What Is A Guitar Harmonic: Understanding the Basics

12 min read

Guitar harmonics, those ethereal, bell-like tones that have fascinated musicians and listeners for decades, are a captivating aspect of guitar playing. These harmonic notes offer a magical divergence from the standard repertoires of sound typically associated with guitars. So what is a guitar harmonic really? What makes this chime-like tone jump out of seemingly nowhere?

This technique can be employed on both electric and acoustic guitars and the application of harmonics extends beyond just playing open string harmonics. There are several types such as natural, pinched (or artificial) and tapped harmonics.

Each has a unique method for execution and distinctive sound quality. Natural harmonics (open string harmonics) are perhaps the simplest to produce – they transpire when you touch your finger lightly against the string at specific nodes and pluck the string with your other hand.

Pinched or artificial harmonic involves slightly more complex maneuvering where one must touch the thumb edge immediately after plucking, producing an effect similar yet distinct from natural harmonics. Tap harmonics involve “tapping” the fretboard while playing guitar to produce bright chiming sounds. More on all of these below!

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Brief Overview: Understanding Guitar Harmonic

In understanding what exactly is a guitar harmonic – it’s all about how the string vibrates.

When you play an open string on your guitar without touching any frets – what you hear is called the fundamental frequency or first harmonic – this is essentially how fast that chosen string oscillates back-and-forth in one second after being struck or plucked.

When playing open string harmonics (for instance on 12th fret which divides your g-string into two equal halves), instead of vibrating as one whole length like it does during normal play, it begins vibrating in two separate sections.

Each half section vibrating exactly the same frequency but in opposite directions to each other – thus producing sound exactly twice as high pitched as usual open-string tone.

Historical Background & Significance

The history of guitar harmonics traces its roots with historical references pointing towards Asian cultures where instruments like Guqin (China) & Koto (Japan) have shown evidence of utilizing similar techniques centuries ago. In Western music though, it wasn’t until 19th century where we see documented instances in classical music compositions calling for use of ‘Flageolet tones‘ — equivalent term for ‘harmonics‘ in classical guitar lexicon.

Harmonics hold a special place not just due to their enchanting resonance but also for their applications across genres from classical to classic rock.

They were included in renditions by Andres Segovia & Francisco Tarrega where they’ve used these techniques extensively in their compositions to popular rock music by Van Halen & Led Zeppelin who utilized them ingeniously during solos creating signature soundscapes.

Mastering pinch and tap harmonics, playing different set-of-notes across strings, and understanding multiple harmonic nodes can enhance tonal versatility and creative expression for musicians.

Understanding the Basics of Guitar Harmonics

The Enigmatic Language of Harmonics

The beauty and diversity of guitar sounds predominantly stem from the phenomenon called harmonics.

At their most fundamental, harmonics are natural occurrences on the guitar string where the wave produced by a vibrating string divides into smaller segments, each vibrating at its own frequency.

These segments create nodes or points of minimal vibration along the string’s length, and when those nodes are touched lightly while plucking the string, harmonic notes emerge.

The magic of guitar harmonics exists in their capacity to create ethereal and bell-like tones that vary from normal fretted notes.

This celestial aspect is one reason why they have been embraced by countless musicians seeking to add depth and sophistication to their sonic palette.

Harmonics: The Physics Behind The Music

Physics plays an integral role in how harmonic notes come to exist on both acoustic and electric guitars.

The science behind guitar harmonics is fundamentally about how a guitar string vibrates when it is plucked or struck.

When an open string on a guitar is played, it vibrates at a natural frequency based upon its length, tension, and mass.

This primary vibration produces what’s known as the fundamental tone or first harmonic.

However, concurrently with this primary vibration, the string also vibrates in halves, thirds, quarters etc., each producing their respective overtones or higher order harmonics that contribute to our perception of timbre in guitar sounds.

