You know when you really like the sound of a harmonica, realize you don’t have one and then think, DAM! I’m stuck with guitar…
Well tough. Your guitar is never going to sound like a harmonica. But it can do harmonics!
So today, I’ll be going over how to play natural harmonics on guitar to create some nifty riffs, chord progressions and licks.
Note: These are different from “Artificial” or “Pinch” harmonics, which give you that cutting “squeal” sound. Click here to learn to play those.
The Easy Natural Harmonic
Alright, let’s start with the one that you see and hear all the time – the fretted harmonic.
I wish I could go through the biblical stories of how the natural harmonic rose up and took over the world, but unfortunately there isn’t enough time for that today.
So here’s how you do it:
- Find the 7th fret on your guitar, and gently rest your index finger on the low E string EXACTLY above the metal fret bit.
- Pluck the string
Yup, it’s that easy.
If you aren’t getting any clear, resonant sound, then it’s probably because of one of two things:
- Your finger isn’t DIRECTLY above the metal fret bit.
- You are pressing down too hard with your index finger. Remember, you don’t have to press down AT ALL when doing these natural harmonics, your finger just has to lightly contact the string on top.
Anyway, once you’ve got your first harmonic going, have a go at it on a different string.
Try resting your index finger lightly across the top of the A string 7th fret now instead. Pluck it, and you should get that clear metallic ringing sound again.
In fact, this natural harmonic trick works on any string, as long as it is at the 5th, 7th or 12th fret. It works on the 9th fret too, but it’s quieter, and you’ll need some distortion to hear it properly.
So give it a test. Try replicating what you did at the 7th fret on the 12th fret, lightly resting your finger above the metal fret bit and plucking.
If you enjoy consistently proving to their friends that your IQ is higher than theirs, then you can even try resting the underside of your index finger lightly across all 6 strings at once.
That’ll give you something like this when played through at the 12th fret:
Oh, and by the way, you can play these natural harmonics on guitar 12 frets higher too. E.g. the harmonic on the 19th fret sounds the exact same as the harmonic on the 7th fret.
The 5th fret = 17th fret (but an octave higher) and the 12th fret = 24th fret (also one octave higher). Not that useful, but meh, interesting to know.
The Weird, Not So Easy Natural Harmonics
So we know that we can play natural harmonics on the 5th, 7th, and 12th fret of our guitar. In general, these are the harmonics that ring out the best.
But actually, we can do them on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fret too. They’re just a bit weirder.
Why are they weird? Aha! I never thought you’d ask.
They’re weird because within the within these 3 frets, there are six separate harmonic spots:
I still haven’t figured out to this day why harmonics do this. But hey, at least they sound cool!
So if you were to play them from the 2nd-4th fret, you would get this:
What’s further discombobulating is that as I go up the fretboard here, the harmonics go down in pitch. Hmpf, physics…
But I do think particularly the 3rd fret harmonics sound really cool. They’re probably the most used in metal and rock songs because they sound the sharpest and most aggressive.
They will also work 12 frets higher, but try them at your own peril…
The Harmonic Scale
You’ll have noticed by now that each of these harmonics sound different. That’s because each has its own note.
Because I’m amazing, you can download this as a PDF here if you want to print it out.
It looks kinda confusing, but because it’s a scale, there is a clear pattern.
Each note on the 5th fret is the same as the open string. All the notes on the 7th fret are the 5th of the open string, and the 9th fret has the major 3rd of the open string.
And if you look at the E string, the most common notes are E, G# and B. These together make-up an E major chord! Since every string follows the same formula, we know that each string will mostly feature its major chord notes.
See? The harmonic scale is nice!
The Other Type of Natural Harmonics
You can do all of that? Great. Now we get into the spicy chicken curry stuff.
Those harmonics we’ve just learnt are great, but you can only do them on certain frets, which means that you’re limited to a number of notes.
This other type allows us to play natural harmonics as any note on any string of our guitar.
