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from Stephen Bennett’s Fingerstyle Finesse
This month, we’re going to revisit the tune “Burnside,” which we learned in full last month, but we’re going to use it to explore the world of harmonics. You should consider harmonics just another spice in your musical stew; when used sparingly, they can add some delicious variety and texture to your music. A complete understanding of harmonics requires a bit of knowledge about the mechanics of sound, so we’ll just touch on the basic principles here – if you’re truly interested in learning the ins and outs of harmonics, a simple internet search will turn up thousands of resources.
Simply put, when you hear a note played, you are actually hearing a sound wave, which consists of several frequencies moving simultaneously. Each of these frequencies has a mathematical relationship to each other, and they are called “harmonics.” All together, they are called a “harmonic series.” When you strike an open guitar string, you are hearing what is called the “fundamental,” or the lowest frequency of a harmonic series. Other harmonics of this note are present as the string vibrates, but your ear cannot distinguish them.
Because of the design of a guitar’s string, we are in a unique position to eliminate the fundamental, and only hear the upper harmonics, which sound pure and bell-like when done properly. You can remove the fundamental and create harmonics on your guitar by lightly touching a string directly over certain frets (again, it’s all math). At the 12th fret, you can hear the second harmonic, which is twice the frequency of the fundamental and sounds an octave higher. The third harmonic can be heard at the 7th fret and is a perfect fifth above the second harmonic. You can find the fourth harmonic at the 5th fret, which is a perfect fourth above the third harmonic, or two octaves above the fundamental. It is possible to create higher harmonics on the guitar, but as you travel above the fourth harmonic they become weaker and much harder to reproduce.
In addition to adding some vibrancy to your playing, harmonics can serve a more utilitarian function. If your guitar’s fretboard covered the entire length of the string – essentially traveling all the way to the bridge – playing harmonics would not generate extra notes for you, as the necessary frets would already be there. However, since most fretboards end after 20 or so frets, harmonics provide a way to create higher pitches with the guitar. Since the 12th fret represents the midway point for your guitar strings, harmonics are also extremely useful in setting intonation. Who would have guessed they could be so helpful?
Returning to this month’s song, the final beat of measure 83 is a 12th fret harmonic on the A string, which transitions us into the end section. The A harmonic serves dual purposes in measure 83 – it moves us back into the key of A and ratchets up the emotion for the final bars of this tune. As you play through the final bars of “Burnside,” take your time and make sure to hit each harmonic clearly and quickly. Notice how they add a ringing quality to everything, and keep your eyes open for opportunities to add harmonics in your own playing.
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