From the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JEFF GUNN
The beauty of the acoustic guitar is elevated by natural harmonics, which result from delicately touching an open string or strings at a given point. Transcending musical genres, these chime-like sounds feature prominently in everything from Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side” intro to Antoine Dufour’s solo guitar interpretation of Coldplay’s “Talk.” Here’s all you need to know:
1. Get the Right Touch
Natural harmonics are most easily produced by lightly resting a fret-hand finger directly over the fretwire at the fifth, seventh, or 12th fret, while picking the string(s). It’s important not to apply too much pressure over the fret or else the harmonics will not sound. An attractive and useful quality of harmonics is that they continue to sound even after the finger has been removed, enabling guitarists to easily blend them with fretted notes in different positions.
2. How to Sound Natural Harmonics
The following exercises will teach you how to sound natural harmonics in the most common locations. Play Exs. 1–7 first using your first finger, then using each of your other fret-hand fingers. Ex. 1 illustrates how to sound natural harmonics at the 12th fret. Extend this approach in Ex. 2 by ascending three notes at a time. Then, strum all six strings using natural harmonics in Ex. 3 by resting your finger at the 12th fret; Ex. 4 applies the same technique at the seventh fret. Ex. 5 features a descending note pattern at the seventh fret. In Ex. 6, strike the natural harmonics at the fifth fret, and in Ex. 7 use those harmonics in a descending triplet (three evenly spaced notes per beat) run.
3. Combine Natural Harmonics With Fretted Notes
Ex. 8 advances the use of natural harmonics by combining their unique sound with fretted notes to form an Aadd9 chord. Play the sixth-fret CG and fifth-fret E with your second and first fingers, respectively, and use your fourth finger above fret 7 to sound the B harmonic. Ex. 9 requires that you sound the A harmonic under fretted and open notes, serving as an alternative to the expected bass note. Sound that harmonic with your third finger. Develop the approach further in Ex. 10 by alternating pseudo-bass notes using A and E harmonics at the seventh fret, and apply the same alternating bass technique in Ex. 11, based on a Dadd9 chord.
4. Explore Other Frets
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In Ex. 12, natural harmonics help enhance an A–Dadd9 progression. Once you’re able to cleanly produce natural harmonics in these exercises, explore the harmonics at frets 2, 4, and 9 by carefully picking the strings closer to the bridge. Then, try incorporating natural harmonics into some of your own pieces.
Jeff Gunn is author of the Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar series. He is the musical director of Emmanuel Jal. jeffgunn.ca.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.