Here’s how you do it:
- Fret the 2nd fret of the D string with your fretting-hand index finger, and don’t move it!
- Notice the fret 12 frets higher than this – in this case the 14th fret – because this note is an octave higher than the one you are currently fretting.
- Gently rest the index finger of your picking hand directly above the metal bit of this 14th fret – like you would to do a harmonic.
4. Using your spare, picking-hand thumb, pluck the string.
- Boom! Harmonic!
If you aren’t getting any sound, then make sure the fret you are lightly resting your index finger on is EXACTLY 12 frets higher than the one you’re fretting, and don’t push down too hard with it either.
Now why the hell does this work?
Well, let’s consider the open E string harmonics we did earlier. When the string was open, we were able to play a harmonic on the 12th fret.
And if you compare this with the open string, you will see that they are both E notes.
This harmonic hot-spot is precisely 12 frets higher than the open string. Using this, we now know that there will always be a harmonic hot-spot 12 frets higher than the note being fretted, and it will produce the same pitch, just as a harmonic replica.
Soooooo, let’s have a go with some chords…
Fret an A major chord, like so:
Then find the notes of these chords, twelve frets higher. The open string harmonics will still be on the 12th fret, but the three fretted notes will have harmonics on the 14th fret.
So, using the picking-hand technique we just went through: rest your picking-hand index finger on the fret 12 notes above the one being fretted, pluck the string with your thumb, then move to the next string.
In this particular chord, the harmonics will be on the (A)12th, (D)14th, (G)14th, (B)14th, (E)12th frets.
This will work for any note, anywhere. Unless you choose a fret like the 19th fret which can’t go 12 frets higher, try to make a harmonic out of it and get really annoyed because it won’t work. In which case, learn bass instead.
The Other Type of Natural Harmonics Part 2
Wait, there’s more…!? Yup. On an open string there are harmonic spots on the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 12th frets, and we’ve only done the harmonics 12 frets higher so far.
You can actually replicate this picking-hand index finger trick on any fret 3, 5, or 7 frets higher too, yippeeee!!!!
Just never do it 3 frets higher because it sounds terrible.
But 5 frets higher sounds great!
And so does 7 frets higher.
I’ll show you some chord progressions later to muck about with harmonic trick and create some really cool sounds.
But we can turn this into something even cooler!
Okay, maybe it’s not even cooler, but it’s at least just as cool.
Because what if I told you that we could play the natural harmonics on our guitar as above, but make them sound more aggressive, and not even use our thumb.
I’m judging by the confused looks that no one knows what I’m on about.
So here’s what you’ll want to do:
- Set up a gainy, overdriven, lead tone.
- Fret the 5th fret of the G string.
- Find the fret 12 frets higher (the 17th fret), and look at it like you’re in love with it.
- Pluck the string with your plectrum, then lift your picking hand and tap the top of that sweet lookin’ 17th fret very gently with a free finger.
- Wiggle with your left hand to give some badass sounding vibrato.
Seeee? Isn’t that awesome!? You can also tap 5 frets, 7 frets and even 3 frets higher (if you’re mentally insane) than the note you are playing in case you find it easier to tap those midway through a solo.
And just to completely blow your mind, you can add these harmonics to a bend too.
Bend up. Look 12 frets higher. Tap. BAM!
Harmonics Licks, Riffs, and Progressions!
Whoop, whoop, time to have some fun. I mean, that was all fun. But this is even more fun!
Why is it even more fun? Here’s why.
Woo yeah! If you didn’t love harmonics before, you’ll love them now.
The first and third time through we’ll use the 3rd fret harmonic just to the right of the 3rd fret dot marker, and on the second time we use the one just to the left of it.
Here’s riff numero dos:
For this one, we don’t even have to worry about hitting specific harmonics! We can instead do the classic “harmonic slide”. Just start your index finger somewhere around the 2nd fret and slide it slowly up to the 4th fret, picking with your other hand at the same time.
Hopefully that’s a cool trick you can play around with.
