You want to learn how to play those tricky artificial harmonics on your acoustic guitar that channel the sound of a harp, much like Chet Atkins did in his famous version of “Over the Rainbow,” or the way Lenny Breau—a master of artificial harmonics—put his imprint on standards like “Autumn Leaves.” But where to begin?
Delve into a series of graduated exercises designed to get you used to playing harp harmonics, first on their own and then in context.
1. Chime In
Start by fretting a note conventionally, say the F# on string 6, fret 2. Keeping that note held, place your pick-hand’s index finger lightly above the note 12 frets higher on the same string, the 14th-fret F# as shown in Ex. 1. While fingering that harmonic, pick the string downward, with your pick-hand’s thumb. If you’re playing the harmonic correctly, you’ll get a chime-like tone that’s an octave higher than the second-fret F#.
2. Build Harp Harmonics Around a Familiar Chord Shape
Ex. 2 subjects a G barre chord to harp harmonics. In notation, each harmonic is indicated by a diamond-shaped notehead; the location of the harmonic is shown in tablature in parentheses. To play the example, maintain the G-chord grip throughout while you pick the harp harmonics. Remember to touch the string lightly when producing each harmonic, and let all notes ring for as long as possible.
In Ex. 3, keep the G shape held in your fret hand, but play the harmonics seven frets higher, as opposed to 12. The harmonics sound an octave plus a fifth higher than the fretted notes, so if you’re playing the figure correctly, you’ll hear a D arpeggio. Ex. 4, which combines harp harmonics with a conventionally fretted G note on string 1, fret 3, builds on Ex. 3. Produce the harmonics as you’ve done in previous examples, and pick those Gs, indicated with regular noteheads, with your ring finger.
Next try Ex. 5, which is essentially Ex. 3, but with a seven-fret distance between the fretted shape and the harmonics. The resulting sound—a Gmaj9—is rather colorful. Be sure to play the regular notes and harp harmonics at equal volume.
3. Add Chordal Accents with Regular Notes
Ex. 6 extends the harp-harmonic concept with three-note chords, pitted against harp harmonics played 12 frets higher than the G shape. Strum the chords with your ring finger. You’ll find the same idea, but—you guessed it—with harmonics seven frets higher, in Ex. 7.
You will up the ante in Ex. 8 and Ex. 9, in which harp harmonics and regular notes are sounded in pairs. As before, pick each harmonic with your thumb while catching the other note with your ring finger. Take care not to play the fretted notes too loudly.
4. Play Full Chords Using Harp Harmonics
Ex. 10 reveals how to sound entire chords using harp harmonics. Use your fret hand’s first finger to bar all six strings at fret 3. Sound the Gm11 chord by placing your pick-hand’s index finger at fret 15 and strumming the strings with your ring finger. Be sure to move your ring finger across the set of strings in a synchronized way with your index finger. In Ex. 11, do the same thing, but with your index finger at fret 10, forming a Dm11 chord.
5. Move Things Around
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In practice, skilled guitarists don’t stick to one location when deploying harp harmonics. Here’s how to get started switching among different spots on the neck: In Ex. 12, you’ll hold that G barre chord while shifting between harmonics played 12 and seven frets higher. Ex. 13 moves around even more, with a chord progression using a variety of different harmonics.
Once you’re comfortable with this lesson’s exercises, try spicing up some of your own favorite chord progressions with harp harmonics, and you’ll have some cool new tonal colors at your disposal.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.