The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter III: 4 Technique - Harmonics

author: ZeGuitarist date: 03/09/2009 category: the guide to
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Part III - Chapter 4

"Technique - Harmonics"

Hey all! The Ultimate Guide to Guitar continues with more technique, again with a chapter dedicated to a technique for the right hand... This week, we're going to learn all about harmonics! What they are, the different techniques that you can use to produce them, and finally some examples of situations in which they are used!

Now, some of you may know that I already have an article on harmonics, in UG's lessons section. If you don't know, you can check it out here... This may make some of you wonder: why write another article about it, then? Well, in order for the Ultimate Guide to Guitar to be "Ultimate", it must be as complete as possible... and therefore, I'm writing a more in-depth and spiced up version of my old harmonics lesson! So, for those of you who haven't read my old lesson, you might as well read this one... and for those of you who have, this article will improve upon the old one, so it's for you guys as well!

When I say the word "harmonics", I'm sure most of you will think of those awesome, high-pitched squealing sounds you hear in solos from time to time. But do you also understand where this high-pitched sound comes from? To understand this, you must first understand the physics behind the vibration of guitar strings... This will be our first topic today. After that, we will discuss the different techniques used to produce harmonics, both "natural" and "artificial" harmonics! Finally, a couple of examples will show you some situations in which harmonics are commonly used.

So, on today's menu:

01.Physics of string vibration: the foundation of understanding harmonics!
02.Natural harmonics: how to produce harmonics on open strings!
03.Artificial harmonics: how to produce them on fretted down strings - not only a little more difficult, but there are more ways than one!
04.Examples: a demonstration of the uses of harmonics...

That's a whole lot of work we have to do... so let's get going!

Physics Of String Vibration

In order to understand the following 2 sections, in which I explain the techniques used to produce harmonics on the guitar, you must first understand how string vibration creates sound, and how altering this vibration can create harmonics... This is not difficult theory, don't worry, but it's very important anyway! This is what we're going to learn in this section:

  • First, we'll discuss in short how a vibration results in sound
  • Then, we'll take a look at the waveform in a guitar string, which is composed of a "fundamental" and a number of "harmonics"
  • And finally, we'll learn how to cancel out the "fundamental" of a vibrating string, so that only the "harmonics" remain!
This ay all seem a bit confusing right now... but just start reading and you'll find that things will get a lot clearer!

A. Strings produce sound waves

We'll start off with something nice and easy - how strings produce sound. This is something most of you probably know already (seeing as we're on the Intermediate level now!), but I'll quickly summarize the essence of this theory for you... as it's the very basics that you need to know in order to understand the rest!

A string vibrates in the form of a wave with a constant frequency. The frequency (the amount of vibrations in a certain amount of time) determines the pitch of the sound you hear, and since the frequency is constant, a string will produce a sound with a constant pitch... or, a "note"!

Pretty easy, huh? A vibrating string produces sound because the vibration is a waveform... and the note you hear is determined by the frequency of the vibration.

B. Composition of the wave: "fundamental" and "harmonics"

Unfortunately, it's a little more complicated than that. A string doesn't vibrate at one frequency... The vibration in a string is the sum of a number of different waveforms, with different frequencies. The picture below will make this more clear... In this picture, we see a series of standing waves (they're called "standing" because both ends of the string are fixed), all with different frequencies:

The uppermost waveform shows a vibration between both ends of the string... as you can see, the amplitude of the vibration is the greatest in the exact middle of the string (this means, the up and down motion of the string is the greatest in the middle).

The second waveform shows a very different vibration. It's as if the string is divided in half, by a point in the exact middle where no vibration takes place! The string does vibrate on either side of this point, but in that particular spot, the string doesn't move at all...

From now on, we will call points like these "nodes"!

You can see that the other waveforms are similar: the third waveform has two "nodes" dividing the string in 3 equal parts; the next one has 3 nodes dividing the string in 4; and so on... Remember that while the wavelength is divided into equal parts, the frequency is multiplied! So, the frequency of the second wave equals double the frequency of the first one; the frequency of the third wave equals triple the frequency of the first one; and so on!

