Natural Guitar Harmonics | Hub Guitar

Natural Guitar Harmonics

TQ-33 video thumbnail

Hi, this is Hub Guitar.

Natural harmonics are fairly easy to play, and they sound pretty cool.

The thing to keep in mind is that you can really only play certain notes using natural harmonics. So they'll definitely work better in some keys more than others.

Basically, you should think of the G major scale but without the note "C". And those are the most accessible natural harmonic notes .

Natural harmonics can be played in certain places on the guitar that correspond to ideal ratios. Don't worry too much about the physics theories. Just learn how to play them.

There are a lot of harmonics that you can play on the guitar but we're going to focus on the harmonics on frets V, VII, and XII. We chose these because they are easy to play, and they ring pretty clearly.

I recommend you think of the harmonics as notes being a certain interval above the string's root. For instance, the E string's root is E. So think of the harmonics as intervals above that. Because they don't always match the fret where they live. For instance, the harmonics above the fifth fret are not a perfect fifth above the root. They are an octave above the root.

In addition to these, you can play harmonics in many other places on the guitar, but some of them will sound a little weaker. If you enjoy using harmonics, I'd definitely recommend you take the time to map out and locate all of the harmonics that you can play.

So experiment with the harmonics, build your own map and try to get a sense of how they work on the guitar.

  1. Very gently touch the string above a fret that has natural harmonics (V, VI or XII, for example).
  2. Pluck the string firmly with the picking hand.
  3. After the note rings gently remove the finger that was touching the string.

What are Natural Harmonics?

A natural harmonic is one that can be played on the guitar without any fretted notes.

A harmonic is a clear, bell-like tone. The definition of a “harmonic” can get a little technical.

To understand what a harmonic is, we need to have a definition of two musical terms: the fundamental of a note, and the overtones of a note. When you play your open E string, the fundamental of the note is E. But you do not only hear the note E. Vibration is movement, and you cannot move to one frequency without passing through others. The result is a cluster of vibrations revolving around a fundamental. You will probably mostly hear “E”.

Dampening those clusters results in a harmonic: a clear, ringing tone. This technique is most available on the parts of the guitar that correspond to three ratios: one half of the string length, one-third of the string length, and one-quarter of the string length.

How to Play a Natural Harmonic

Let’s play one. With your fret-hand index finger, very gently rest the fingertip exactly above the twelfth fret of the high E string. Your finger will not push the string down; it will only make light contact. Now that you are resting here, sharply pluck the string. As soon as you have plucked, remove your fret-hand finger. The string will continue to vibrate, muting the overtones and leaving a clear-sounding fundamental.

This high “E” harmonic rings clearly because of its ratio: it divides the string in half. There are two other places on the guitar that create strong harmonics: the point above the fret V (dividing the string by 1/4th) and the point above the fret VII (dividing the string by 1/3rd). Let’s explore a harmonic map of the guitar.

Fret Locations of Natural Harmonics

With the exception of the Vth fret, the harmonic notes that are created will be the same as those played on the same fret. For instance, the XIIth fret of the high “E” string is the tone “E”. The harmonic is the same tone, but with some of the overtones removed. At the Vth fret, the harmonic is actually a fifth higher than the fretted note, making it the same as the harmonic at the XIIth fret.

What Notes are Available?

Let’s examine the notes produced by these harmonics: we have a G, A, B, D, E and F♯. This forms a “G major scale”, playable in harmonics! The fourth note of the scale is absent. We can use harmonics in other keys besides the key of G, though; for instance, we could easily play all of these harmonic notes in the key of “C”, which has no sharps and no flats; we’d just have to avoid the F♯ (or have good cause for its use.)

It is true that we are limited in the choice of notes that we can play using natural harmonics. While we can play most of the G scale using harmonics, if our song is in D♭ major, we only have two notes: C and G♭. For this reason, natural harmonics are used more often in keys such a C, G and D—all keys where many notes can be played as harmonics.

Key Exercises

Exercise #1. E minor scale.
Play an E minor scale using only natural harmonics: E, F♯, G, A, B, D, E. The note “C” will be omitted.

Exercise #2. E minor chords.
Play diatonic triads from E minor using only natural harmonics: G major, B minor, D major, E minor.

As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

©2018 Hub Guitar. All rights reserved.