There has always been a good deal of mystery surrounding pinch harmonics, or as some players like to call it, the “pick squeal.” A pick squeal is simply an artificial harmonic, or high-pitched sound, produced by choking up on the pick and allowing the thumb or thumbnail to catch on the truing just as it’s picked. The result resembles a squeal. Or a squawk. Or a scream. (It might take several tries before you get the desired s word.)
Anyway, what was once the domain of blues-rock string benders is now a staple for most metal guitarists.Here are the dudes who made it that way.
10. Greg Howe
Sure he’s moved on to smoother and faster fusion pastures, but early on in his rock career, velocity merchant Greg Howe used the pinch harmonic like it was going out of style. Actually, it did go out of style, but then it came back. Listen to Howe II to hear him bend notes into frequencies perceptible only by canines. Or just check out “Kick It All Over,” below, from his 1988 self-titled album.
9. John Sykes
A speed freak of the scalar variety, Sykes really showed his squeal know-how when he joined Thin Lizzy for their 1983 swan song, Thunder and Lightning. The repeated howling fills in “Cold Sweat” were the precursor to the exaggerated squeals that became rampant in metal guitar playing during the Eighties. Later, Sykes would introduce the technique to the Top 40 on Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night.”
8. Shadows Fall
In the mid naughts, Jonathan Donais and Matthew Bachand led the return of melodic thrash to American rock by punctuating their intricate leads with pinch harmonics, helping to bring the technique back into prominence in extremely heavy music. It’s like having Zakk Wylde and John Sykes in one band.
7. Skid Row
A Skid Row song just wasn’t complete without a scream or 47 from the guitar. In fact, the band’s self-titled debut may have had more pick squawks than Van Halen had David Lee Roth squeals. And speaking of frontmen, the pinch harmonics of guitarists Scotti Hull and Snake Sabo were the perfect antidote to Sebastian Bach’s ’80s metal wailing.
6. Eddie Van Halen
Look no further than Van Halen’s landmark debut. With his aggressive pick attack, Ed sounds almost as if he’s using some weird wah-wah effect when he pinches the strings in the hyperboogie riffs of “I’m the One” and “Jamie’s Cryin’.” And how about the opening riff of “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love”? This is where rock guitar got introduced to the “squeal.”
5. Dimebag Darrell
By the time Pantera made the transformation to Metallica-inspired power metal, Dime had moved from inserting EVH squeals in his solos to writing riffs around pinch harmonics, as in “Cemetery Gates.” When that song came out, death-metal bands immediately started taking their cues from Mr. Abbott.
4. Steve Vai
The Big V has been making weird guitar noises since his infancy—when Frank Zappa’s wolf pack adopted and raised him. But it all came together, pitch-wise, on his chromatic tour de force “The Attitude Song,” from 1984’s Flex-Able. Later, Vai merged commercial success, whammy bar and pick squeals on David Lee Roth’s version of “Tobacco Road,” and the technique all but dominated the boogie tune “Juice,” from 1995’s Alien Love Secrets.
3. Roy Buchanan
The late and lamented Buchanan gets credit for inventing the pick squeal back in the Sixties. The way he laid into his strings made it so that virtually every bend had a harmonic overtone of some sort. Yep, he was chicken pickin’, and the notes they were a’squawkin’. Some of his most over-the-top pinch harmonics—produced without the aid of heaps of distortion—can be found on the album Live Stock. Check out the solo that begins around the 1:50 mark in “Further on up the Road.”
2. Zakk Wylde
As a 19-year-old, Zakk rejuvenated Ozzy’s band by twisting steroid-enhanced riffs into “Miracle Man” and inserting pick squeals into just about any gap that opened up. Wylde realized he was onto something; the technique is now integral to his rowdy playing stye. Indeed, when he brings his A squeal it sounds as though the string is screaming for mercy.
1. Billy Gibbons
The fact that the Revered Billy Gibbons peppered a large portion of his “La Grange” outro solo with harmonic squeals put him in the books as a master of the technique. The fact that the song is a tribute to a house of ill repute makes the squeals even more appropriate. According to lore, Gibbons attains his signature squeals by picking with an old peso coin. The thicker the pick, the louder the squeal. Or so they say.