How to Play Awesome Sounding Harp Harmonics on Your Guitar

A step by step guide to this truly magical, unique, and awe-inspiring sound for your guitar playing.

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If you've never heard the harp harmonic technique being used before, prepare to be amazed!

This is one of the most breath taking things you can do on a guitar. They truly sound amazing, very much like a harp, mesmerizing anyone who hears you play them.

Before reading on, check out the beginning of the video to hear how awesome harp harmonics sound.


Sometimes referred to as cascading harmonics, this technique will massively increase the scope of the sound you can get on a guitar. When I first came across harp harmonics I was blown away. I just had to get this sound into my own playing, and thanks to guitar greats such as Chet Atkins, Lenny Breau, and Ted Greene, I was able to do so. I highly encourage you check out these players yourself to see how they use harp harmonics in their own playing.

Today, I am going to get you started with the harp harmonic technique. We will build it from the ground up, creating a solid foundation on which you can inject this awesome technique into your own guitar playing.

The Technique of Harp Harmonics

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, a video is worth even more, so make sure you carefully study the video that accompanies this article. It will reinforce everything we cover, making sure you are doing everything correctly in developing the technique of harp harmonics.

Thumb Pick, Plectrum, or Bare Thumb?

In terms of sounding the actual harmonic part of harp harmonics, you have three options. You can use a thumb pick, a plectrum, or your bare thumb. I actually use all three depending on the context, but favor the thumb pick in most situations.

You will understand these approaches more once we have gone through the whole technique of harp harmonics, for now, here is a brief comparison of each (if you would like to skip ahead to the section below headed "Harmonics," and come back to this part later, once you have the basic technique going, you are welcome to)

1. Bare Thumb:

Using your bare thumb gives you a slightly different sounding harmonic compared to a thumb pick or plectrum. You don't quite get the same sustain out of the harmonic, however they still sound great, and it does suit if you're playing a piece that requires a pure fingerpicking approach (i.e. no thumb pick).

2. Plectrum (Flat Pick):

Using a plectrum requires you to alter the technique of playing harp harmonics slightly, as you will need to grip the pick between your thumb and middle finger instead of your index. This leaves you with one less finger to play regular notes, but is great for integrating harp harmonics into "normal" plectrum based playing.

3. Thumb Pick:

With a thumb pick you get both the sustain of the harmonic, as well as the use of your middle, ring, and pinky fingers to play the regular notes. It's basically the best of both worlds and is why I favor this approach the majority of the time.

In today's article I will use the bare thumb/thumb pick approach.

Harmonics

We will begin with open string harmonics, located at the 12th fret, so you can totally focus on your picking hand for now.

Place the tip of your index finger directly over the top of the 12th fret of the low E string of your guitar. It needs to be directly over the fret, not in-between as you do when playing regular notes.


Your index finger should just barely be touching the string. There is no pressure asserted whatsoever. If you push down at all you will suffocate the sound of the harmonic.

With your index finger in this position, take the thumb of the same hand (i.e. your picking hand) and pluck the string your index finger is touching from behind. You should hear a bell like harmonic. If you don't, you are most likely pushing too hard with your index finger and need to lighten your touch.

Be sure the following two things are happening when performing this part of the technique:
  1. You are keeping a good distance between the index finger that's sounding the harmonic, and the thumb that's plucking the string. If these two are too close together, the harmonic will sound like it's being choked.
  2. Your index finger (the one sounding the harmonic) is straight at all times, not bent.
To get use to this part of the harp harmonic technique, run up and down the open string harmonics at the 12th fret. Take your time with this as it's very different to how you are use to playing your guitar:

A colon (:) symbol is placed after the notes to indicate they are to be played as harmonics

Fretted Note Harmonics and the Importance of Visualization

To drastically increase the possibilities of your harmonics, we will now take the technique we have learned and apply it to fretted notes.

To do this, you need to maintain a distance of 12 frets between the index finger sounding the harmonic, and the finger that is fretting the note. Any more or less and the harmonics won't sound.

Try the following:

Bar all six strings at the 3rd fret of your guitar. This is a Gm11 chord:


We are going to apply the technique of sounding harmonics with your index finger and thumb, as you did at the 12th fret.

