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 HarmonicsThey 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.
HarmonicsWe 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:
- 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.
- Your index finger (the one sounding the harmonic) is straight at all times, not bent.
Fretted Note Harmonics and the Importance of VisualizationTo 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.
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 HarmonicsSo 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:
- You must always keep a 12 fret distance between the note you are fretting and the harmonic you are playing of that note
- You need to visualize the exact shape of the chord your fretting hand is forming, 12 frets higher up on the fretboard
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.