seventh or the eighteenth fret. 

How To Play Tap Harmonics on Fingerstyle Guitar

If you quickly tap the string at the node and release or rebound with the fingertip, this will also produce a percussive harmonic effect.

Another possibility is to tap the harmonics with the right hand, and then tap normal notes with the left hand. One effect that Sungha Jung uses is tap harmonics while he holds a chord. This produces a mixture of harmonic notes and regular sounding notes.

In all cases, you must be precise in where you tap the string if you want harmonics to sound. If need be, count up from the first fret and locate precisely the node that you want to hit. Both stopped notes and the capo can change the location of the node. 

To easily play harmonics, count up the number frets from the fundamental to precisely locate your node.

How To Notate Harmonics for Fingerstyle Guitar

Harmonics are notated with a diamond shaped notehead in standard notation. In tablature, the fret number where the node is located is written between chevrons, like this: <12>.

If you are playing artificial or harp harmonics, the fret number is notated first in the tab, followed by the fret where you need to touch the node. For example: 2<14> means you fret a note in the second fret and touch a node at the fourteenth fret.

Remember that harmonics other than the octave harmonic at the midpoint sound different from the fretted note. For example, if you play the note at the seventh fret on the first string, you will hear the note 'b'. But touching the node at this fret produces a harmonic that sounds a 'b' which is one octave higher than the fretted note.

Guitar harmonics are one of those techniques you will need to learn in order to be able to play advanced fingerstyle guitar. These techniques are covered in detail in my online course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!