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A Quick, Straightforward Guide to Playing Harmonics

A guitarist plays an ocean blue acoustic guitar
(Image credit: Nico De Pasquale Photography)

Heard in everything from the scorching lead guitar work of Eddie Van Halen to the delay-drenched ambience of U2's The Edge, harmonics are integral to textural guitar playing. 

Interestingly, every time a note is struck on the guitar, harmonics are generated by the string's vibra­tion. The loudest element is called the fundamental, or the primary note. So getting a harmonic to sound on the guitar is simply a matter of deadening the fundamental, there­ by allowing the harmonic to ring out.

Natural harmonics are the most commonly played harmonics on the guitar; they are dis­played in their most accessible locations­ – frets 12, 7, and 5 – in Figure 1.

When executing these harmonics, place your fret-hand finger directly over the fret­ wire – not behind the fret, as you would when fingering a regular note. Lightly touch the string and then pick it. After that, remove your fret­ hand finger, allowing the harmonic to ring freely. You should get a chime-like sound.

Harmonics lesson figure 1

Figure 1 (Image credit: Future)

Harmonics are often used in combination with single-note lines and chords. In Figure 2A, play the 12th-fret harmonics with your 3rd finger and the 5th-fret harmonics with either your 3rd or 2nd finger. 

Best played with your ring finger, the 7th-fret harmonics in Figure 2B outline a D major triad. Figure 2C is a tasty lead lick in the style of Eddie Van Halen. 

To execute the whammy-bar dive – one of Eddie's trade­marks – pick the open 3rd string and immediately depress the bar about 2-l/2 steps. Then, as you release the bar, lightly touch the string above the 5th fret (without picking it).

Harmonics lesson figure 2a

Figure 2A (Image credit: Future)

Harmonics lesson figure 2b

Figure 2B (Image credit: Future)

Harmonics lesson figure 2c

Figure 2C (Image credit: Future)

Natural harmonics can also be played at other locations. Fourth-fret harmonics [Figure 3], which sound two octaves and a major 3rd above the fundamental, can be heard in Rush's "Red Barchetta." (Note: 9th-fret harmonics are identical in pitch to 4th-fret fret harmon­ics.) 

When playing through Figure 3, keep your fret hand mainly in 5th position – use your index finger for the 4th-fret harmonics and your pinky for the 12th-fret harmonics.

Harmonics lesson figure 3

Figure 3 (Image credit: Future)

Two other popular techniques are tap har­monics and harp harmonics, both of which, unlike natural harmonics, involve fretted notes. 

The four chord shapes in Figure 4A drive the tap- and harp-harmonic sequences of Figure 4B. To play the latter example with tap har­monics, keep each chord shape fretted for one bar and, with your pick-hand index fin­ger, tap each note indicated in parentheses, directly above the fretwire.

When properly executed, Figure 4B's harmonics (both types) will sound an octave above the fretted notes. To play the figure with harp harmonics, again hold each chord shape for one bar, lightly place your pick hand's index finger over the fretwire at each note in parentheses and pluck the string with your pick-hand thumb.

Harmonics lesson figure 4a

Figure 4A (Image credit: Future)

Harmonics lesson figure 4b

Figure 4B (Image credit: Future)