Weekly Workout: How to Use Harmonics to Add Texture to Your Playing
If you’ve ever paid any attention to the acoustic guitar parts in songs like “Roundabout” by Yes or “Black Mountain Side” by Led Zeppelin, then you’re no doubt familiar with the chiming sounds of harmonics. These ringing notes are called natural harmonics and are produced at certain nodes, or locations, on an open string, dividing it into equal parts.
A range of harmonics—natural, harp, percussive, and pinch—can be used on guitar in conjunction with conventionally fretted notes and open strings to create beautiful effects and textures. Many guitarists include natural harmonics in transitional passages between vocal phrases or song sections, but learning how to play all kinds of harmonics—and combining them in different ways—will open new avenues of expression on the acoustic guitar.
In this lesson, you’ll learn how each type of harmonic is produced, how it’s commonly notated, and how it can be used to add textural interest to your playing.
A natural harmonic is produced by lightly resting a fretting finger directly above the fret wire—not between the frets, as in conventional fretting. Natural harmonics are most commonly played at the 12th, seventh, and fifth frets, producing pitches an octave, an octave plus a fifth, and two octaves, respectively, above the open strings. (Less commonly, harmonics are played at locations like the fourth and ninth frets.)
Begin by trying some harmonics at the 12th fret (Example 1), as they’re the easiest to produce. You can use any fretting finger, but I recommend a third-finger barre. Remember not to use too much pressure—do not press down on the string(s) as you would when fretting. If you’re properly playing the harmonics, you should get a brilliant chiming sound. Example 2brings strummed harmonics at the 12th and seventh frets into play, producing Em7 and Em7/B chords. Again, use your fretting hand’s third finger to produce the harmonics, and strum as you normally would.
In Example 3, you’ll find another common approach to natural harmonics. Here they’re interspersed with fretted notes and open strings to outline a Dadd9–Em progression. Play the 12th-fret harmonic in bar 1 with your fourth finger and the seventh-fret harmonic in the following measure with your first finger. After you’ve worked through this week’s examples, try experimenting with harmonics on your own in all locations on the fretboard.
Beginners’ Tip #1
When playing natural harmonics, place your fretting finger(s) directly above the fretboard, rather than between the frets. And try exploring natural harmonics at locations other than frets 5, 7, and 12.
Harp harmonics, also known as artificial harmonics, differ from natural harmonics in that they’re based on fretted notes, rather than open strings. Country and jazz guitarists Chet Atkins and Lenny Breau were known for their masterly and extensive use of this harmonic type. You can create a harp harmonic by taking any fretted note, and, using your picking hand’s index finger, lightly touching the string 12 frets higher, again directly above the fret wire, while picking the string with your thumb or other available finger. (Harp harmonics can also be produced five or seven frets above a fretted note, but these are less common.) In tablature, the fretted note is indicated as usual, while the location of the harp harmonic is shown in parentheses to the right.
Example 4 illustrates a typical chord progression in the key of G major—G–Am–C–G—
produced entirely with artificial harmonics. To play this figure, fret basic barre chords throughout. Hold down each chord shape for the duration of its measure, letting all the notes ring together while you play the harp harmonics 12 frets higher. Play them so that each note rings clearly and cleanly.
Maintain this 12-fret distance in Example 5, in which you’ll play the same progression as Ex. 4, but with a different picking pattern, as well as an interesting combination of harp harmonics and fretted notes. Now try experimenting with harp harmonics over your own favorite chord progressions.
Beginners’ Tip #2
A striking way to decorate any barre chord is to arpeggiate it using a combination of fretted notes and harp harmonics, using Example 5 as a benchmark.
Though it might seem impossible, you can strum entire chords using harp harmonics. That’s the focus of this week’s exercises. To play Example 6, based on an Am11–Gm11 progression, start by barring all six strings at the fifth fret with your index finger. Play the first four notes as you learned last week, producing the harp harmonics 12 frets higher with your picking hand’s index finger and picking them with your thumb. Then—and here’s the tricky part—in one continuous downward motion, from string 6 to string 1, play the harmonics with your index finger while simultaneously picking them with your thumb.
For the second measure, move the barre down to fret 3, and play the first four notes in the same way you did those in the previous measure. But this time, play the chord on beat 3 in the opposite direction, from string 1 to string 6, picking the harmonics with your ring finger, rather than index.
Now I’d like to show you how to do some percussive harmonics—an essential technique of innovative acoustic guitarists like Michael Hedges, Kaki King, and Andy McKee. In Example 7, I use these harmonics to decorate a little progression in the key of E minor. These are natural harmonics, fingered exactly like those introduced in Week 1. The percussive aspect comes from the picking hand—slap your thumb on the strings to play the harmonics, while also creating a nice drum-like sound. (Note that in the video, on the repeat, I play the harmonics at the 19th fret on the Bm11 chord. The harmonics in this location sound at the same pitch as those at the seventh fret.)
Tap harmonics, also used by Hedges, et al., are an interesting variation on harp harmonics. Like harp harmonics, they’re based on fretted notes. But as the name suggests, they’re articulated by tapping—or hammering—and not picking. To play a tap harmonic, start with a fretted note and eyeball the note 12 (or seven or five) frets higher on the same string. Then, with your picking hand’s middle finger, hammer down firmly, directly on the fret wire of the higher fret, and quickly remove your middle finger from the string, sounding the harmonic. Example 8 shows tap harmonics in the context of a chordal etude in D minor. Remember to hold down each chord shape with your fretting hand for as long as possible.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Once you’ve learned how to produce tap harmonics on single notes, as in Example 8, try them on full chords. For instance, form a G barre chord in third position, and, with your picking hand’s first finger above all six strings, slap down on the strings at the 15th fret.
In Example 9 you’ll find an excerpt from the beginning of my composition “Candle Lanterns,” for solo guitar, which will put your newfound harp-harmonic technique to use in a more extended passage. (For a free download of notation for the full piece, head to jeffgunnmusic.com.) To play the example, keep your fretting hand’s first finger barred at the fifth fret throughout. Taking things slowly, sound each harp harmonic with precision, making sure to maintain a 12-fret relationship between each fretted note and its harmonic. Also, listen carefully to ensure that the harmonics sound at equal volume to the picked fretted notes, and that everything rings together smoothly.
Now that you’ve spent four weeks with harmonics of all types, don’t forget to continue to explore them in your own music. You’ll be a more interesting guitarist for it.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Try to come up with new chord voicings using both harmonics and fretted notes. For example, if your stop the eighth-fret C on string 6 with your first finger and use your fourth finger to barre the harmonics on strings 5–1 at the 12th fret, you get the colorful chord of Cmaj13.
TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Pinch harmonics are most commonly associated with distorted electric guitars and players like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, but they can also be used to draw unexpected sounds from the acoustic guitar. To play a pinch harmonic, use a flatpick, adding a bit of the flesh of your thumb to the pick attack, such that a squealing sound is produced. In the example shown here, an A minor pentatonic (A C D E G) riff is decorated with pinch harmonics.
Jeff Gunn is author of the series Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar as well as the guitarist and musical director for Emmanuel Jal. His album Sonic Tales will be released this year. jeffgunnmusic.com
Explore more excerpts from Acoustic Guitar’s popular Weekly Workout series here.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.