Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Harmonics and How to Play Them on Guitar

When played clearly, harmonics sound bell-like and chimey, and they sustain to add a harp-like effect to your sound.

The use of harmonics showcases one of the most beautiful techniques available on the guitar. There are two kinds of harmonics: natural and artificial. This lesson will focus on how to play both types and incorporate them into your playing. Harmonics appear in virtually all styles of guitar music, from classical to bluegrass to rock. (Remember the classic introduction to “Roundabout” by Yes?) When played clearly, they sound bell-like and chimey, and they sustain to add a harp-like effect to your sound.

Where to Find Harmonics

Every note on any instrument includes both a fundamental tone and a series of harmonic overtones. The first naturally occurring overtones in this series correspond to certain intervals that outline a major triad. When a guitar string vibrates, several points along the string stay stationary; these points are called nodes. You can play natural harmonics at each of these, and they all produce different overtones. For example, the first harmonic in the series is the 12th-fret harmonic octave—also the easiest to play—and is the midpoint of the string.

Here are all of the corresponding intervals that sound with each node: 

  • 12th fret = octave
  • 7th fret = perfect fifth above the octave
  • 5th fret = second octave 
  • 4th and 9th frets = major third above second octave
  • 3rd fret = fifth above second octave
  • 2nd fret = major second above third octave

Natural Harmonics in Action

Playing natural harmonics is a two-part technique. First, position your fretting-hand finger directly over the actual fret instead of between the frets, as you normally would. (There are only a few nodes that break this rule, like the harmonic at the third fret, which is slightly beyond the third fret, at approximately fret 3.3.) Second, touch the string with your fretting finger but have no contact with the fretboard.


Lightly rest your finger on top of the string, but not too lightly. As long as your finger is touching the string directly over the fret, and not pressing down on the fretboard, you’ll be able to get the harmonic to sound. After you play the harmonic, you can take your finger off the string; the harmonic will continue ringing. Note that it is easier to get harmonics to sound when the picking hand attacks the string closer to the bridge than the soundhole. 

Let’s play the natural harmonics (indicated in the notation with diamond-shaped noteheads) at the 12th, seventh, and fifth frets, as shown in Example 1. In all these examples, let each note ring as long as possible, as if you were playing piano and holding down the sustain pedal. 

You can play more than one harmonic at a time, using double-stops (Example 2) and chords (Example 3). The voicings in Ex. 3 are used quite often and will work over several roots for different sounds, as seen in Example 4, with the harmonics functioning as chord tones or extensions. For example, the 12th-fret harmonics on the top three strings (G, B, and E) spell an E minor triad. Since these harmonics will sustain, you may choose to play them first and then follow with a low bass note (Example 5).

As shown in Examples 6–8, harmonic chord splashes also make great endings. They’re equally effective as intros; “Roundabout,” for instance, starts with a 12th-fret harmonic on the low E string, followed by 12th-fret harmonics on the top three strings.

You can also play natural harmonics in succession to create scales and melodic lines. In standard tuning, the harmonics on the fifth, seventh, and 12th frets generally work in the keys of G, C, D, A minor, and E minor. In fact, the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D) is built into the natural harmonics in standard tuning (Example 9). As shown in Example 10, you can even play arpeggios on a single string.

Artificial Harmonics 

Artificial harmonics use the same concept and technique as natural harmonics. The only difference is that the fretting hand plays the notes or chord shapes while the picking hand outlines the harmonic and plucks the string. Let’s say you want to play the harmonics of a G minor chord. Your fretting hand makes the Gm shape while your picking hand outlines the chord 12 frets (one octave) higher, as shown in Example 11. So, finger the low G on the third fret while touching the 15th fret, the A on the fifth fret while touching the 17th fret, and so on.


If you’re a fingerstyle player, use your picking hand’s index finger to touch the harmonic. (Remember, play over the fret just like you did with the fretting hand for natural harmonics; use your picking-hand thumb to pluck the string). If you’re using a pick, grip it between your thumb and middle finger, and use your index finger to lightly touch the harmonic in the same manner, while picking the string directly behind the index finger.

You can create different artificial harmonics by plucking the strings in various places, just as you did with natural harmonics. To create a harmonic at the fifth interval, point your index finger to the corresponding note a fifth above your fretting hand (seven frets up). To play harmonics a fifth above G minor, outline a D minor chord at the tenth fret with your picking hand while your fretting hand holds down Gm in third position (Example 12). You can even combine natural and artificial harmonics, as in the Am7 chord depicted in Example 13.

Alternative Techniques 

So far, we’ve articulated harmonics using a traditional pick or strum. Many contemporary fingerstylists like to create special effects using other techniques. One popular method is the slapping technique. Slap the strings over the fret location you want (12th fretworks the best) and bounce right back off, as if it were a hot stove. You can do this with your fretting-hand index or middle finger, and, as shown in Example 14, it creates a great percussive effect. 

Another popular technique involves passing two harmonics or harmonic chords back and forth between your left and right hands; this is possible because the harmonics are not defined or limited by the frets. To play Example 15, as I demonstrate in the accompanying video, lay your fretting hand across the seventh fret and sound the harmonics by strumming with your picking hand. Then lay your picking hand across the 12th fret and strum the strings with your fretting hand as you pull them off the seventh fret. Continue going back and forth like this, with one hand touching the harmonic node while the other strums the strings.


Harmonics in Context

Now let’s try these techniques in a short etude, “Northern Stars” (Example 16). Remember to let all of the notes sustain, blending them together to create the sound of a sonic waterfall. In bar 6, alternate between harmonics and conventionally fretted notes. Use the artificial-harmonic technique to play this line; the index finger and thumb (or pick held between thumb and middle fingers) plays the harmonic, and the ring or pinky finger plays the other notes (F# and open B string).

Harmonics will work in almost any style. Try using natural harmonics in your next guitar solo or add a 12th-fret harmonic splash to a rhythm-guitar part. Artificial harmonics make great introductions or solo guitar interludes and can be used any time you want to create a different texture in your music.

Harmonics guitar lesson examples 1–10
Harmonics guitar lesson examples 11–16
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Sean McGowan
Sean McGowan

Sean McGowan's work focuses on jazz, fingerstyle, composition, and injury prevention for musicians. He is a professor of music at the University of Colorado Denver and has authored several instructional books.

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