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The Spectrum of Guitar Harmonics: From Natural to Artificial

Natural Harmonics: The ‘Natural’ Phenomenon

Natural harmonics represent one fundamental type of harmonic that can be played on all stringed instruments including electric guitars without any fretted notes involved.

To produce natural harmonics (also known as open string harmonics), you simply need to lightly touch an open E-string at specific nodal points (commonly at 12th fret which halves the string length) without pressing it down against a fret and then pluck the string with your other hand.

This technique will result in bell-like tones that sound an octave higher than regular open-string notes because you’re halving (at 12th fret) or further dividing (e.g., at fifth fret) the effective vibrating length of your strings.

Artificial Harmonic Landscape: Beyond Natural Limits

While natural harmonics allow you limited access mostly to even multiples of your fundamental frequencies due their nature-bound locations (like 12th & 5th frets), artificial ones such as tapped & pinch harmonics bring infinite possibilities by breaking these physical barriers.

Tapped harmonics involve playing a note with one hand while simultaneously tapping exactly twelve-frets above with another finger from your other hand.

This effectively replicates how you would play natural harmonics but with more freedom offered by choosing any initial pitch from fretted notes not just confined to open strings.

Pinch harmonics demand more technical prowess where you simultaneously hit and mute a note usually using your thumb after picking it resulting in squealing high-pitched tones – popularized by rock & metal genres.

There are harp harmonics; they involve playing standard notes with thumbed pick whilst also touching nodes an octave above thus enabling mesmerizing harp like effects – bringing us full circle back again towards those enchanting bell-like qualities we first encountered with our simple yet profound natural open-stringed counterparts.

Exploring the Mystical Realm of Natural Harmonics

Dissecting Natural Harmonics: The Hidden Gems on a Guitar String

In the world of stringed instruments, especially guitars, natural harmonics exist as exquisite auditory jewels that, when mastered, add an extra layer of depth and sophistication to one’s guitar playing.

Predominantly found at certain points along the length of a guitar string, these harmonics are generated without the need for any fretted notes.

As such, they are aptly named ‘natural’ harmonics. Natural harmonics occur where the string vibrates in whole-number ratios to its fundamental frequency—such points are often referred to as ‘nodes’.

Hence, playing harmonics on a guitar is akin to coaxing out these hidden nodes of vibration along the string length.

It produces notes that ring out at pitches higher than that of their open strings counterparts—yet another charm in their melodic arsenal.

Unlocking Natural Harmonic Sounds: How Does One Play Them?

As we delve deeper into this captivating subject — many novice guitarists wonder how to play pinch harmonics or natural ones with precision and clarity.

Well, it requires practice and an understanding of where exactly these harmonic notes reside.

The Subtle Artistry Behind 12th Fret Natural Harmonic

The most straightforward way to produce a natural harmonic is by lightly touching (not pressing down) an open string exactly above the twelfth fret wire—this point marks half the length of your guitar string.

Once you’ve lightly touched upon this point with your index finger (without applying any downward pressure), pluck the string with your other hand’s thumb or plectrum while simultaneously lifting off your finger from the twelfth fret wire almost instantaneously. After this action sequence, let it resonate naturally.

This seemingly simple technique reveals one half-length node on your guitar’s G-string (or any other), producing a harmonic equivalent tone—an octave higher than its open counterpart.

The beauty lies in how our regular note has now been transformed into something ethereal—the product is not merely identical but transcends previous sounds produced.

Diving into 7th & 5th Fret Natural Harmonic Frequencies

Venturing further down—or up—the neck will lead us towards yet more intriguing territories—the seventh and fifth frets specifically hold exciting possibilities within.

For example, by employing similar techniques above these frets—touching lightly rather than pressing down—you can churn out harmonic sounds that are subtly different yet equally mesmerizing.

Above the seventh fret wire signifies approximately one-third length of our original open string; therefore when we coax this point gently—we hear a note that resonates thrice as fast—an octave plus perfect fifth higher compared to its open counterpart.

