Harmonics refers to a bell like sound that can be heard when lightly placing your finger over certain frets on the fret board. There are several interesting playing techniques that can incorporate these sounds. The great thing about harmonics is that even a beginner guitarist can try them out easily. However, I put this in the advanced category because some of the pinch or artificial harmonics techniques can become a bit difficult.
So let’s start with natural harmonics because they are the simplest to get down and use in your music. A natural harmonic is one that is played on any open string on the guitar. They occur naturally at several places on the fret board due to their distance from the open note that the string makes. The easiest harmonic to play is on the 12th fret of your guitar. On most guitars you will see two dots on the fret board to indicate the 12th fret and one octave from the open note of the string. The trick to getting a harmonic sound is to not press down on the string at all really. You just need to lightly place your finger on the strings barely touching them. The other important thing to do is make sure that your finger is centered directly over the fret. If it is in the wrong position then you will not be able to hear the harmonic sound.
There are two other frets on the guitar that also act as a natural harmonic. These aren’t quite as easy to get the sound out of but with a little practice you should be able to hear them. The first one is located at the 5th fret and the other one is at the 7th fret. The 5th fret is two octaves higher than an open string and the 7th fret is like adding an octave and a fifth to the open string. Lightly placing your finger on the string above any of these frets should produce a light, bell-like tone from your guitar.
Artificial harmonics work on the same principals as natural harmonics. The main difference is that they are not played on an open string. Instead you fret the note you want to play and then also play the harmonic at 5, 7, or 12 frets from that note. This in turn creates the artificial harmonic. The difficulty with this technique usually is that you have to use your picking hand in order to play the harmonic while also plucking the string so that both are done at the same time.
Pinch harmonics are basically the same thing as artificial harmonics except that the string is struck before the harmonic is played so the sound tends to come out a bit stronger. On an electric guitar playing pinch harmonics can result in some very unique sounds.
On an electric guitar playing any harmonic sounds can be made easier by making some adjustments on your amp. If you turn up the amplification and the distortion you will get a more pronounced sound. However, on an acoustic guitar the bell-like sound is much cleaner sounding. That’s it! Those are the basics of guitar harmonics. Try it out and let us know how it sounds.