Harmonics are a great way to get very high notes, or to add a high shimmering sound to your music. By understanding a little about the physics and mechanics behind the technique, you can create a variety of effects and even find your own ways to play harmonics.
When you very lightly touch the halfway point of the string (at the 12th fret or 12 frets above whatever note you are playing) it will ring an octave higher than the original note (the fundamental). You can also touch at the 1/3 point of the string* (7 frets above the fretted note) to get an octave and a fifth above the original note, or the 1/4 point of the string (5 frets above the fretted note) to get two octaves above the original note. *It is interesting to note that besides the octave, the interval that occurs with the simplest string ratio is the interval of the fifth - the primary building block of Western music.
The harmonic tone is created by touching very lightly at the exact halfway point, (or fraction of the string) called the "node," and plucking the string anywhere along its length. Because more of the higher partials of the string are activated when played near either end of the string, harmonics come out clearer when you strike the string close to the bridge or near the node. You can change the pitch harmonic notes by pressing down on a fret with the left hand, and touching the point 12 frets higher with a finger or thumb of the right hand, while striking the string with a different finger or thumb of the right hand. This is called an artificial harmonic.
The following techniques are based on the halfway point of the string (12th fret harmonic.) You may also use some of the same techniques touching 1/3 point of the string, or the 1/4 point of the string, although the harmonic will be both higher in pitch and fainter in tone as the fractions of the string length get smaller.
You can get two harmonic notes in the interval of a fourth by lightly touching both the 1st and 2nd strings with the tip of the right hand index finger across the 12th fret. With the same hand, pluck the 2nd string with the thumb and pluck the 1st string with the ring finger. To move up a half step, bar across the 1st fret with the left hand and do the harmonic on the 13th fret. Always touch the point of the string 12 frets higher than where you are fingering the note with your left hand. Play the harmonic interval on different sets of adjacent strings. If you do the harmonic on the 2nd and 3rd strings you will get an interval of a third.
You can also play an interval of a third by placing the left hand on a C note, 2nd string first fret. Slant the right hand index finger to touch the 1st string 12th fret with the tip of the finger and the 2nd string 13th fret near the first joint of the same finger. Then pluck the 2nd string with the thumb and the 1st string with the ring finger. Likewise you can move the interval of a 3rd anywhere up the neck, and move the right hand harmonic the same number of frets up the neck. For instance, place the left hand fingers on the 3rd string 4nd fret and 2nd string 3rd fret, and touch the harmonic on the 16th and 15th frets. This will give you an interval of a minor third; part of a Bm chord or G chord.
You can also play a minor third by fingering an interval two frets apart (for example, an F# on the 4th string 4th fret and an A on the 3rd string 2nd fret). For the harmonic on this interval, use the same technique and slant the right hand finger at a greater angle.
You can use the same technique but skip a string to play the interval of a sixth. Lay the right hand index finger lightly across the 12th fret. Pluck the 3rd string 12th fret with the thumb and the 1st string 12th fret with the ring finger. Lay the index finger at an angle to play other interval of a minor sixth: Finger the 3rd string 2nd fret and the 1st string 1st fret. Lay the right hand index finger across the 14th and 13th frets to play the harmonic interval.
When you play a harmonic note and hammer-on to another note, the second note will ring as a harmonic. If too much of the fundamental note is ringing out on your guitar, lightly touch the point exactly 12 frets higher (with the right hand) at the same moment your left hand finger reaches the note in the hammer-on. This will allow the note to ring out only as a harmonic (one octave higher) and will dampen the low fundamental.
When you do a pull-off from a harmonic note, with the right hand, touch the point 12 frets higher than your destination note in the pull-off, exactly at the moment the finger pulls off. This will allow both notes to ring as harmonics, one octave above the fundamental.
Sometimes when you insert one harmonic note into a chord, the shimmering effect of the harmonic makes it sound as though the entire chord were played in harmonics. You can touch the harmonic with the index finger of the right hand and pluck with either the thumb or one of your other fingers. Use the remaining fingers to pluck other notes of the chord. Depending upon the chord, you may find some unusual right hand fingerings, and sometimes you will employ the use of your pinkie, as the harmonic will use at least two fingers of the right hand.
More on harmonic techniques later...
Composer and award winning guitarist Muriel Anderson has released seven CD's in the US, three in Japan, several books and videos, and is host and originator of the renowned "Muriel Anderson's All Star Guitar Night." Her "Heartstrings" album traveled as far as outer space, accompanying the astronauts on a space shuttle mission.
Muriel is co-author of the new book "All Scales In All Positions" (Hal Leonard Publ.)
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