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Ready to learn one of the most beautiful effects in guitar? Here's the best way to add some sparkle to your playing!

When played at a fast speed, cascading harmonics can create a mesmerizing shower of harp-like tones on your guitar.

When you do cascading harmonics, your ear is tricked into hearing all the notes as harmonics, creating an illusion of cascading, flowing tones that will leave your audience spellbound.

This innovative technique has been mastered by some of the greatest fingerstyle guitarists of our time, including Howard Morgen, Chet Atkins, and Tommy Emmanuel. 

How Do Cascading Harmonics Work?

Cascading harmonics is the magic of rapidly alternating harmonics with non-harmonic notes in the same octave. 

For example, let's say you want to play the note D, which is the fourth string open, and then you play the sixth string open, which is the note E. Because these two notes aren't in the same octave, the ear perceives them as being fundamentally different.

You will learn more about octaves in my online course, Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!

But when you play a harmonic at the 12th fret on the high E string, you're actually playing the note E that's an octave higher than the open E string. This harmonic E note is the same pitch as the E note you can play on the fourth string at the second fret, which is a whole step above the open D note on the fourth string.

Because harmonics have a pure, bell-like tone that rings out like an open string, you can create a cool illusion by playing the open string D note and quickly alternating with the  harmonic E at the 12th fret.

Since the two notes are so close together in pitch, your brain has a hard time distinguishing between them, and it can sound like both notes are ringing out as either open strings or harmonics.

Cascading harmonics takes this effect and uses it over a whole chord, across all the strings, instead of just alternating between two notes.

How To Play Cascading Harmonics

Before you dive in, make sure you've got your right-hand harmonic technique down pat. You should be able to play natural harmonics fluently just with the plucking hand.

Now, start by plucking the E string over the 12th fret, using your thumb to sound the string and your index finger to lightly touch the string at the harmonic node.  You can also pluck the string with the ring finger, though I prefer the thumb.

Then, try playing a regular D note on the open fourth string with your ring finger, followed by a harmonic E note on the sixth string, using your index finger to touch the string at the twelfth fret and your thumb to sound the string.

Notice that even though the notation for E on the sixth string is in a lower octave, the sound of the harmonic E is in the same octave as the D on the fourth string, which helps create that mesmerizing, cascading effect.

How To Notate Cascading Harmonics

Notating cascading harmonics can be a challenge, especially when only using standard notation. Traditionally when notating harmonics, the fret where the harmonic  would be located is listed in roman numerals, and the string number listed in Arabic numerals with a circle around it.

I find this confusing so I use Arabic numerals by notating in the tablature the fret of the stopped note in tablature and the fret location of the harmonic node right next to it with a circle.

Example tablature notation of natural and artificial harmonics which are played with open strings to produce cascading harmonics

Harmonic nodes can also be notated with chevrons, but I am unable to do this with Musescore unfortunately.

How To Play Cascading Harmonics With Chords

When playing cascading harmonics, you'll need to play harmonic tones at the note which are an octave above the open string note. You can also use the node which is an octave and a fifth above the open string, but this is rare in the case of cascading harmonics.

For example, to play cascading harmonics on the G string, you would play the harmonic at the 12th fret, which produces the harmonic note that sounds an octave above the open G string.

But when you play harmonics with chords or fretted notes, you now have to displace the node of the harmonic by the number of the fretted note.

For instance, in the example above, we are playing the note F which is on the sixth string at the first fret. To create a harmonic note which is one octave higher, instead of playing at the 12th fret, you'll need to move your finger to the 13th fret to play the harmonic.

This is because the 13th fret is an octave above the 1st fret, and playing a harmonic at the 13th fret will produce the same note as playing the open string.

I have an entire lesson dedicated to cascading harmonics in my course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!, so I encourage you to check out that course if you want to perfect this technique and add a beautiful, harp-like sound to your guitar playing.