Harmonics on the guitar have quite a special effect, as they produce delicate, bell-like textures.
Here, we will explore how to play natural and artificial guitar harmonics and demonstrate a few of our favorite approaches for incorporating them into our music.
Click here to watch the tonebase lesson on this topic for FREE!
Harmonics are not purely a musical phenomenon; they occur everywhere in nature. For example, wind passing through a tube or tunnel creates eerie sounds resulting from the harmonic series.
Many instrumentalists and even singers can harness the harmonic series to great musical effect.
Every pitch that is played on the guitar creates an infinite number of overtones above it. When we play harmonics, we bring out these overtones instead of the fundamental pitch that we would ordinarily hear.
If a string is divided in half (fret 12), the first harmonic sounds an octave higher than the open string.
Dividing the string into thirds (fret 7) gives the second harmonic a perfect fifth above the first harmonic. The same harmonic can also be found at fret 19. Dividing the string into quarters (fret 5) gives the third harmonic two octaves above the open string.
Further harmonics are possible beyond these, but they become much fainter and more difficult to bring out.
To play natural harmonics, the left-hand finger (Badi suggests the third finger) should lightly touch the string directly over the chosen fret.
Lifting the finger after the note is sounded allows more resonance. Harmonics in different positions and in combination with open strings can create dazzling effects.
We notate harmonics on the guitar with diamond-shaped noteheads, including the string number and fret to play. Artificial harmonics (discussed in a later section) are notated down an octave to represent the note to fret with the left hand.
Alternating between harmonics and open strings can lead to very interesting musical effects!
Natural harmonics can also be played with the right hand alone, using the index finger to touch the node on the string and the ring finger to pluck.
In the bass, it is often better to use the thumb to pluck to avoid scraping the nail on the metal-wound strings.
This will likely involve an adjustment around the right-hand wrist. Similarly, with this method, the right hand can play harmonics at fret 19, and even some over the soundhole. These might take some trial-and-error to find.
Spend some time experimenting with both hands to find harmonics and with different fingerings.
If the left hand explores harmonics at frets 5, 7, 9, and 12, use other fingers, shifting with finger 1 if necessary. As a further challenge, try locating harmonics with closed eyes or looking away (perhaps sticking to just frets 5, 7, and 12). Natural harmonics with the left and right hands (frets 5, 7, and 19) can also be combined to great effect
Try these harmonics with your eyes closed!
If the left hand stops the string, the octave harmonics no longer fall in the twelfth fret, but rather twelve frets above the stopped note.
So, if F is held on string 1 in the first fret, the octave harmonic will be in fret 13. If F-sharp is held in fret 2, the harmonic moves to fret 14.
These can be played with the right hand by octave node with the index finger and plucking with the ring finger. Play the following exercises by shifting your left hand as needed to sound the written notes.
These are known as artificial harmonics and can be used to create entire melodies:
By combining artificial harmonics and regular notes, the guitar can create brilliant waterfall-like cascading effects.
Among the players that tonebase instructor Badi Assad has worked with, Larry Coryell and John Abercrombie are particularly good at these effects. Try the following examples as Assad demonstrates them in the lesson:
Instead of alternating between artificial harmonics and regular notes, it is also possible to combine these simultaneously. The thumb and index fingers can play harmonics on the lower strings, and the ring finger can play regular notes above. Take care to balance the two voices, making sure both can be heard clearly.
Alternatively, the tumb can play accompanying bass notes while the index and ring fingers play harmonics above.
Bringing it all together
In Assad’s arrangement of Milton Nascimento’s “Ponta de Areia,” she combines natural and artificial harmonics with regular notes.
The result is a mesmerizing display of overlapping textures and harmonies, enhanced with wave-like dynamic contours. As the position of the regular notes changes, this often means the left-hand fingering for the harmonics needs to change, but the rhythmic pattern remains stable throughout.
With so many moving parts, it is very important to get all the relevant fingers to find harmonics accurately and consistently.
Now, we should be comfortable with how to play guitar harmonics, and we have expanded our color palette on the classical guitar.
If you’d like to watch the full lesson on this topic by Badi Assad for free, click here.
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