The fifth-fret action reveals even more fascinating results—it signifies quarter-length nodes hence producing sounds four times faster—or two octaves higher than their corresponding open strings.

The allure behind these mysterious high-frequency tones lies in their ability to make even ordinary chords sound extraordinary—with enough practice and accuracy—you can transform your everyday guitar sounds into something richer and more profound by simply playing around with naturals.

Delving into Artificial (or False) Harmonics

The Allure of Artificial Harmonics

Artificial harmonics, often termed as false harmonics, exist as a captivating technique used to expand the tonal range of stringed instruments beyond their open or fretted notes.

Unlike natural harmonics, artificial harmonics allow you to play harmonic notes anywhere along the fretboard, not just at specific nodes. They are called ‘artificial’ because they require a manual separation of the string’s vibration.

Mastering Techniques for Artificial Harmonics

The execution of artificial harmonics necessitates precision and finesse. One widely-used method is the Right Hand Technique.

This involves plucking the string normally but then almost simultaneously brushing the string with your thumb slightly. Another approach is the Left Hand Technique which requires pressing down on a fretted string and using a different finger on your right hand to lightly touch and pluck a node point up the neck.

Discovering Other Types of Guitar Harmonics: Tapped, Pinch, and Harp Harmonics

Tapped Harmonics: A New Dimension to Your Playing

Tapped harmonics give an ethereal quality to guitar music by introducing bell-like tones into play. In this technique, you tap directly onto a harmonic node with enough force to sound it but without pushing it down onto the fret.

The artistry in producing tapped harmonics lies in achieving clarity amidst complex fingering patterns. Striking twelve frets above any note played on an electric guitar typically generates these unique sounds.

Pinch Harmonics: Adding Bite to Your Music

Pinch harmonics are primarily utilized for their screaming effect in rock and metal music genres predominantly on electric guitars. The production involves grazing the string immediately after picking it with your plectrum’s edge held close to your thumb. While generating pinch harmonics may seem challenging initially due to synchronization needs between picking and muting actions; practice makes them second nature eventually.

Harp Harmonic: Guitar Mimicking Harp

Harp harmonics exist as captivating additions inspired by harp playing techniques involving both open strings and fretted notes alternately in quick succession creating an enchanting chiming sound effect akin to harps hence its name – ‘Harp’ harmonic. This technique involves alternate picking and finger-picking often executed at 12th or 7th fret relative positions similar to that required for natural harmonic generation at these positions

The Role of Equipment in Producing Quality Guitar Harmonic Sounds

The Sonic Identity: Strings Matter

The type of strings used plays a significant role in articulating guitar harmonica – affecting tonal quality, ease-of-production, sustain among other factors. Typically nickel-wound strings provide richer & warmer harmonic tones compared those wound with stainless steel which offer brighter & sharper tones making them more suited for pinch or tapped harmonic techniques typically employed across rock genres predominantly using electric guitars

Pick’s Material And Shape: An Underestimated Tool

An overlooked aspect that influences guitar’s nuances including its harmonic tone is plectrum’s material & shape . Heavier picks generate stronger attacks leading greater energy transfer contributing towards rich sounding upper register overtones contributing towards richer sounding guitar harmonica

Practical Applications & Examples

Incorporating different types of guitar harmonica provides another dimensionality across diverse music genres like blues rock jazz instrumental etc . Famous examples include intro Van Halen’s ‘Women In Love’ , outro Pink Floyd’s ‘High Hopes’ , Led Zeppelin’s famous “Stairway Heaven” showcasing mix natural artificial open-string fifth-fretted e-string g-string high-e-strings etc .

Related: Guitar Tuning In Hz


Certainly , mastery over different types guitar harmonic techniques offers indescribable potential range textural sonic colors across varied music compositions styles . It opens up doors new realms creativity musicality often shimmering sparkly bell-like chimings resonating deeply listeners evoking emotions beyond words .

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