Guitar Harmonics – Make Them Chime!
I occasionally receive questions from clients about harmonics on the guitar: what they are and how to produce them. Guitar players love harmonics for their high-pitched ringing tone (Hawaiian slack key players call them “chimes”), and for the fact they allow a note (or more) to sustain as the fretting hand moves laterally on the guitar neck – not possible when you have to sustain a fretted a note.
High-pitched guitar harmonics occur when a player creates a ‘nodal point’ (a non-vibrating ‘dead’ spot) on a vibrating string. Nodal points occur at the mathematical dividing points on a string:
a) One-half point. This divides the string in half – 12th fret. The pitch is one octave above the open string;
b) One-third points. These two points divide the string into three equal lengths – 7th and 19th frets. The pitch is an octave and a fifth above the open string;
c) One-quarter points. These divide the string into four equal lengths – 5th and 24th frets. The pitch is two octaves above the open string. Note: The 12th fret is stationary as well when creating a harmonic at the 5th or 24th frets.
Harmonics also occur at the 1/5th, 1/6th and 1/7th points, but these higher-pitched harmonics get softer in volume, less focused in tone, and harder to produce with your hands. Few guitar pieces use harmonics beyond the 1/4 point.
A guitarist produces harmonics by lightly touching the string directly above (or adjacent to, if you prefer) the proper fret wire, and plucking the string sharply. You will enhance your chances of producing ringing harmonics if you completely relax the fretting hand (lightly touch the string, don’t fret it). Also, pick the string closer to the bridge; it can produce a sharper attack and a louder, brighter tone.
In theory, you could leave your fretting-hand fingertip (or barre) on the nodal point once you have plucked the string and produced the harmonic – the string is not vibrating at that spot so you won’t mute the string. But this doesn’t work well because human fingers are too wide for the infinitesimally small nodal point. The upshot: You will dampen the vibrations if you leave your finger on the string after producing the harmonic.
Be that as it may, you don’t need to be in a hurry to take your fretting hand away. Leave it there a just a moment, and take it away in a relaxed fashion.
Harmonics are not as loud as open and fretted notes, so you need to pick them harder to match the volume of non-harmonic notes that may occur around them.
-Mark Hanson, September 2017
P.S. Many of my arrangements use harmonics. At my Free Tab page, I show how to incorporate them into scales. “Twin Sisters” in Art of Solo Fingerpicking uses them liberally. “Fields of Gold,” “Walk Away Renee” and “Moonshadow” all use harmonics in Travis Pick the Hits!