In this article we will look at how to play harmonics on the guitar. We will also discuss the technical aspect behind harmonics.
What Are Harmonics on Guitar?
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”.
Guitar harmonics are simply a way for you to get a different sound quality or timbre from your guitar.
How to perform Guitar Harmonics
To perform a guitar harmonic, place a fingertip on the node and sound the string. You can either pluck the string normally or use a percussive effect. Harmonic sounds can also be combined with normal notes to produce contrasting timbre.
Sound Quality or Timbre
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 harmonic#s.
Harmonics or more precisely, harmonic partials, are partials whose frequencies are numerical integer multiples of the fundamental. 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.
The Fundamental or First Harmonic
The fundamental is simply another name for the first harmonic. In the example of the guitar, the fundamental tone is the sound produced by the string when plucked normally.
Harmonics are sometimes called flageolet (flag·eo·let) tones. This is a small flutelike instrument with a cylindrical mouthpiece, four finger holes, and two thumbholes. It is said that harmonics sound flute-like and this is especially true on other stringed instruments like the violin.
How Are Harmonics Produced?
If we 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. There are evenly spaced nodes along the string which we can touch and prevent the string from moving at that node. This technique of touching the string at the node and then plucking it produces harmonics.
For example, if a guitarist lightly places her finger on the node without applying pressure to push the string all the way down to the fretboard, a third node is created (in addition to the bridge and nut) and a harmonic is sounded. The harmonic note produced depends on the particular location where you touch the node.
How are Harmonics Used?
Harmonics can be used to extend the range of the instrument, as you can play very high notes with harmonics in a lower fret position. Guitarists can also use the particular ‘timbre’ of harmonics to 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.
Types of Guitar Harmonics
There are two types of harmonics, natural and artificial. But they are essentially produced using the same technique – a slight pressure applied to the node while the string is plucked.
Natural harmonics are produced by applying slight pressure of the finger of the left hand at a node on the open string and plucking the string with the right hand. This technique is useful for learning how to play harmonics on the guitar in the first place.
An artificial harmonic involves stopping a note with the left hand finger and touching 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).
How to Play Natural Harmonics On The Guitar
If the finger is placed at the midpoint of the string, the first overtone is heard, which is an octave above the fundamental note. On the guitar, the midpoint of an open string is located exactly above the twelfth fret. Therefore, the node which produces the second harmonic is located at this point, exactly above the twelfth fret at the guitar. By placing a finger on this node and plucking the open string, you will sound a note that is one octave above the open string.
Let’s now take the example of an artificial harmonic. We will stop the note in the first fret on the first string, which is the note ‘f’. Now if we want to produce the second harmonic, we no longer touch the twelfth fret because we have effectively shortened the string by stopping it with the finger. We need to calculate the midpoint by adding one fret. Therefore the second harmonic node is now located at the 13th fret. We can use a right-hand finger to pluck this node as the left hand is busy stopping the note.
Higher Sounding Natural Harmonics
The other nodes which are useful for producing natural harmonics are at the seventh fret, which produces the third harmonic, sounding an octave and a fifth higher than the open string, and the fourth harmonic, located above the fifth fret and which sounds two octaves above the open string.
Stopping the string at the seventh fret (or the 19th) divides the string into thirds; this creates an octave and a perfect fifth or the interval of a twelfth. Stopping at the fifth (or 24th) divides the string into quarters, and this creates a double octave.
Advantages of Harmonics On The Guitar
If you stop a note with the left hand and subsequently release your finger on the guitar fretboard, the note ceases to sound. But with natural harmonics, the note keeps ringing after you pluck the string, sort of like playing an open string. This could potentially free up your hand to do other things while the note still sounds.
Cascading harmonics involve the mixing of natural or artificial harmonics with regular stopped notes or open strings. The technique used to play cascading harmonics is the same as you can use for the artificial harmonics.
The idea behind this is to hold a chord with the left hand and combine normally plucked notes with artificial harmonic notes. Because there are stopped notes, we need to calculate twelve frets up from the fretted note to pluck our artificial harmonics.
These plucked harmonics or flageolet tones are beautiful but soft in volume. In particular the cascading harmonics are better suited to intimate effects. So with percussive harmonics we can finally get away from the flute sound of regular plucked harmonics and get harmonics that sound at a louder volume.
How to Play Tap Harmonics
How can we mix the outer earthly flute sound of harmonics but somehow make it more exciting? We can smash down our finger at the node which aggressively causes the string to vibrate whilst stopping it at the node.
The guitar already resembles a percussive instrument in that there is no sustain. We can describe the sound of an instrument with four words: attack, decay, sustain, and release. When we strike or pluck a guitar string, it’s impossible to sustain the sound because we don’t have anything to keep the string vibrating.
Performing Percussive Harmonics
Percussive harmonics are best at the second and 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. The double octave harmonic at the fifth fret is good when plucked but doesn’t sound well when hit.
You can do a percussive harmonic sound with the fingertip, tapping the string at the node and rebounding with the finger. Alternatively, you can strike across multiple strings with the flat of the finger. This technique produces a whole chord of harmonics.
You can also hit on the 12th and then the 19th fret to get two different harmonic sounds using the same open strings or held chord. Another possibility is to tap the harmonics with the right hand, and then tap normal notes with the left hand. Sungha Jung in particular is fond of doing this (cf ‘Flaming’).
The only problem now comes down to notation. With harmonics, the note sounded is different from the fretted note in all cases except the notes at the twelfth fret. So be aware that a note marked to be played at the seventh fret will be different depending on if it’s played normally or as a harmonic.
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.
Watch the accompanying video to learn more about Guitar Harmonics.