In this article we will discuss how to play harmonics on the acoustic guitar.  Understand and unlock the secrets of guitar harmonics with this comprehensive guide.

When playing fingerstyle guitar, you will need to master several techniques, including guitar harmonics. By understanding how to play guitar harmonics, you will add another dimension to your guitar playing.

Before we dive into how to play harmonics, we will first 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”.

Harmonics Change the Sound Quality or Timbre of the Guitar

We can change the timbre of the guitar in many ways. 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.

How To Effectively Use Guitar Harmonics

This change in timbre can give an “unearthly” or "spaced-out" feel. 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. You can play very high notes with harmonics in a lower fret position. Guitarists can also use the particular ‘timbre’ of harmonics to

How To Produce 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.

How to Find Nodes to Produce Guitar Harmonics

The most common guitar node 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
Touching the node at the twelfth fret and plucking the string will produce a harmonic that sounds one octave higher than the open string.

Precise Location of the Node

Notice that the node is located exactly above the fret, not between or behind the fret.

How To Play 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
Technique to produce artificial guitar harmonics. Here, the index finger touches the node and the thumb plucks the string.

Playing the note '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. 

Higher Sounding Natural Harmonics

The other commonly used node is found at both the seventh or the eighteenth frets. This node produces the third harmonic, which sounds an octave and a fifth above the fundamental. 

You may also use the fourth harmonic, which sounds two octaves above the open string. The node for this harmonic is located above the fifth fret.

Playing the third harmonic at the 18th fret
The harmonic at the 18th fret produces a note that sounds an octave and a fifth above the fundamental

Other techniques with Guitar Harmonics

You can combine other techniques with guitar harmonics to produce special effects on the guitar

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. Hold a chord with the left hand and combine normally plucked notes with artificial harmonic notes.

Percussive Harmonics

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. 

Tap Harmonics

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. 

Notating harmonics

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>.

With harmonics other than the octave harmonic at the midpoint, the note sounded is 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 one octave above the fretted note.

I’ve also invented a notation involving tap harmonics by indicating the node which should be tapped by either ‘12’ for the second harmonic, or ‘18’ for the third.