Prog Guru Steve Morse

June 17, 2005

But before we get into that, let’s brush up on octave harmonics. To play one, first fret a note on the string of your choice somewhere between the nut and, say, the 5th fret. Next, with your picking hand’s index finger, touch the string exactly one octave—that is, 12 frets—above the note. (Don’t actually push the string against the fret, just hold your index firmly against the string exactly over the fretwire.) Finally, with your pick between your thumb and middle finger, pick the string. You’ll hear the octave harmonic.

There are many pleasing ways to use octave harmonics. The simplest is for single-note melodies on a single string [Ex. 1]. (Notice that, unlike with typical open-string harmonics, you can apply fretting-hand vibrato to octave harmonics.) The technique comes alive when the harmonics occur on different strings and stay ringing so they overlap like wind chimes, as in an arpeggiated F#m chord [Ex. 2]. And don’t forget the spellbinding sound of cascades, where you create shimmering, often stepwise melodies using alternating octave harmonics and standard fretted notes [Ex. 3]. Here, the fretted notes are plucked with the ring finger.

But getting that amazing and baffling “overdubbed guitars” sound involves playing octave harmonics and fretted notes at the same time. To learn exactly what I mean, I’ll show you a theme based on “Country Colors.” First, try it straight, without any harmonics [Ex. 4] so your fretting hand can learn the moves. Then try it with the octave harmonics added [Ex. 5]. Again, pluck the standard fretted notes with your ring finger. It’s a gorgeous, hypnotic sound, and one reason people have a hard time figuring out how to play riffs like this is because the harmonics in the first two-and-a-half beats of bar 1 are applied to the lower string in each two-note grip. This not only makes the lower voice sound an octave higher, it instantly morphs it into the higher voice, making it the lead melody. Because the harmonics are higher in pitch than the fretted notes. Sneaky!

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