Now, why am I telling you all this? Like I said, all of these waveforms, each with their own frequency, are mathematically summed up to create the typical waveform of a vibrating guitar string... The first waveform in the above picture is called the "fundamental" or the "first harmonic". Its frequency determines the pitch of the note - hence the name "fundamental", it's the foundation of the note you hear! The second waveform is called the "second harmonic", and it has a higher pitch than the fundamental: one octave higher, due to the doubled frequency! The "third harmonic" has an even higher pitch (one octave and a fifth, due to tripled frequency), and so on...

So in short, when you pluck a guitar string and make it vibrate, the note you hear doesn't consist of one frequency, but multiple frequencies that are mathematically summed up! The "note" you hear is determined by the frequency of the fundamental, but the harmonics or "overtones" all add to the tone... They're so subtle that you can't hear them while the fundamental is still ringing, but they're essential nonetheless!

Note: the reason that the fundamental "dominates" the note you hear is because the fundamental vibration is much more powerful than the harmonic vibrations, and therefore it contributes more to the total waveform than the harmonics. The relative contribution of each harmonic overtone to the summed up waveform determines the "timbre" of the note you hear... This explains why a low E, for example, doesn't sound the same on a piano as on a guitar, even though it's the same note. The strings don't vibrate in the same way, the relative contribution of the harmonic overtones is therefore different in both instruments, so you get the same note, but a different tone!

C. Producing harmonics

Like I said, the harmonics are so subtle that you can't hear them as long as the fundamental dominates it... So, if you want to hear the high-pitches overtones, you have to find a way to cancel out the fundamental vibration, while leaving the harmonics untouched!

But how do you do that? The simple answer: the nodes! Take a look at the following image... it's similar to the one above, but it also shows the location of the nodes of the harmonics in relation to the guitar's fretboard:

Now, suppose you want to produce a second harmonic, for example... that means, you have to cancel out the fundamental, but not the second harmonic! What do you do now? Easy! As you can see in the above picture, there is a node in the second harmonic, right above the 12th fret... At this node, there is no vibration at all in the second harmonic waveform! In the fundamental vibration, there is, though... So that means, if you lightly touch the string with your finger, right above the 12th fret, you will not affect the second harmonic (as it doesn't vibrate in that location anyway, only on either side of it!), but you will effectively cancel out the fundamental! So, you'll now only hear the second harmonic... try it! Pick up your guitar, and try to produce a second harmonic on your low E string!

This example shows you how you can produce harmonics: by cancelling out the fundamental note, which is done by lightly touching the string on a "node" of one of the harmonics, so that said harmonic is unaffected, but the fundamental is muted! You can apply this to any harmonic... try lightly touching the low E string right above the 19th fret, to create a third harmonic, for example!

Perfect! Now that you know what harmonics are, and how you can make them stand out by cancelling out the fundamental, we can move on to the techniques that are used to cancel out the fundamental, so that you are able to incorporate harmonics into your playing! We differentiate between "natural" harmonics (on open strings) and "artificial" harmonics (on fretted strings)...

Natural Harmonics

Like I said, "natural harmonics" are harmonics produced on open strings... Like I explained in the above example, to produce a natural harmonic, you must cancel out the fundamental vibration of the string by lightly touching the string on one of the "nodes" in various locations.

So where do you find these nodes? Return to the above image, to see the location of the nodes in relation to the guitar's fretboard. As you can see, the second harmonic has a node right above the 12th fret. The third harmonic has 2 nodes, as shown on the picture: above the 7th fret, and the 19th fret. The fourth harmonic is not shown in the picture, but we'll discuss it anyway: it has nodes above the 5th, 12th and 24th fret! Try to remember these...

Now, let's try to put all this theory into practice, and play a harmonic! We're going to play a second harmonic on the G string... In order to hear the second harmonic, all you need to do is lightly touch the open G string right above the 12th fret, and pluck it! Quickly remove your finger after plucking, so that you don't muffle the vibration of the string... If pulled off correctly, you should now hear a high-pitched bell-like sound, one octave higher than the "regular" open G string - the sound of the second harmonic!

I'll show you an image to make it more clear how this should be done:

If you succesfully produced a second harmonic on the open G string, try the third harmonic... The nodes are above the 7th and the 19th fret, so by lightly touching the string on either of these nodes, you cancel out the fundamental AND the second harmonic, so that you only hear the third harmonic! You will get the same bell-like sound the second harmonic made, only the pitch will be a fifth higher... Give it a try!

