Make Your Guitar Scream: Natural And Artificial Harmonics

Did you always wanted to make your guitar squeal, a la Dimebag Darrel or Mathias Ekhlund? Have you always wondered how they do it?

Ultimate Guitar
Did you always wanted to make your guitar squeal, a la Dimebag Darrel or Mathias Ekhlund? Have you always wondered how they do it? Or in fact you already know the technique of guitar harmonics (because this is what we are talking about) but you are unsure on how to play it reliably with 100% accuracy? While playing natural and artificial harmonics on the guitar is not as technically difficult as many people think, it is a fact that most of us are actually struggling with it. The problem that I see most people having is a problem of consistency: we can make the harmonic sound nice and strong every now and then, but not often enough to actually trust ourselves. And I should know... Some years ago I was covering for another player in a band. They had a piece in which the band suddenly stops playing, and the lead guitarist enters with a blistering solo starting with a pinch harmonics. It was supposed to be a great, dramatic musical moment... but my pinch harmonic technique failed me, leaving me looking like an idiot on stage. Of course, I could not leave it this way (I had other shows with them) so I set out to properly learn everything I could about harmonics to not get them wrong ever again! Surprisingly for me, I was able to learn all I needed (and more) in just the couple of days I had before the next show. Not only I was able to play all my pinch harmonics consistently, but I learned that there are a number of extra positions to play them that I didn't suspect before.

What Is the Problem Then?

Most players that fail to perform an harmonic assume it's because of a lack of technical skills, such as "I have not picked it strong enough," or "my hand position is wrong." But the actual technique, that consist in hitting the string with the pick and your right hand thumb at the same time, is quite simple after all. If you were able to play a pinch harmonic just once, then you should be able to play it anytime without any problem. The real but unacknowledged problem seems to be that pinch harmonics need to be played with the picking hand on specific positions of the string, and that few players take the time to learn them properly. Add to this the fact that the harmonic positions do change depending on the note you are fretting, and this explains why most people's idea is to randomly try to play a pinch harmonic whenever the right hand happens to be, and hope for the best. So, how professionals do it? I have never heard Zakk or Dimebag miss an harmonic, so there must be a solution, right? There must be a way to play the harmonics in a fail-safe way, without the uncertainty of just "going for it blindly." And the solution is: any professional player worth his money has actually spent some time to learn by heart all pinch harmonic positions. It may seem a humongous task, but if you actually try and do it, you will see that there is a reason in how the harmonic positions move with the note you are fretting. With a little training you will soon get a feeling on how to find them naturally but you have to put some work in first. Let's see how these positions move, and the technique used to play them.

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.

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.

    And the Harmonic Positions?

    Of course, there are only so many details I can include in this article. I have put all the high-resolution figures for the harmonic positions in a free eBook, that will include also examples and photos of the harmonic technique. You will find here a download link for your guitar harmonics free eBook. About the Author Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.
  • 68 comments sorted by best / new / date

