Guitar Harmonics

October 3, 2008

Wooten the amazing grace

Harmonics being played on the guitar have always fascinated me for a long time. I’ve tried really hard to play a few myself! It requires a tremendous feel of the music and you need to know how much pressure to apply in the right places. For the uninititated, what is a guitar harmonic? It’s the ‘metallic’ bell-like sound coming from a guitar. That’s the most basic way I can put it.  For instance in the beautiful rendition of amazing grace by Victor Wooten. Listen to the part from 1.39 to the end. If it’s the first time you’re listening to it,I am sure you’ll be awestruck! What makes it awesome is that he performs the song on harmonics using the bass guitar.

When we play the guitar we always hear the fundamental note. It’s the loudest note that we get to hear,but what we don’t get to hear/aware of is that when a guitar string is struck there are various other notes also generated apart from the fundamental note. These unheard notes are the harmonics. So the key to playing a harmonic is to shut off the loudest fundamental note and make the other notes heard out.  This can be done by very delicately touching the string at particular positions and then plucking the string. When you do that, both the portions of the same string seperated by your finger vibrate at the same time and that’s when the harmonic is produced. 

The 3rd,5th and 12th fret

The 5th,7th and 12th fret

If you notice above the fret wire, the 5th is divided into fourths,7ths in thirds and 12th as havles. Only at these points can the harmonic be produced. Striking a harmonic on other parts of the guitar is impossible(unless you detune your guitar!).

Other popular songs with harmonics:

  • Metallica’s Nothing else matters-In the first minute,the 27th second to be precise in this video.
  • Pearl Jam’s Jeremy- 26th-27th second(check it here).
  • Iron Maiden’s Fear of the dark intro.

The whole physics behind harmonics is explained really well on harmony central,the link to which is here.

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3 Responses to “Guitar Harmonics”

  1. vicky Says:

    dis post sure went over my head :)….

    talkin of “unheard” notes i was remonded of a very interestin dialog which i admire frm a tamil movie…

    it sed it is the silence that adds beauty to the music…only wen a musician pauses between notes the music is created…i think i did a bad job in translatin….in tam its really nice

  2. Reid Says:

    Nice post – I forgot to ask if you were familiar with Weather Report and its bassist Jaco Pastorius. I found a good live recording on YouTube of him:

    I love the sound he coaxes out of his bass!


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