However, this time you need to place your index finger over the 15th fret because your fretting hand is at the 3rd fret (3 + 12 = 15). Remember, you always need to maintain a distance of 12 frets between your harmonic notes and fretted notes.

Here are the harmonics of the Gm11 chord:


Remember to make sure your index finger, sounding the harmonic, and thumb plucking the string aren't too close together. Keep your index finger straight and apply the lightest of light touches when sounding your harmonics.

Here is another example of applying the harmonic technique.

We'll use this C9 chord shape:


Normally this C9 chord is fretted from the 5th string. I am including the 6th string in this case so that we can extend the harmonics being applied.

All we need to do is track/visualize the shape of this chord exactly 12 frets higher up on the fretboard:


All harmonics are sounded at the 15th fret in the example above except for the 4th string. This harmonic is sounded at the 14th fret.

Why?

Because we always need to maintain a distance of 12 frets between our fretted note and harmonic note. The C9 chord has a note at the 2nd fret on the 4th string. Adding 12 means the harmonic on this string needs to be sounded at the 14th fret (2 + 12 = 14).

This is where our visualization skills come into play. If you can visualize the exact shape of the chord your fretting hand is forming, 12 frets higher up the fretboard, you'll be good to go. This does get a lot easier to do with just a little practice.

Let's go one more time.

Here is an FMaj13 chord shape:


This chord contains both fretted and open notes.

Here it is with harmonics being applied:


Harp Harmonics

So far we have only been working on the harmonic part of harp harmonics. To get the amazing harp like sound, we need to add regular notes into the mix.

This is where the magic happens!

You will continue to sound your harmonics notes as you have been doing with your index finger and thumb, however now we will be adding in regular notes, on higher strings using our ring finger (video reference).

Here is one very common harp harmonic arpeggio pattern alternating harmonics at the 12th fret with open strings:


Simply play the harmonic note, and then follow it with an open string. You'll find your ring finger is nicely positioned to pluck the regular notes/open strings. Having said this, it should feel very uncomfortable to start with as it's something you've never done before, and is very foreign to how you usually play your guitar.

Once you have this harp arpeggio pattern down, you can really run a mile with it by applying it to any chord shape you like. Just keep in mind that:
  1. You must always keep a 12 fret distance between the note you are fretting and the harmonic you are playing of that note
  2. You need to visualize the exact shape of the chord your fretting hand is forming, 12 frets higher up on the fretboard
Let's take our harp harmonic arpeggio pattern, keeping in mind the two points above, and apply it to each of the chord shapes we were using earlier for the harmonics:




The pattern your picking hand is playing in each example above does not change. What is changing are the frets where you are sounding your harmonics. This is effected by the chord you are forming at the time as you must always maintain a 12 fret distance, as has been emphasized throughout this article.

By simply connecting each example above, we get an amazing sounding harp harmonic progression that's sure to totally spell bound those who hear you play it:


We have barley skimmed the surface of what is possible with harp harmonics, yet we already have something that sounds awesome! The depths you can go with this technique is mind blowing to say the least.

About the Author:
From Melbourne, Australia, Simon Candy is a highly successful guitar instructor. He runs his own guitar school, conducts masterclasses internationally, and specializes in the acoustic guitar. Simon also provides online lessons for acoustic guitar.

