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Rhythm & Grooves: Sparkle Voicings

June 14, 2011
Many guitarists marvel at the shimmering cascades of octave harmonics the late Lenny Breau wove into his runs and progressions. Breau took harmonic techniques Chet Atkins pioneered and expanded them in ways that left other guitarists shaking their heads in disbelief. Breau’s technique was spectacular, matched only by his restless imagination. If you haven’t heard him yet, drop everything and search out some YouTube videos—there’s a wealth of mind-blowing material out there. (Search for “Lenny Breau harp harmonics.”)

In this lesson, we’ll adapt—and greatly simplify—Breau’s approach, and use it to generate chord voicings that would be difficult or impossible to play with standard guitar technique. The idea is to insert a single octave harmonic into a typical chord form to give it a chimey texture and create intriguing interval clusters that differ from what you’re actually fretting. I call these “sparkle voicings,” but I’m sure they have other (and probably more rigorously academic) names. If you’re new to the concept of playing harmonics on demand, check out “Mastering Artificial Harmonics” on the next page before you go any further.

Fig. 1 illustrates the basic concept. We begin with a standard five-note Am7 (A–G– C–E–A) at the 5th fret. Holding this grip, slowly arpeggiate the chord, starting from low A, as shown. As we cruise across strings 6, 4, 3, and 2 for the first two beats, things are perfectly straightforward. But on beat 3, we return to string 4 and again play the G, but this time as an octave harmonic. In the process, we cancel out the lower G, but with all the other vibrating strings and the arrival of the octave harmonic, the missing low G goes virtually unnoticed. Instead, it sounds as if we’re continuing to sweep through the Am7.


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Then, as we press forward to hit A (beat 4), we get the big payoff—a ringing major second composed of the harmonic G and fretted A. This tangy dissonance floats above the still-ringing lower strings.

So that’s the deal: We slip an octave harmonic into a group of fretted tones to extend the chord’s range and create an ear-grabbing close interval. Now, let’s put this technique to use.

In Fig. 2, a diatonic Am7–Gma7–F#m7b5–Em9 progression gets the sparkle treatment. Notice how in this progression, the chords in measures 1-3 each comprise four fretted notes, yet we’re able to create the illusion that we’re playing five-note voicings, thanks to the extra octave harmonic. And the last chord sounds like a seven-note arpeggio. That’s a cool trick to pull off with a 6-string, wouldn’t you agree?


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As you work through this passage, pay attention to dynamics. We want the harmonic, which is inherently quieter than its fretted siblings, to stand with them as a sonic equal. With a little effort, you’ll be able to balance these different timbres.

Now let’s try octave harmonics on the third string (Fig. 3). We’re fretting four-note chords in measures 1-3, yet producing what sounds like five-note voicings. And each chord contains a second as the highest interval, courtesy of the additional harmonic. Cmaj7 has a minor second (B–C), Bm7 and Am7 each have a major second (A–B and G–A, respectively), and Gmaj9 has a major second (A-B).


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This last chord—Gmaj9—offers an opportunity to engage in a bit of flashy fingering. Some tips: After hitting the open E (and of beat 2), hammer the F# and A, then duck back to the 3rd string to hit the harmonic before plucking the A again. As you fret the low G with your thumb, hold all the other notes so they sustain and fade out together. With the harmonic, the voicing spans two octaves plus a major third—wow!

You can use judiciously placed artificial harmonics to spice up riffs too. Fig. 4, a “Secret Agent Man”-inspired turnaround, hints at the possibilities. In this case, the octave harmonics emphasize the chromatic B–C–C# motion on the 5th string, while generating a unison, minor second, and major second against the ringing open B string. As you strike the harmonics, make sure all the remaining strings continue to ring. Play this passage slowly, and strive for clarity and sustain. Some throbbing tremolo wouldn’t hurt.


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This sparkle-voicing technique has many applications, and you can modify your approach to fit different musical contexts. For example, instead of plucking the harmonic, you can lightly tap it. This adds a percussive “ping” to the harmonic that’s useful in rock or other rhythmically active genres. Or try using a wah pedal to add a sudden treble bite to the harmonic as you pluck it.

Next month, we’ll play a game I call “Guitar George.” See you then.

Mastering Artificial Harmonics
With a little practice, you can play any fretted note as an octave harmonic. First, fret a note as usual and hold it. Then, gently touch your picking-hand index finger exactly 12 frets above the note you’re fretting.


Photo by Tedra Walden
Contact the string directly over the metal fret (not behind it), and lightly rest your finger on the string without depressing it. As you touch the string, simultaneously pluck it with your picking-hand thumb. You’ll hear a bell-like tone, which is your cue to remove your index from the vibrating string to allow it to sustain. Keep holding the note with your fretting hand as the octave harmonic rings.


Andy Ellis is a veteran guitar journalist and Senior Editor at PG. Based in Nashville, Andy backs singer-songwriters on the baritone guitar, and also hosts The Guitar Show, a weekly on-air and online broadcast. For the schedule, links to the stations’ streams, archived audio interviews with inspiring players, and more, visit theguitarshow.com.