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.