The use of natural harmonics - harmonics played on open strings - is common in many styles of acoustic and electric guitar music, from classical and jazz to rock and metal. The technique is fairly easy to perform and allows a player to sustain a pure-sounding, high-pitched tone after letting go of the string with the fret hand, which frees up both hands to play notes on other strings.
Many resourceful guitarists have employed natural harmonics creatively, often using them into conjunction with fretted and/or open notes to craft rich textures for their song riffs, parts and melodic fills.
In this lesson, we’ll cover how the technique is performed, cite a few well-known instances of its use in popular music and look at some cool and relatively easy ways to employ natural harmonics, with examples inspired by great guitarists and composers.
For those who are new to the technique, a natural harmonic is performed by picking a string while lightly touching it at one of several specific locations along the length of a string with either the tip or the side of a fret-hand finger, which is positioned directly above the indicated fret, not slightly behind it (to the left of it, if you’re a right-handed player), which differs from conventional fretting.
And you do not press the string down to touch the fret either. Performed properly, the finger may then be lifted away from the string after it is picked, with the harmonic continuing to ring. In order to get a natural harmonic to sound, however, the fretting finger needs to touch it at a node, which is a precise point along the open string’s length where a particular harmonic resides.
The most prominent, meaning audible, and commonly used harmonics are those located directly above the 12th, seventh, fifth and fourth frets, which generate pitches, respectively, one octave, an octave and a perfect fifth, two octaves and two octaves plus a major third above the open note.
One of the earliest appearances of natural harmonics in popular music can be found at the very end of George Harrison’s electric guitar solo in “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles, wherein he performs a single natural harmonic that he allows to ring, creating a distinct ending for his lead break.
A famous early rock example is the first two notes Jimmy Page plays on electric guitar after the four-bar bass intro to the Led Zeppelin epic “Dazed and Confused," which he performs in conjunction with a wah pedal to add vocal-like inflections to the two ringing harmonics.
Another distinct and instantly recognizable melodic motif performed with natural harmonics can be found in the intro to Buffalo Springfield’s classic Vietnam War-era protest song, “For What it’s Worth," wherein guitarist Stephen Stills plays the same two natural harmonics shown in Ex.1 in succession to provide a basic, yet catchy repeating figure over the song’s two-bar bass-and drums vamp.
Hearing these two natural harmonics performed consecutively is enough to bring this song to mind, revealing how powerful natural harmonics can be when they’re well placed in an arrangement.
Natural harmonics can be used to play the common E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D). Ex. 2a first shows the scale performed conventionally, in a one-octave descending line, then Ex. 2b has you recreating the same sequence of pitches using natural harmonics.
You’ll need to quickly toggle your fret hand back and forth between the 12th and seventh frets (use the sides of your pinky and index finger) to perform the notes in this same order. Try to avoid touching the strings you’ve already played harmonics on, as to not inadvertently mute them. You can hear a similar sequence of natural harmonics played in the classic 1970s hard rock song “Barracuda” by Heart.
The sequence of natural harmonics in Ex. 3 brings to mind the simple but catchy melodic phrase heard in composer John Williams’ “The Conversation,” as featured prominently in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Again, as is always the case with natural harmonics, be careful not to touch the strings with harmonics still ringing on them after you’ve played them.
Inspired by the intro to Rush’s “Red Barchetta,” from their 1981 prog-rock masterpiece Moving Pictures, Ex. 4 is a repeating eight-note melodic phrase performed with natural harmonics at the 12th and seventh frets, offering yet another example of how much mileage you can get from just these two positions.
One of the greatest pioneers in the creative use of natural harmonics, as well as other types of harmonics, such as artificial harmonics, is Edward Van Halen, and there are countless things you can learn from studying this brilliant fretboard magician’s playing and riff writing.
Examples of Eddie’s crafty and inventive use of natural harmonics include the intro to “Women in Love” and the catchy (and tricky) melodic phrase he plays right before the chorus in “Panama.”
Ex. 5 features Eddie’s nook-and-cranny natural harmonic clusters, which provide an interesting assortment of natural harmonics located above the fourth and fifth frets. Employing fourth-fret harmonics like this can greatly increase the melodic possibilities afforded by natural harmonics.
To expand this concept further, Ex. 6 demonstrates a phrase similar to one Eddie plays during the verse section of “Poundcake." Note that this example also employs a natural harmonic located approximately two tenth’s the distance from the third fret to the fourth.
This in-between-the-frets harmonic isn’t as loud as the more prominent ones located directly above the 12th, seventh, fifth and fourth frets, so you’ll want to pick the string strongly to help bring it out. Using your guitar’s bridge pickup and distortion will help accentuate harmonics in general too.
Ex. 7 is inspired by the intro section of Joe Satriani’s “Up in the Sky” featuring a similarly rapid sweep-picked natural-harmonics figure. These rapidly-picked harmonic clusters are simplified by incorporating a basic sweep-picking, or “raking,” technique as they shift quickly across the strings band from one fretboard position to another.
Ex. 8 features an interesting melodic idea inspired by Jedi shred-master Steve Vai and demonstrates a cool way to use natural harmonics in conjunction with fretted, sliding bass notes.
This approach can be used create an interesting variety of “harmonic chords” and shimmering tonalities, such as those heard during Vai’s landmark instrumental “Sisters” or in the guitarist’s playing on the David Lee Roth’s “Damn Good."
The “trick” here is to hold the fretted bass note when performing the natural harmonics that follow. Another great and well-known example of combining fretted notes and natural harmonic in a riff can be heard in the Y2K-era alt-rock hit “Blurry” by Puddle of Mudd.
Our final example (Ex. 9) is inspired by Swedish shred-master Yngwie Malmsteen’s brilliant playing in his celebrated live solo excursion based around Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” and offers another interesting way to employ natural harmonics, which is to play a targeted natural harmonic and then “answer” it with the same pitch as a fretted note.
After these first two notes, the lick takes off into a Malmsteen-approved E harmonic minor run, that concludes with two additional natural harmonics, which give the run a balanced and elegant resolution.
As you explore using harmonics melodically, feel free to experiment and attempt novel combinations of harmonics and fretted or open notes.
For a more in-depth study of natural harmonics, as well as several other types of harmonics on the guitar, check out my book Harmonics for Guitar [Hal Leonard].