by Gohar Vardanyan
Harmonics are some of the most delicate sounding effects on the guitar. There are two types of harmonics: natural and artificial. Natural harmonics are produced without having to finger a pitch on the fret board. There are specific locations where natural harmonics occur. Not all pitches are available on the guitar as natural harmonics. With artificial harmonics, however, we can play any pitch as a harmonic by fingering that note on the fret board and creating the harmonic with our “i” finger and plucking it with “a”.
Natural harmonics occur on:
12th fret dividing the strings into two equal parts
7th/19th frets dividing the strings into three equal parts and have the same exact pitch
5th fret and at the center of the sound hole, also same pitch
4th /9th/16th and at the outside edge of the rosette, dividing the strings into five equal parts, also-same pitch
Sometimes it can be tricky to make harmonics sound clear. For natural harmonics, we are taught to lightly touch the string right above the metal fret with our left hand (L.H.) and pluck it with our right hand (R.H.). That works very well on the 12th fret on almost all guitars. 7th and 19th frets are also mostly cooperative. However, when playing harmonics on the 4th, 5th, 9th, frets, it becomes more difficult to produce the same crystal sound as we can on the 7th, 12th, and 19th frets, especially if our guitar is anything less than the best-balanced concert instrument. Even concert instruments aren’t always perfect. I found that in order to get the best and the most clear sound, for example on the 9th fret on my guitar, I have to touch the string with my left hand not right on top of the 9th fret metal, but a little bit behind it. If I place my L.H. finger right above the metal, I get a thuddy sound.
The amount of pressure from the L.H. and the timing of the release make a huge difference in the clarity as well. Most beginners tend to keep the L.H. finger on location for the duration of the harmonic. That actually slowly kills the vibration of the string and the sound of the harmonic. The best way is to release the L.H. right after plucking the note with our R.H.; not too soon, where we don’t give a chance for the harmonic to blossom, but not too late either, so we don’t kill it. Each location on each instrument is going to require its own unique touch to make the most clear and beautiful harmonic. You will find that in some places the best sound produced while quickly taking off the L.H. after plucking. In other places, you might need to release later. I would encourage experimenting with the minute differences in placement, pressure and release, and also with the location where the string is plucked with our R.H. Natural harmonics tend to sound best when the string is plucked closer to the bridge, however as with the L.H. each instrument will have its own sweet spot for each harmonic.
With artificial harmonics, we fret the given pitch with our L.H., then place our “i” finger at the half point of the string and pluck (free stroke) with the “a”. The easiest way to find the location of the artificial harmonic is to use the open string and the 12th fret harmonic as a reference. So, if we press the 1st fret with our L.H. then the harmonic is on the 13th fret in our R.H. When the L.H. plays the 2nd fret, R.H. plays 14th, 3rd/15th and so on.
When playing artificial harmonics on the wound bass strings, it is best to pluck the string with your thumb (free stroke), rather than “a”. This is because the nail of the “a” finger often makes a scratchy sound against the wound string. Plucking with “p” would require your thumb to move behind the “i” finger, which is fingering the harmonic. At first it might feel awkward and take some getting used to, but the end result is well worth it. Since the nature of the harmonics is so quiet and delicate, any extra noise would be very distracting.
A final hint for learning artificial harmonics: learn to play the L.H without looking, because it is far more important to look at the placement of the “i” in the R.H. to make sure it is placed above the correct fret. Except when playing chromatic notes, each time we play we have to jump frets with our R.H. so our eyes should be reserved to make sure we land in the right place. The left hand has to be completely automatic so we don’t have to think about it at all and can concentrate on placing and playing with the right hand.