34 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    DanMayhew
    Great article Simon! very informative article and video. You explained everything very clearly
    Lemorick
    I remember Buckethead using this technique on an acoustic song. Just 2 notes in a small part. It was hard as fuck to learn back in the day (I was 14 or so)... They years passed and now this lesson is just perfect for me to go back and perfect this technique. Thanks!
    Rosenkratz
    This is the kind of content that this site should constantly and consistently post. Great video, I'll be checking the website on it to see which other lessons on interesting techniques they have, and I'll definitely put this to practice on an Ibanez Montage I just got, it had been a while since I didn't focus on acoustic playing.
    Simon Candy
    BTW Rosenkratz, this technique will work just as well on a clean electric guitar guitar as it does on an acoustic
    rainer22
    Wow what a cool technique - thanks for showing. Just to give ya feedback/critics about ya teaching skills. It took me like 4-5 tries/rewinds to fully get the arpeggio. Especially when i came to the way back. Well lowering the play backspeed to 50% it finally got more clear and easy graspable. So for ya next video plz keep that in mind. When you explain something new the first time take I tiny bit more time to do it more 'relaxed'. And the other thing is about phrasing. At certain points, put a tiny rest. Like here for ex. before the way back. Like this it'll get better graspable by the mind.
    Stringcrosser
    Great! Look at Tommy Emmanuel, he does the same thing in the intro of his Somewhere over the rainbow cover! Thanks!
    Simon Candy
    Yes, Tommy Emmanuel uses this technique a lot an does amazing things with it! Somewhere Over The Rainbow is one example of which I did learn myself as I worked on getting harp harmonics into my own guitar playing. Also check out his version of "My Michelle" by The Beatles. An arrangement purely based on Harp Harmonics.
    hendrixfreak93
    Wow thank you!! At first when I read it I just thought you were talking about natural harmonics, or "chimes" as my dad always called them when I was growing up. Then I watched the video and I was amazed by how cool this technique sounds. Definitely going to try and learn this as soon as I get home from work. Thanks again!
    Simon Candy
    You're welcome and thanks for watching the video. I'm glad you enjoyed it and are going to work on the technique yourself. Be patient with it and take things slowly. it is so worth the time invested to get this awesome technique into your guitar playing!
    DeviousByNature
    i think you'll find they're usually called artificial harmonics in notation and tab, and can be done at 12, 5, 7, 24, etc, etc, frets away from the fretted note. they're essentially to the natural harmonic what a barre chord is to an open chord. it's interesting, and sounds great, and is hard - but no mystery. good tutorial, nonetheless.
    Simon Candy
    Thanks for reading the article DeviousByNature. The Natural Harmonics are actually the harmonics you can sound at the fret positions you mentioned (7, 12, 19 etc) Artificial harmonics is the name given to the ones I am demonstrating and teaching in this article/video where I am sounding harmonics of fretted notes. I think you'll find most people will find this technique "magical" in its sound. They certainly have when I have taught/performed harp harmonics, hence the title of the article
    DeviousByNature
    That's what i said when i was referring them to being the fret distances/intervals from the fretted note. I haven't misunderstood the article, i was just saying you can fret artificial notes at 7/19 (1/3) or 5/24 (1/4), and actually more if you're accurate enough, as well as 12 (1/2) lengths from the fretted notes, as with a natural harmonic - because the physics in play are exactly the same, but harder to execute. Essentially the idea behind it is exactly the same as when you're using a capo, and you play what'd be notated as a 'natural harmonic', despite the capo moving where you're natural nodes are.
    Simon Candy
    Ah, ok, sorry I misunderstood your post but see what you are saying now. Thanks for clarifying
    telecastrmastr
    If you drink a shot any time he says "harmonics," you'll be dead by the 3 minute mark. I'm fairly sure.
    logicbdj
    I did that with friends when watching the South Park Movie... a sip of beer every time they swear, and a shot of butterscotch ripple every time they say 'Cartman.' We only got halfway through the movie before we packed it in, lol.
    User0fAName
    Umm... this is just a one-handed harmonic... There's no reason to give it a fancy name... this whole article is a little bit pointless in my opinion...
    Simon Candy
    Fancy name?? This technique is commonly known as harp harmonics. I didn't give it any fancy name. Can you elaborate on what you mean by "one handed harmonic"? Just curious
    logicbdj
    The value of any music lesson is relative to the individual. Someone not familiar with this technique finds it almost magical... just like when I show a beginner a basic blues box pattern... their eyes light up. This article/video is hardly pointless.
    Simon Candy
    Hi rainer22. Thanks for watching the video I am glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for the feedback too. I will take it onboard. This video is actually part of an article I have up on my website. The article has the tab for all examples which are presented in the video. I think including tab on the screen of the video would be good for future videos so the video works better on its own without the article. You can view the article with the video here: http://acousticguitarlessonsonline.net/how-to-...