Finally, let's try to produce a fourth harmonic on the open G string... The nodes of the fourth harmonic are, like I said, above the 5th, 12th and 24th frets. However, if you choose the node at the 12th fret and touch the string lightly there, you will succesfully cancel out the fundamental - but not the second harmonic, which also has a node there! Therefore, use the nodes above the 5th or 24th fret, if you want to cancel out the second harmonic as well, and produce a fourth harmonic. If you are succesful, you will hear the same bell-like sound the other harmonics produced, this time 2 octaves higher than the fundamental!

To help you hear what these harmonics should sound like, I have provided a short audio clip, where I play the open G string, and then respectively the second, third and fourth harmonics on that open G string... Have a listen to become familiar with the sound of harmonics, and try to reproduce it using the above instructions! This should be easy enough... so if you have this down, let's move on to the more complex technique of producing "artificial" harmonics!

Artificial Harmonics

After looking into the easy technique of playing harmonics on open strings, we will now discuss the more complex issue of producing harmonics on strings that are fretted down... Why is it so much more difficult to produce harmonics on fretted down strings, you may ask? Well, there's two important things to take into account... First of all, fretting down a string alters the length of the string, so the nodes will move to different locations in relation to the fretboard! The second problem, however, is more important: if you know the location of a node, how are you going to touch it, when your left hand is busy fretting down the string?

So, what we will need in order to produce artificial harmonics is:

  • The exact location of the nodes on a fretted down string
  • A technique that you can use to touch the nodes and produce harmonics
We will discuss these two problems in the next two paragraphs: first, we will learn a way to find out where the nodes are if a string is fretted down; and in the second paragraph, we will discuss the different techniques that can be used to touch the nodes and produce harmonics with!

A. Where are the nodes?

The solution to this first problem is an easy one. By fretting down on a string, the nodes are moved to a different location... but it's pretty easy to find out where they moved to!

Let's say you're fretting down the G string at the 5th fret... the node of the second harmonic, which is at the 12th fret on the open string, will simply move up 5 frets to the 17th fret! The nodes of the third harmonic will move up 5 frets as well, so you will find them at the 12 and the 24th fret... And the same goes for the nodes of the fourth harmonic, which can now be found at the 10th, 17th and 29th fret. It's that easy...

But wait - the 29th fret? I bet you never heard of a guitar that has 29 frets, and neither have I... but according to the above example, the fourth harmonic on a G string fretted down at the 5th fret has a node right above the 29th fret! How do we know where that is? Well, even if your guitar doesn't have 29 frets, you can guess where the 29th fret would theoretically be... and that's where you should find the node you're looking for!

In general, as you fret down on higher frets and play higher-grade harmonics (third, fourth or higher), the nodes will move closer and closer to the bridge, to the point where there are no frets anymore that you can use as orientation points... so all you can do is experiment, and try to find out where the nodes are! All this takes is practice, and more practice!

B. Right hand techniques

Now that the first problem is out of the way - we know where to find the nodes, even on fretted down strings - we are facing a bigger problem. When we played natural harmonics, we could conveniently use our left hand to touch the nodes and produce the harmonics... But what do we do when the left hand is busy fretting down a string, and we want to produce a harmonic on that string?

The answer: the right hand, of course! There are a couple of techniques for the right hand, that can be used to simultaneously pluck a string and touch a node, so that not the fundamental but the harmonic is produced... These techniques are:
  • The pinch technique
  • The palm technique
  • The tap technique
In the following paragraphs, I will discuss each of these techniques more in-depth, providing a couple of examples to help you on the way to learning these!

The pinch technique

This technique is the most commonly used technique to produce artificial harmonics. The technique consists of using the side of the right hand thumb to lightly touch a node right after plucking, all in the same string attack motion... You're literally "pinching" the string between the pick and your thumb!

Here's how to perform this technique, in a couple of easy steps:
  • Place your pick close to the node you wish to touch
  • Pluck the string with a downstroke attack
  • Right after plucking, touch the string in the exact location of the node, with the side of your thumb which is now above the string. This should all be done in one fluent downpicking motion: you pluck, and immediately afterwards, you touch the node with the side of your thumb.
  • After touching the node, quickly lift your thumb from the string, so that you don't mute it completely!
Below is an image demonstrating what this technique should look like. Pay attention to the position of my hand, and how I hold the pick! It's best to have only a small part of the pick protruding from between your fingers... That way, the side of the thumb will be closer to the strings, and you'll be able to touch the node more easily!

