Using Harmonics

May 18, 2005

First, let’s establish what harmonics are. Anything that vibrates—in our case a guitar string—can be divided up at specific points called nodes. We’re going to concentrate on the nodes at the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets (although crafty harmonic freaks know there are many others, lurking all along the length of the string). To get the harmonics to ring, gently place a fretting-hand finger directly over—not behind—the fret and pick the strings. Do this at the 12th fret and you’ll hear the six cool chimes that begin Ex. 1. Go to the 7th fret and pick from high to low this time, just to keep things interesting, and create these higher harmonics. Finish the example at the 5th fret and you’ll be armed with a bunch of great bell tones that will spice up hundreds of tunes based on popular progressions.

Which brings up to our next point: Harmonics do you a lot more good if you can work them into songs. And the songs that benefit the most from a sprinkling of harmonics are often the easiest ones. Take a look at the progression in Ex. 2: G-C-G. Pretty basic, huh? Yeah, but that’s why it’s used in so many songs by the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, and just about every other classic rock, country, and pop artist. The next time you play a song with these chords in it, try Ex. 2’s harmonics—the top four strings at the 12th fret and then a final D harmonic at the 7th fret of the G string. They fit the chords perfectly, they couldn’t be simpler, and they couldn’t sound much prettier. More good news: If you play them out of order or in a different rhythm, they’ll still sound great.

On to Ex. 3. This harmonic lick is inspired by an equally popular progression: D-C-G. The harmonics are easy and gorgeous. Try this lick next time you play “Sweet Home Alabama” or any song even remotely like “Sweet Home,” which is approximately a million tunes.

The next time you encounter a song that goes Bm-E (a favorite move for Santana, Sheryl Crow, and everyone else), try the harmonics in Ex. 4. You can attack them with a pick or snap them with your plucking-hand thumb (for the low string) and index and middle fingers (for the top two strings). The second bar is a downbeat followed by three upbeats but don’t worry too much about that. Like all these harmonic licks, you can’t go wrong. Trust me.

You’re probably wondering how these harmonics can get any cooler. Well, hang on. You’re about to experience what might just be one of the coolest licks ever played. The chord progression for Ex. 5 is Em-G-D-A, but you can use these bell tones in any song in the key of Em or G. The notes are merely an Em pentatonic scale. All but one of the notes are played with harmonics, allowing this scale to completely outclass a normal Em pentatonic. Because we have to jump around more than before, arch your fingers so you only touch your fingertip to each harmonic. Let as many notes ring together as possible and just start bouncing between the 12th and 7th frets (with one open G thrown in out of necessity). Whenever I hear the expression, “There’s beauty in simplicity,” I think of Ex. 5.

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