How to Play Harmonics

Topics: Guitar, How To, Skills

One would think that playing a note on the piano or guitar or violin will give off that note, and only that note, right?  Well, thankfully/unfortunately it’s slightly more complex than that.  Something called “harmonics” comes into play, and since there are several terms associated with them (including various guitar techniques using the same name) it’s easy to get confused.  This article will explain what harmonics are first from a scientific standpoint, and then how to achieve those sacred, squealing “harmonic” techniques on the guitar.

Naturally Occurring Harmonics

Harmonics from a musically scientific standpoint are extra frequencies or overtones that occur naturally when playing an instrument.  For example, when you play an A on the piano (440Hz), other notes will resonate besides that A.  You’ll get the E (659.26Hz), the octave above A (880Hz), and (depending on the instrument) a whole boat load of other frequencies that are NOT A.  These frequencies occur naturally because of instrument shape and material, what the strings are made of, string tension, the finish on the instrument, the method and position of strumming or bowing or plucking, and any other random pieces of stuff you decide to attach to your instrument.  As you can see, there are a lot of factors that affect the harmonics coming from an instrument.  These things all add up to build the “sound” of an instrument that we’ve come to know and love.  This is also the reason a guitar doesn’t sound like a violin, or a cello like a piano.  Each instrument has its own unique flavor because of the combination of these overtones.

So naturally, when you go to buy an instrument, this is what you’re looking for.  You’re listening closely to the sounds coming from your fingers playing the instrument, and evaluating the overtones that the instrument is able to resonate.  Usually an instrument that doesn’t emit these extra harmonics well is one that we call “dull” or “dead” sounding.  Nobody wants to buy this kind of instrument (putting aside random artistic experiments).  On the other hand, an instrument that has a “rich” or “full” sound is one that gives off the overtones nicely.  This is the sign of good craftsmanship, and the reason people pay thousands for a good instrument.


That’s it for science.  From now on I’m gonna talk from a guitarist’s perspective, but many of these things can be applied to other stringed instruments as well.  Banjos, ukuleles, and mandolins are obvious, but you can technically do these tricks with anything that has a string (and I encourage such experimentation).  These are all names of guitar techniques, to be used sparingly, kind of like icing on a cake. But don’t worry one bit if you decide to make a cake solely out of frosting.  I’m sure somebody will eat it.

Natural Harmonics

When I was a new guitarist, I was really confused about natural harmonics.  Maybe I’m just slow (which I am), but I read an online lesson and didn’t get the technique at all.  If you’re in the same boat as I was, never fear.  It’s not too hard.  Also, don’t confuse the jargon “natural” harmonics with “naturally occurring” harmonics.  Naturally occurring harmonics come about naturally when you play an instrument, but playing “natural” harmonics is a technique.


Photo by: Mjchael

To play a “natural” harmonic, (as an example) simply place your finger on the 12th fret of any string, which is the exact middle of the string, and pluck. DO NOT press the string down to the fretboard, and make sure your finger is exactly over the 12th fret.  Try moving your fretting hand around a little if you can’t find the so called “hotspot”.  Playing the harmonic at the 12th fret sounds like the note at the 12th fret, but it isn’t.  It gives a note that is “pure” sounding, more like a music box than a guitar.  This means that there are fewer overtones, or extra naturally occurring harmonics, in the note.  A trained ear can hear the difference between a harmonic note and a regular note without even watching the performer.  Even the untrained ear can hear the difference I guess, but they probably wouldn’t know what the heck it was.  We can use this to our advantage because it sounds awesome.  Throwing in some harmonics into riffs and solos can really add the “spice” or “virtuoso” sound that you might be looking for.  More often than not, mastery of harmonics is the difference between

“Like, OMG! That guy is like, a pretty good guitarist and stuff, ya know?”



Now these harmonics can be played at several locations on the guitar, and will sound out different notes for each one.  You’ll find them on the 12th, 7th, 5th, 4th frets, and then sometimes on the 3rd fret.  The harmonics actually go to infinity (that is, WAY below the 3rd fret), but they are so quiet or hard to play that it’s not even worth trying.  And by that, I mean it’s worth trying; try to find out just how high you can get your guitar to play.  The picture above demonstrates the vibration of the string when you play a harmonic.  You can see the “nodes” where the string doesn’t vibrate, and this is the exact position you want to mute the string, right on those nodes.  Thanks to science the string will naturally vibrate just like you see in the picture, and gives us that “pure” tone harmonic.