      I had the bravery to download that ebook and it's legit, guys. Don't worry, his stuff is pretty good.
      Mantiss wrote: terrible grammar in the very first sentence. fail
      You don't capitalize "terrible" or "fail", and completely neglect a period in the second sentence fragment. The hypocrisy is ****ing painful.
      I didn't even know there was such a thing as a tap harmonic. In fact, since it has basically the same effect and I don't do much fast stuff, plus I play acoustic, I don't even need to do pinches anymore. Awesome.
      swatspeedman wrote: *Gives email, twice, two different ones under the same name* no eBook. HOORAY!
      Got the eBook, very detailed and a great learning aid. The pictures are very helpful.
      I am the author (no idea why the author field says "unregistered"). I have been a long time UG contributor (you can see my other articles here: ons/columns/ ). I find it amusing that the people who are commenting negatively are people who never contributed a lesson or an article - if you guys can do better, please, submit your own! To all the naysayers: if you actually download the eBook, you will see why there is no way I could have put all that info in an article here. The high-resolution harmonic map and the photos would have made for a VERY long article (the eBook is 20 pages long!) Just "trying in different spots" won't cut it for a 100% efficient pick harmonics. Nitnatsnok: I'm glad you found this useful. Nafireball: Yup, tap harmonics are awesome. Try holding a chord with your left hand and tapping all strings one by one 12 frets higher than the fretted note. JadenCaruso: thanks for speaking up.
      The naysayers are just the type of idiots the make the phrase "It's easier to criticize than create" much more true
      Whatever, haters, just download the book. I've been on his list for some time. It means he'll send you articles/materials like this for free, and if that somehow rubs you the wrong way you can always unsubscribe. I just checked it out and it's a great resource. But don't take my word for it, check it out!!
      I ghot the e-book too! nothing to lose. It took about ten minutes for me to recieve it. just a heads up for the skeptics.
      Mantiss: this is probably because I am not an English native speaker, and I learned my English by landing in North America and listening. So, if one of you literary critics would have the grace of giving me some constructive criticism and post the correct version of the first sentence, along with an explanation of *why* it is incorrect, then I will be grateful and not repeat the error in the next article. That said, it seems to me that most people are on UG not to read fine prose, but to learn something about guitar playing. I'm sure they will forgive me my occasionally funky grammar.
      It's not spammy? Thanks for the book man, I've never been able to do harmonics until now!
      Leather Sleeves
      What I find strange is that ever since I got EMGs installed in my guitar it's easier to get pinch harmonics with my neck pick-up. Any other guitar I've tried the opposite seems to be true.
      MrFlibble wrote: 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. This is simply not accurate. You can get pinch harmonics ringing out with a clean tone and on neck pickups very easily. Hell, you can get them ringing out on an acoustic, if you're accurate enough.
      I was going to say this, if you are doing it right, you should be able to get them clean as well. and I guess you can get them with the neck pickup but they are neve quite as clear and shredtastic as they are through the bridge. overall I like this rticle, haven't read the ebook (cant do it now cuz I'm at work and well it could get me in trouble ...), so I can't really comment on that aspect but I do think this described different harmonics well. **NOTE**: just wanted to point out that it would be "a harmonic" not "an harmonic"
      Nice lesson, thank you. Moderators demonstrating their maturity and intelligence, as per usual...
      steven seagull wrote: what a surprise, yet another article with a spammy link to try and get you to register for someone's website...
      This is really useful. I never really looked into harmonics. I always thought natural harmonics like the ones of the 5th, 7th, 12th, and 19th (or 21st I forget) were picked and played normally on the right side of the fret (not touching of course), and the artificial ones were the ones picked from the left side. I found a great nasty sounding one on the right side of the second fret, and I play it in one my songs... So, that's a bunch on this!
      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.
      This is simply not accurate. You can get pinch harmonics ringing out with a clean tone and on neck pickups very easily. Hell, you can get them ringing out on an acoustic, if you're accurate enough.
      It may be possible but it is much easier with distortion and a bridge pickup I believe that is what the original writer meant
      Everyone is complaining but not reading the book, which is every helpful, thanks for that.
      It is possible to do a pinch harmonic on every fret. You just need to find a "sweet spot" over the pick ups
      Just a precisation to the people who are saying that you can play harmonics on the neck pickup too. That is true, I'm not denying it. BUT the bride pickup, just by being closer to the end of the string, will be able to "pick up" harmonics of a higher order than the neck pickup. In other words: you can get away with 2-3 positions if you use the neck pickup, as opposed to the 15+ positions you could choose from with the bride pickup. Also, ALL harmonics will sound louder through the bridge pickup, for the same reason. To check this, just play a harmonic and switch rapidly the pickup back & forth, and hear the difference in volume.
      1. Natural harmonic on 5th fret, B and E strings. 2. Pull whammy bar 3. Cum And that's pretty much what I know about them...
      I subscribed to his site ages ago, and both Tommaso's lessons and eBooks are an incredible resource. You're truly missing out if you're an intermediate guitar player and ignoring his work, much less actually scorning him for putting up free lessons. Come on guys.
      I got pinch harmonics nailed every time a long time ago but getting there did take some time, I haven't got the eBook for the reason that I am fully capable of hitting them each and every time. Though, after reading through the article I am sure the eBook will be of great help if it is anywhere near as informative as this section.
      Dan Smith
      Great Article and E-book, subscribed immediately. Too bad there are so many toxic, negative users on this site.
      Great article. The e-book is phenomenal. A lot of information presented clearly and concisely. The kind of thing that teaches you something new and useful in a few minutes. Don't know what you all are crying about.
      Tommaso's site is just great, I subscribed some time ago and never got any spam!
      Thanks so much for this great resource. Most guitar teachers don't even know this stuff, let alone teach it to you for free! There's no 'spam' here, only great content - delivers exactly as promised. Saddened to see the hostile comment by the Ultimate Guitar moderator, as well as the other the noobs and trolls who wouldn't know a good thing if it smacked them in the face.
      blazeguitar808 wrote: It is possible to do a pinch harmonic on every fret. You just need to find a "sweet spot" over the pick ups
      Yep, also every string, unlike some might think.
      No real insight into where to pick for the pinches to work 100% of the this in the "ebook"? Don't really wanna give me email either.
      No real insight? WTF!?!?!?!? The guy told you al lthe basic stuff to know to play properly and not make mistakes!!!! All you have to do to get it,is: 1. Turn on your brain; 2. Read Carefully; 3. Start executing the guitar technique!!!!
      Rick Williamson
      Tommaso, great article and Ebook. Real Musicians keep an open mind, talkers cant even read sheet music
      Pol-Pot-Smoker wrote: 1. Natural harmonic on 5th fret, B and E strings. 2. Pull whammy bar 3. Cum And that's pretty much what I know about them...
      I know what you're talking about mr. elephant!
      Greg Trotter
      The e-book is great. It can be hard for beginners and even intermediates to learn anything more than the basic open string harmonics. This lays it out very logically and makes for a great reference material. The haters here are just retards.
      Great eBook it has a lot of useful information. Definitely give you props on this whole thing dude, keep up the great work.
      I do my harmonics somewhat differently, doing it on the 3rd fret. It sounded similar to the whammy bar pull. I self learned to reverse it for the fixed bridge version of dive bomb.
      The article is decent. No probs other than the link at the end but personally im not bothered by that. My only comment would be that the neck pickup is just as good for doing pinches as the bridge is. Or at least the way i do it. It sounds different but totally okay. Cheers
      Koekoeksklok wrote: And this article in no way explains how to sound like IA, since he plays harmonics in a whole different way (he slaps the string at the node with his left hand)
      These are called natural harmonics, and are explained both in the article and in the eBook (the eBook includes a complete map of them). Mattias Eklundh was actually the direct inspiration for me to write the article, since I remembered seeing him play a natural harmonic at the 10th fret, and wondering what it was. It made me realize there were more harmonics than I knew. As the eBook will show you, there are MANY more
      Nah, seriously, great article bro. Artificial harmonics are a bummer to learn, but once you get them, it's awesome.
      It's just a matter of trying to do pinch harmonics in different spots around the pickups until you find the locations. Then those locations move toward the bridge as you move higher up the neck. Not sure how the article ended up so long.