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Guitar Tips – Natural Harmonics: Basics

Natural harmonics are just the thing for you if you’ve ever wished you could make bell sounds with your guitar. And if you’ve never wished that, it sounds like a pretty cool idea now, right?

Right. So let’s learn how it’s done. If you’d like to see harmonics in action check out this short video I’ve put together that shows you the way and answers some common questions:

As the video shows, it’s really a pretty simple technique. Let’s recap what natural harmonics are and how to perform them. You’ll have it down in no time.

These harmonics can be played at many locations on the fretboard, but there are a few spots where they are just easier to get.

The most common are:

  • The 5th Fret
    |-<5>----|
    |-<5>----|
    |-<5>----|
    |-<5>----|
    |-<5>----|
    |-<5>----|
  • The 7th Fret
    |-<7>----|
    |-<7>----|
    |-<7>----|
    |-<7>----|
    |-<7>----|
    |-<7>----|
  • The 12th Fret
    |-<12>----|
    |-<12>----|
    |-<12>----|
    |-<12>----|
    |-<12>----|
    |-<12>----|

In order to play a harmonic at say, the 12th fret, we have to approach it just a bit differently than we would to play a note at that same fret.

Instead of pressing down and holding the string in the space to the left of the fret, like we would for a normal note, we are instead going to lightly touch the string directly above the fret itself and then release as soon as the harmonic starts to ring out; it will continue to sound without us holding our finger in place.

Guitar Tips   Natural Harmonics: Basics

If you are having trouble getting this to work, try playing the string open first, and then, while it’s still ringing, lightly bring your finger down to the string until you hear the harmonic begin. Just remember to lift your finger back up once it starts to sound.

Natural Harmonics: Not-So Basics

Now that you know the most widely used info about natural harmonics, I think it’s time we covered some lesser known (or at least underused) information.

1- Distortion helps you bring out hidden harmonics, so bust out the electric and crank it up. Doing this will help you find the harmonic at the 4th fret, or even the one at the 2nd. It’s very tough to hit these without distortion.

2- You can play some harmonics at different spots on the fretboard. For example, there’s a harmonic at the 19th fret which sounds exactly the same as the one at the 7th fret. Try it and see.

  • Also compare the 5th fret and the 24th fret.

3- Remember that thing I told you about how you had to hold your finger “directly over the fret”? Well, it was true at the 5th, 7th, and 12th frets (a.k.a. 99% of what you’ll see in songs), but it’s not true everywhere on the fretboard. You can get harmonics at any number of places.

  • Try this: With the distortion cranked to “max”, or “11″, or whatever your highest setting is, play a harmonic at the 3rd fret on the low E String
    |--------|
    |--------|
    |--------|
    |--------|
    |--------|
    |-<3>----|

    Okay. Start alternate picking, staying right where you are, and when the harmonic is ringing out clearly, slowly start to move your finger down the fretboard, toward the 2nd fret. If you go slowly, you should hear several harmonics in between the two frets, and the notes actually get higher the lower you go.Pretty cool, right? You can do this all over the fretboard on any string. In fact, you can keep going, run off the edge of the fretboard, and still hit harmonics, which brings me to the most important point:

4- It’s all about the touch. That extremely light, barely-grazing-the-string touch is all you need to produce natural harmonics. This is why you can produce them between frets or even off the fretboard entirely.

Play around with this and have fun with it. Two of my favorite examples of the technique in song can be found in the intro to Yngwie Malmsteen’s ‘Black Star’, and ‘Sisters’ by Steve Vai.