Harmonics: How to Make Your Guitar Squeal

Tommaso Zillio

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Dimebag Darrel, Joe Satriani, Van Halen, Zakk Wylde, Mathias Ekhlund... they all have one thing in common: mastery of the use of natural and artificial harmonics. We all have heard how harmonics sound: an artificial harmonic (also called ‘pinch harmonic’) is that high pitched squeal so common in rock and metal; while a natural harmonics has more a bell-like quality to it. Natural and artificial harmonics are not technically complicated, yet many players find difficult to get them “right” consistently. Unless you know exactly what you are doing playing an harmonic may feel like a jump in the dark: you do not know if you are going to succeed or not.

It probably happened to you that the moment you needed an harmonic, you weren’t able to make it sound. It happened to me — on stage! I had a solo that started in a dramatic way — band stops playing while I hit a pinch harmonic with all the lights on me, then bands join in again. Imagine how I felt when all I got was a stupid ‘clunk’ noise rather than the nice squeal I was going for!

After this experience I set out to learn the harmonic technique properly so that I would be sure to get it 100% of the time, no matter what. To my surprise, I was able to learn the technique in a couple of days — just in time for the next show! In fact, I learned much more than what I expected: I discovered that there are a number of less used harmonic positions over all the guitar neck.

The Problem

To see how to play an harmonic the right way, let’s first see what is going on when you fail a pinch or natural harmonics. Most players assume it’s a technical problem, such as “I have not picked it strong enough”, or “my hand position is wrong”. And yet, the actual technique (picking together with the pick and your thumb) is quite simple and does not require great strength. If you were able to play a pinch harmonic just once, then you should be able to play it anytime without any problem.

The real problem is that a pinch harmonic needs to be played with the right hand positioned on a specific point of the string, and any small deviation from this position will prevent the harmonic from squealing properly. Not only that, but the available positions change with the note you are fretting! This means that if your recipe for a pinch harmonic is simply to try to pick it as strong as you can in a random position then you are surely going to be disappointed.

So, how professionals do it? I have never heard Zakk or Dimebag miss an harmonic, so there must be a solution, right? There must be a way to play the harmonics in a fail-safe way, without the uncertainty of just “going for it blindly”.

As incredible as it may seem, professional players who use pinch harmonics actually learn by heart all the possible positions for a pinch harmonic, and then train them until they are second nature. While this sounds intimidating, when you get down to business you discover that the main positions are quite few and easy to find, and that there is a logic on how the position move with the fretted notes. With a little exercise you will be able to play pinch harmonics on ANY note, and find natural harmonics in places you didn’t suspect. From metal squeals to beautiful bell-like arpeggios, you can master it all.

So what are these positions and how they move when a note is fretted?

How the Positions Shift

The first thing to learn is the positions for all natural harmonics, i.e. the harmonics of the open string. The most audible (and common used) ones are at fret 12, 7, and 5, but there are MANY more usable ones. I will refer you to the eBook linked at the end of this article for a complete map of all natural harmonics playable on the guitar.

Now, what happens is that when you are fretting a note the position of these harmonics move ”up” a corresponding number of frets”. For instance, let’s take the natural harmonic at the 5th fret, any string. If I now fret a note at the 3rd fret, the harmonic will move up 3 frets too, ending up at the 8th fret. Since this position is still above the fretboard, it is suited for a tap harmonic (when you hit the string with your right hand on the harmonic position, see at the end of this article).

An alternative way of seeing the same thing is to imagine the harmonic position a fixed number of frets above the fingered note. For instance, you can play a whole scale using artificial harmonics, with the harmonic positions being always 12 frets higher than the note you are fretting. The harmonic position may be higher than the last fret on your guitar, so you need to visualize imaginary frets beyond the end of the fretboard in order to locate them.

Technical Tips

Some technical tips on how to play guitar harmonics:

Natural harmonics: touch the string with your left hand (do not press it all the way down to the fret), then pick with your right hand. Your left hand should leave the string just after you picked it.

Pinch (Artificial) Harmonics: Use some distortion, and use the bridge pickup. It is WAY more difficult to play a harmonic with the neck pickup on, and in some case it is simply impossible. When you pick the string, hit it with your pick and thumb together, then apply a vibrato with your left hand. Not only the vibrato will make it sound better, but it will ”bow” the string on the fret, giving the note more sustain.

Tap Harmonics: they work like pinch harmonics, i.e. they have the same positions on the string, but rather than playing them with your pick and right hand thumb at the same time, you use one of your right hand fingers to ‘tap’ string against the fret of the guitar at the harmonic position.

I Want to Know More!

Since a comprehensive explanation of everything there is to know about harmonics can not be compressed in a single column, I have prepared a free eBook that explains in detail how to play natural harmonics, pinch harmonics and tap harmonics, with photos of each technique being played. In the eBook I show the position for all natural and artificial harmonics that you can possibly play on the guitar. It contains also a detailed explanation of the different ways of playing an harmonic , and exercises to make the harmonic positions second nature. You can download your free eBook by clicking on the button below:

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