Guitar Harmonics – What They Are and How to Play Them

This post is all about guitar harmonics. Using harmonics is a popular technique that provides a distinct sound on the guitar and can really add extra flavor to your composition. In the sections that follow, I’ll discuss everything from what exactly a guitar harmonic is as well as how to play them.

There are a few ways to play harmonics on the guitar and some ways are easier than others. However, one of the key takeaways in this post should be to understand how exactly harmonics are created so that you comprehend the fundamentals. I’ll go through all of that as well explain the various ways you can create guitar harmonics either naturally or artificially. Near the end of the post, I’ve also included a few popular songs that use guitar harmonics so that you can learn them and practice.

What Are Guitar Harmonics?

Guitar harmonics are the result of dampening a note in a way that it produces a high-pitched or bell-like chime. When you play a particular note on the guitar, for example the open A string, you hear the fundamental note, which in this case is A. However, when a string is plucked, it creates vibrations from the guitar’s bridge to the net and thus many other overtones or harmonics, are created as a result of shorter frequencies along the fretboard. Although, when you just regularly pluck a string you only hear the fundamental note. Knowing how to isolate the overtones will help you to uncover the harmonics.

There are various ways to produce guitar harmonics. You can play natural harmonics which are harmonic instances that occur naturally on the fretboard as well as artificial harmonics. The latter uses techniques that allow you to play harmonics no matter where on the fretboard you are. I’ll discuss both options.

Playing Natural Harmonics

We’ll start off with the easiest way to produce a harmonic sound which is through the use of natural harmonics. Natural harmonics occur at various locations across the fretboard. However, the most common and distinct natural harmonics are located on the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets.

guitar harmonics frets

Natural harmonics are created by making the string vibrate in fractions. For example, half of the length fraction results in a 12th fret harmonic, a third of the length fraction results in a 7th fret harmonic, a fourth of the length fraction results in a 5th fret harmonic, etc. You can also play natural harmonics up in the octaves of the fret numbers mentioned above, therefore the 17th, 19th and even off of the fretboard in some cases, on the 24th fret.

These fret positions aren’t the only places where you can produce natural harmonics. There are also more granular positionings you can use to produce a harmonic sound such as on the 3.2 fret, 8.8 fret, 14.7 fret, and so on. Check out the Wikipedia post which shows a full table of nodes where each natural harmonic occurs.

Now, when it comes time to actually playing natural guitar harmonics there are a couple of things to be aware of.

  1. To isolate the harmonic, you’ll want to very lightly press on the string at either the 5th, 7th, or 12th position (or any other position you want t experiment with).
  2. Be sure to place your finger above the metal part of the fret. This will produce the clearest sounding harmonic rather than if your finger is in between two metal frets.

For beginners, you may find it easier to actually pluck a string first and then lightly touch the string with the tip of your finger at the 5th, 7th, or 12th fret. Alternatively, if you rather place your finger on the string first, you may find that the harmonic rings more clearly if immediately after you pluck the string, you quickly remove your finger.

Natural Harmonic (5th, 7th, and 12th fret) Notes

Not all natural harmonics result in the same note as their fundamental conterparts. The natural harmonics played at frets 7 and 12 are the same notes as if you played them normally with your finger pressed all the way down on the fret. However, the harmonics played on the 5th fret actually correspond to the same notes found on the 12th fret (or open string notes). In fact, the harmonics played on the 5th fret are 2 octaves higher than the open string notes. Therefore, when you play the 5th fret harmonic for the low E string, this would be the same as playing the low E string on the 24th fret.

Below, I’ve included a quick summary table of what each harmonic note corresponds to on the 5th, 7th, and 12th frets.

5th Fret 7th Fret 12 Fret
1st string (thinest) E B E
2nd string B F# B
3rd string G D G
4th string D A D
5th string A E A
6th string (thickest) E B E

Playing Artificial Harmonics

Apart from natural harmonics, which are somewhat restrictive, you can also use artificial harmonics which allow you to produce that signature high-pitched harmonic sound, anywhere on the guitar. Below, I’ve included 3 different types of artificial harmonics you can use.

1. Touch Harmonics

The first type of artificial harmonic we’ll discuss is touch harmonics. With this technique, you can press down on any fret of the guitar as you normally would with your fretting hand, and then move up 12 frets from that position with your picking hand. With your picking hand, you can either choose to use just your thumb or can place a pick between your thumb and 2nd finger. You will then place your index finger very lightly on the fret that is 12 notes higher on the same string. With either your thumb or a pick, you can then pluck the string and will be able to hear the harmonic quality of the note when played correctly.

touch harmonic

As a quick example, let’s say you place a finger from your fretting hand down on the 5th fret of the low E string. You would then position the index finger of your strumming hand ever so lightly on the 17th fret of that same string and then pluck the string with either your thumb or a pick.

2. Tap Harmonics

Tap harmonics is very similar to touch harmonics in that you use the same technique of moving up 12 frets to play the artificial harmonic. However, in this case, instead of using your thumb or a pick to sound the harmonic, you do so by tapping the string lightly.

tap harmonic

To properly produce the tap harmonic using the same example as above, you would place a finger from your fretting hand on the 5th fret of the low E string and then pluck the string. Then, quickly tap the 17th fret of the low E string with your strumming hand’s index finger. Try to do so in a way where your finger quickly touches the string exactly above the corresponding metal fret and then is removed.

You don’t want to tap too hard where your finger will actually deaden the sound altogether, just enough to dampen some of the overtones.

3. Pinch Harmonics

Similar to the other artificial harmonic techniques, the pinch harmonic can be used on both acoustic and electric guitars, however, may require a bit more practice to get right. The technique is often heard on songs that use electric guitars with distortion to create a high-pitched “scream” of sorts.

This is achieved by plucking a string with your guitar pick while almost simultaneous dampening the string with your thumb. Once your thumb dampens the string, it creates that “scream” sound known as a pinch harmonic. To help achieve this, you may find it useful to have less of the pick exposed so that there is less distance between the end of the pick and your thumb. You may also find that plucking the string from a certain angle may help create the pinch harmonic with greater ease.

pinch harmonic

Pinch harmonics will likely take a bit more trial and error in order to get it right. However, I’d recommend practicing all 3 artificial guitar harmonic techniques to see which ones you like the most.

Songs That Use Guitar Harmonics

To give you a better idea of how guitar harmonics can be used in songs, I’ve included a short list of popular songs that use harmonics. Check out each song below and see if you can pinpoint the section where harmonics are being used. I’ve included the Spotify link, Ultimate-Guitar tab and Guitar Pro tab for each song so that you can easily see how it’s played.

Red Barchetta – Rush

Ultimate-Guitar Tab

Guitar Pro Tab

Santa Monica – Theory of a deadman

Ultimate-Guitar Tab

Guitar Pro Tab

Roundabout – Yes

Ultimate-Guitar Tab

Guitar Pro Tab

Barracuda – Heart

Ultimate-Guitar Tab

Guitar Pro Tab

Harvest Moon – Neil Young

Ultimate-Guitar Tab

Guitar Pro Tab

Blurry – Puddle of Mud

Ultimate-Guitar Tab

Guitar Pro Tab

Guitar Harmonics – In Summary

Guitar harmonics are just another technique you can add to your guitar skills toolbox. Getting them right can definitely take time and practice, however doing so allows you to create unique sounds that are pleasing to the ear when done right. Try using / practicing both natural and artificial harmonics as well as learning songs that use this technique to become more familiar with it.

If you have any questions or are having trouble reproducing that harmonic sound, leave a comment in the section below and I’ll do my best to help you out.

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