Guitar Harmonics are a popular way of varying the sound of lead parts and it is very useful to learn guitar solo techniques such as these to improve and add interest to your playing.
Definition of Guitar Harmonics
So what are guitar harmonics then? You’ll recognise them from many songs, especially those squealing rock guitar solos where harmonics add variation and interest to lead parts. Harmonics have a distinctive tone, which is very different to the natural sound obtained from playing a string in the normal way.
What are the Types of Guitar Harmonics?
There are 2 main types of guitar harmonics.
1. Natural harmonics
2. Artificial or “pinch” harmonics
In the case of natural guitar harmonics, you lightly touch the string, without actually holding it down against the fretboard. You then play the string and you will hear a bell-like chime instead of the usual sound you get from a guitar string. The character, or timbre, of the note sounds different in this way because, by touching the string lightly you are muting some of the overtones of the guitar. Without getting too technical, a guitar string will vibrate most audibly at its fundamental frequency (i.e. it vibrates along its entire length); however, simultaneously the string will vibrate at multiples of that fundamental frequency. So a single note played on a guitar string comprises many different frequencies which combine to give the unique character, or timbre, of the note. The easiest guitar harmonic to play is probably the natural harmonic over the twelfth fret, which give a note one octave higher than the open string. Other positions that can produce harmonics without too much difficulty are over the 5th and 7th frets.
Artificial guitar harmonics (or “pinch” harmonics) are harder to play and are achieved by lightly touching the thumb of the pick hand against the string as (or rather immediately after) the string is played. This has the effect of muting the fundamental frequency and all other overtones apart from those with nodes (locations on the string that do not move) at this location. This can be achieved by holding the pick very close to the end so only a very small part extends from the grip of the index finger and thumb. This allows the player to brush the thumb over the string more easily as the string is played.
There are other types of guitar harmonics, such as tapped harmonics and double attack harmonics, but they’re for another time.
Try out natural and pinch guitar harmonics for yourself. See what a difference it makes to your playing and try working them in to your lead parts, or even some of your riffs. Whatever you do, have fun with them!