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Guitar Tips – What Are Pinch Harmonics?

Elvis Elvis

Pinch harmonics are sometimes called artificial harmonics or squealies (not a term I condone). If you’ve ever heard a gigantic, atomic-grade banshee squeal in the middle of a riff, you have heard one.

Now it’s time to learn how to play one.

If you’ve never really gotten this technique down, or maybe never tried it at all, do yourself a favor… grab the guitar and crank the distortion up as high as possible. It makes things a lot easier.

Ready? Great.

Before we start, check this out: 

Here’s the plan: I’ve recorded a brief video which shows me pounding out the harmonics at the third fret of the A string; that’s represented above. I won’t bother to film my hand holding that fret, because the fretting hand’s not the difficult part here. I’ll be focused on my picking hand. Focus on that. Look at my picking angle, grip on the pick, etc. If you do these things it’ll work for you, and then you can adapt the details to suit your style.

The Golden Rules of Pinch Harmonics

Hopefully it helped you to see that in action. Let’s break it down now. There are a few important things to keep in mind as you work to improve your pinches.

Guitar Tips   What Are Pinch Harmonics?

1)High pitch, low string- Crazy as it sounds, the low strings, at low frets, are where you’ll typically get the most mileage on these squeals.

2) Downstrokes only- At least at first. The picking motion that is needed to produce a good quality pinch harmonic lends itself to downstrokes. This means that you’ll have to play your riff or solo so that you arrive at the pinch harmonic on a downstroke. Then again, there’s always an exception; I’ve seen some people bust ‘em on upstrokes, but I advise you to master the downstroke pinch before moving on.

3) Thumbs down- The edge of your thumb must quickly glance off the string on the way down, immediately after the note has been picked. It messes with the normal vibration of the string, producing the squeal. No thumb, no harmonic.

4) Choke up- You want as little pick showing as possible. Ideally, just the tip will be sticking out between your fingers. This makes it tons easier to make the thumb-brush one continuous move, rather than a pick and then a brush.

5) Vibrato is your friend- It brings the note alive, and let’s face it, this is a loud, in-your-face technique. The more we can shake the note around, the more effective it will be.

6) Picking hand = pitch control- Yes, you actually can control the pitch of these things, but you’ll have to pick in different spots along the length of the string to do so. Try picking closer to the bridge, then further away, etc.

7) Fat strings are the best- I probably do 75% of my pinch harmonics on the two fattest strings. I very rarely hit the slimmest two. Why? Two reasons, really:

  • 1) It’s easier to hit pinch harmonics on fatter strings, and
  • 2) The contrast that the squeal gives to your riff/solo is much more effective when it’s found in the middle of some low-string riffage. If you add a high squeal to a passage that’s already riddled with other high notes, well, that’s not very exciting is it? As with many other effective musical ideas, contrast is key.

In the end, it just take a bit of practice. You’ll get it in no time.