Anyway, final riff, then the licks!
Woah there, now we’re adding some rhythms to the harmonics, ooooooh…
By the way, it helps to have a fairly gain-intensive sound when you play natural harmonics on guitar. Otherwise, they just end up sounding dull. So make sure you’ve got that gain knob wacked up a bit when playing these riffs.
Now how about some licks, too?
Little melodic one there to whet your appetite.
You’ll want to hold down the 7th fret of the G string, do the harmonic tap at 19, then slide down your fretting hand from the 7th fret to the 4th fret. This’ll create a nice harmonic slide before doing a normal tap on the 16th fret.
If you want to know more about learning to tap on guitar, then click here.
Anyway, you’ll want to gather yourself for this next one…
Okay, Sam. Stop it. You’re showing off.
Damn right, I am! You got a problem with cool-sounding licks?
Like the last one, this one features a tapped harmonic on the bend. So bend up, lightly tap 12 frets up from the bending fret, then pull it back down.
Alright, let’s get some tapped harmonic chord progressions in the house…
Here’s the one I’m gonna use, so make sure you feel comfortable with that first:
Then I’m going to pluck the bass notes with my thumb and do the 12-frets-up trick to tap the other chord notes.
Put together, it should sound something like this:
Mmm mmmm… Scrumptious. Tapped harmonic chords always give a nice, airy, spacious feel. So if you’re writing some chord progressions and the mood just isn’t there, try tapping them instead!
But for ultimate chill vibes, have a go at this:
Then tap it to make it awesome.
Zzzzz zzzzz zzz-Oh! Didn’t see you there! That chord progression was just too damn relaxing…
And the reason why it’s so relaxing is that I switch between two Major 9th chords – the most chill sounding chord in the world.
If you want to learn how to play 9th chords and add some exciting colour to normal chords, then click here to view my post on that.
So there’s just some harmonic stuff for you to play around with. Feel free to nick and customize as many of these as you want and make everyone think you’re awesome.
Tune Your Guitar With Natural Harmonics
Well, you thought you’d heard all the cool tricks that come along with natural harmonics by now, did ya?
Muhaha, there’s still one more!
Because each harmonic note on the 5th fret of one string and the 7th fret of the next string up is the same, we can tune one string to be in sync with the other.
Here’s what you’ll want to do:
- Rest your index finger on the 5th fret of the E string – like you would do when playing a harmonic – and your ring finger on the 7th fret of the A string.
- Play the E string harmonic, then the A string harmonic right after.
If the two strings are in tune, then you will hear the harmonics will vibrate in unison.
- If they are vibrating at different speeds, then lower or raise the pitch of the A string until the two harmonics link up.
Here, I turn the tuning peg clockwise to lower the pitch of the A string until it syncs up with the E string.
- Repeat this 5th-7th fret trick for the other strings, up until you start matching the B string up with the G string.
- Because the B string is weird, it doesn’t follow the same 5th-7th fret pattern as before.
Instead, play the 4th fret of the G string normally, and then the B string completely open. It’s a bit trickier, but from there you can adjust the B string as required to match the G string pitch.
- After that, you can return to the original 5th-7th fret method for the last two strings.
It is pretty difficult, but if you’ve done everything correctly, you should end up with something like so:
The only problem with this method is that if your initial low E string is out of tune, then you are tuning the rest of your guitar to fit that out of tune string.
Now, that’s alright for practising at home and developing your musical ear. But in a band situation, you might wanna just check the low E is in tune first.
Wrapping It Up
There you have it, ladies and gents. Follows these steps, and you’ll be adding some serious pizazz to your songs in no time.
And if you try hard enough, you may even be able to get your guitar to sound like a harmonica! *Evil laugh, knowing they can never make their guitar sound like a harmonica*
Anyway, I’ve been Sam,
P.S. If you want to learn how to play pinch harmonics on guitar (the other type of harmonic) so that you can add some scream to your riffs and solos, click here to view my post on that.