Solving the Mystery of Guitar Harmonics

If you are a fan of Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Dimebag Darrel (Pantera) then you may also be a fan of the technique that all these players have in common: harmonics. This technique allows you to play these high-pitched squeals that are so important in the style of metal players, and not only.

The technique for playing guitar harmonics is not terribly complicated per se, if you know what you are doing. The problem is that often we don't know what we are doing, or we do not know it clearly enough to make the technique work reliably.

I discovered my lack of knowledge in this area in the worst possible way: while on stage. I had this dramatic solo spot in which the band suddenly stops, all the lights are on me, and I was supposed to hit a pinch harmonic to start the solo. The only problem, I completely botched it, looking like a fool in front of the audience.

Well, a failure is a failure only if we don't learn from it, so I promised myself I would learn everything there is to learn in order to never miss a pinch harmonic anymore in my life. Surprisingly, it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be - it took only a couple of days (in time for the next show!) I also learned more than what I set up for, specifically that there are many more available harmonics than I have seen used by other players.

Why It Is Difficult?

What makes the pinch harmonic technique more difficult than others? Many players assume that it is "just" a technical problem, such as hand positions or not picking strong enough, but the technique is not that complicated after all: if you are able to play a pinch harmonic just once, then it should not be a problem for you to play it any time you want.

The real problem is that a pinch harmonic needs to be played with the right hand positioned on a specific point of the string, and any small deviation from this position will prevent the harmonic from squealing properly. Not only that, but the available positions change with the note you are fretting! This means that if your recipe for a pinch harmonic is simply to try to pick it as strong as you can in a random position then you are surely going to be disappointed.

Professionals, of course, do not play harmonics randomly. Joe Satriani and Zakk Wylde never miss an harmonic, and this shows us that there must be a 100% reliable solution out there.

As incredible as it may seem, professional players who use pinch harmonics actually learn by heart all the possible positions for a pinch harmonic, and then train them until they are second nature. While this sounds intimidating, when you get down to business you discover that the main positions are quite few and easy to find, and that there is a logic on how the position move with the fretted notes. With a little exercise you will be able to play pinch harmonics on any note, and find natural harmonics in places you didn't suspect. From metal squeals to beautiful bell-like arpeggios, you can master it all.

So let's have a look at both the technique of harmonics and what are the positions.

Some Practical Tips

Let's see some tricks on how to play harmonics in practice:

Natural harmonics: your left hand should just touch the string: the note is not fretted in the normal way. This means that the string touches only your finer, not the frets of the guitar. After your right hand has picked the note, your left hand should move away to let the string vibrate freely.

Pinch (Artificial) Harmonics: To make a pinch harmonic sound properly, you need to have a distorted tone and play it through your bridge pickup, ad the neck pickup may not respond well to an harmonic. When you pick the string, have your thumb touch it too at the same time. Some left hand vibrato on the harmonic will help with sustain by "bowing" the string on the fret, and will also make the harmonic sound better.

Tap Harmonics: they work like pinch harmonics, i.e. they have the same positions on the string, but rather than playing them with your pick and right hand thumb at the same time, you use one of your right hand fingers to 'tap' string against the fret of the guitar at the harmonic position.

How the Positions Shift

The best way to proceed is to first learn the positions of natural harmonics on the fretboard. Natural harmonics are the ones played on the unfretted string. The most played harmonic positions are at the 5th, 7th and 12th fret, but there are many others. A comprehensive map showing all the positions is contained in the free eBook linked at the end of this article.

Artificial harmonics are the ones played while fretting a note. Their position ca be found by "shifting" the natural harmonics positions. Let's see it in an example to make it clear: consider the natural harmonics at the 7th fret. If now we fret a note on the 3rd fret, the harmonic positions moves up by the same number of frets, ending at 7+ 3 = 10th fret. Equivalently, we might simply say that, since there is a natural harmonic position at the 7th fret, then every time we fret a note, there is an harmonic 7th frets higher than the position we are playing at.

The final position of the harmonic determines how we can play it: if it is still on our fretboard, we will play it with a tap harmonic, while if it moves beyond the end of the fretboard we will play it as a pinch harmonic.

The Harmonic Positions

As a complete explanation of all there is to know about harmonics can not be done in a single column, I wrote a free eBook that shows in detail how to perform natural harmonics, pinch harmonics and tap harmonics, complete with photos of each technique being played. The eBook contains a high-resolution map of all the harmonic positions that can be played on the guitar. It also includes a complete explanation of the many ways of playing an harmonic, and exercises you can use to make the harmonic positions and tecnique second nature. You can download here your your free eBook on guitar harmonics.

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio

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