This technique isn't easy to pull off, as it's difficult in the beginning to both pluck the string and touch the node, all in the same fluent motion... It may be easier to break down the technique and practice it slowly at first: pluck the string, let the fundamental ring, and only after that you use the side of your thumb to touch the node. If you have that down, try to do it in one quick, downward motion, so that you don't even hear the fundamental anymore! All you will hear, is a high-pitched squealing sound that is typical to pinch harmonics - which are also called "squealies" for this exact reason!

The palm technique

A second technique to produce artificial harmonics is the palm technique. This technique is less commonly used than the pinch technique, but it can be equally effective, and some people just prefer this technique over the pinch technique... The difference is that, in order to touch the node, we are not using the side of the right hand thumb, but the side of the right hand palm... Obvious, isn't it?

So, in a couple of easy steps, here is how the palm technique works:
  • Place the side of the right hand palm on the desired node, touching it lightly
  • Pluck the string with a downstroke attack
  • Right after plucking, make sure you lift your palm back off the string, in order to let the harmonic ring freely!
I have included another image, to show you the exact position of my hand, and how I touch the string with the side of my palm... Check it out!

Like I said, this technique is less commonly used, because it is generally more difficult to accurately touch a node with the side of your palm than it is with the side your thumb... Nonetheless, that doesn't make this technique any less effective for those people who are more comfortable using this technique over the pinch technique, and practice enough on their accuracy! It's all up to you, really...

The tap technique

Tapping harmonics is the third and final technique we are going to discuss here. It is different from the above 2 techniques, because it's impossible to simultaneously pluck the string and set off the harmonic with this technique... Nonetheless, this technique can be used to create some cool harmonic sound effects!

Like the name suggests, this technique involves right hand tapping... so, how does this technique work? A couple of steps:
  • Pluck the string you're fretting down on, like you normally would (you'll hear the fundamental, of course!)
  • Using your right hand middle finger, tap onto the second harmonic node (12 frets higher than the fret you're pressing down on), but don't press the string down to the fretboard, just lightly touch it! Do this in a swift motion, quickly retreating your finger again so that you don't mute the string completely...
Again, I included an image of what all this should look like... take a look below!

This technique is a little different from the previous 2 techniques we discussed, as I already stated... here are some general characteristics of the tapped harmonics technique:
  • As you can see, the finger used to tap the string is the middle finger. This is because you can hold your pick between your thumb and middle finger while tapping...
  • Usually, the tap technique is used to produce second harmonics - so, the node that you tap onto is usually the one found 12 frets higher than the fret you're pressing down on!
Great! You now know the 3 techniques that can be used to produce artificial harmonics... I will conclude this lesson with a list of example songs that you can listen to, in order to see how harmonics are used in practice!


A lot of famous guitarists use harmonics frequently in their music, for their distinctive sound quality... Here are some examples of songs containing harmonics, both natural and artificial:
  • Again, I will provide you with a song from one of my favourite guitarists as an example: Steve Vai's "Bad Horsie" is an amazing song, and it's filled with artificial harmonics, with additional whammy bar abuse to create some very cool sound effects! Listen to the song here.
  • Another Vai song that shows the use of harmonics is "Die To Live". In this song, tap harmonics are used, so it's a perfect demonstration of this otherwise not very commonly used technique! I have a cover video of this song, you can check it out here...
Due to popular demand, I included the infamous Eddie Van Halen song "Eruption", in which a lot of harmonics are used, as well as other techniques like tapping. The video I'm going to link you to, however, isn't showing the original EVH version, but a cover played by Cesar Huesca... He is a fantastic Mexican guitarist who became famous on YouTube, and has become on of my favourite guitarists! Check out his Eruption cover video here...


And we're done! You should now understand how and why harmonics exist, and you now know the different techniques available to let those harmonics stand out, both natural and artificial... Squeal away!

We'll be discussing more technique next week, so stay tuned for more! The Ultimate Guide to Guitar is almost at the finish line, but the best is yet to come...


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