Artificial Harmonics

-are harmonics played while fretting the guitar.  The three following techniques are “artificial” harmonics, but not “artificial” in the same way as “artificial” sweeteners.  No risk of getting cancer.

Pinch Harmonics (Pig Squeals!)

Mastery of pinch harmonics is the true sign of a virtuoso guitarist.  The use of natural harmonics can get ditsy girls to fall in love with you, but the mastery of pinch harmonics is a step above that.  You can get ditsy major label presidents to turn their heads.  Pinch harmonics offer us one of the most expressive techniques the guitar has, but it takes (literally) pinpoint accuracy of the plucking hand to execute.

So what are pinch harmonics?  To understand them, you must first understand natural harmonics.  What we’re going to try to do is get a natural harmonic, but with the strum hand instead of the fretting hand.  This is somewhat hard because we have to simultaneously pluck the string and mute it at the same time.  To do this you’re going to have to hold your pick a special way.   You want hold your pick in a normal fashion, but move your thumb grip closer to the tip.   The goal is to have the first digit of the tip of your thumb almost even with the tip of the pick.

To start out, I would definitely start doing this with an electric guitar using a ton of distortion.  The electric guitar and distortion amplifies the high overtones better than an acoustic.  It can be done on an acoustic, but it requires another level of experimenting/skill.  The first time you do this technique it will be like trying to punch granite.  I’m serious; it’s REALLY hard to do.  Just keep fiddling around and you’ll figure it out.

Choose a note in the middle of the guitar and fret it normally (maybe the 12th fret on the G string is good), for me it seems the easiest place for pinch harmonics.  Now, almost simultaneously, you’re going to do two things: (1) pluck the string with your pick at a harmonic (preferably an octave higher than the note you want to play), and (2) instantly after that, brush the flesh of your thumb across the string to evoke the natural harmonic.  Just after that, you’re going to have to (3) move your hand away so that the string can vibrate freely.

Like I said, if you can’t get it, just keep messing around until you hear the right sound.  If you have problems you might try gripping the pick differently, as the flesh of your thumb has to hit the string in just the right way.  It has to hit the string to evoke the harmonic, but it can’t mute the string completely.  Another thing you might try is moving your picking hand up and down the string.  You must hit the string in a place where there is a natural harmonic or it won’t work.  This is the main reason pinch harmonics are so difficult, because you have to place your picking hand in just the right place, the “sweet spot” as it were, to get that awesome squealing sound.  The sweet spot changes when your fretting hand moves up and down the neck too, so you have to learn to pick like a surgeon.

Tap Harmonics

By now I’m sure you’ve seen/heard/done regular finger tapping, as made famous by Eddie Van Halen.  While experimenting with finger tapping, he discovered that he could cause those ringingly beautiful harmonics from tapping on the fretboard with his right hand.  As an example, grab your guitar and tap on the 12th, 7th, or 5th fret quickly, and precisely on the metal fret (i.e. not behind), and you should get a harmonic.  The energy used to “tap” the guitar is what causes the string to vibrate, simultaneously muting the string to get a harmonic.  It will be exactly the same as if you played a natural harmonic, but you get the special effect of a “click” or “tap” at the beginning of every note.  As with other harmonics, you might have to do some fine tune adjusting to get the harmonic to ring, but once you figure it out it’s not too hard.

One of the great things about tap harmonics is the fact that you can coordinate your right and left hands (playing essentially the same notes but 12 frets apart) and play quick, intricate solo or lead parts.  The effect you’ll have can be pretty mind blowing.  Especially since it’s rarely done and has a very distinct style if you can pull it off well.  Man I love the guitar.  It’s just so dang versatile isn’t it?

Concluding Harmonics

As you can see, there are many ways to evoke harmonic flourishes.  Those presented here are the main ones, but there are many others as well.  I actually found some I’ve never heard of before while I was doing research for this article, and want to tell you about them.  Maybe I can do another article later titled “Harmonics: The Lesser”, and it can involve large Norse Gods from Sweden playing nothing but harmonics at 200 bpm using their big toes.  Hey, that sounds pretty sweet.

Anyway, if you’re really interested just do a search for “guitar harmonics” and you’ll probably find an article better than this one somewhere, and cheaper than my free site.  As in, they’ll pay you money to read it.  If you ever find one of those sites, tell me.

Oh, I wanted to leave you with a link too.  This one has all of the harmonic techniques I just talked about, and more.  Yeah!