How to Handle Harmonics
It’s easier than you might think to create mysterious, ethereal notes that seem to float through the air.
• Learn how to coax both natural and fretted harmonics out of your instrument.
• Combine fretted notes with harmonics in the style of Lenny Breau and Chet Atkins.
• Improve your picking technique with some challenging sleight-of-hand. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Cascading harmonics, also known as “harp” harmonics, are often used in fingerstyle guitar. With this technique, you play harmonics in seamless combination with normally picked notes in a way that makes a guitar ring like, well, a harp. Chet Atkins, Lenny Breau, and Tommy Emmanuel are among those who have pioneered cascading harmonics, and you can hear examples of this technique in their recordings. You need significant hand strength and control (as well as some basic math skills) to play these shimmering sounds, but with practice and determination, you can learn this technique. Cascading harmonics will increase the depth, emotionality, and compositional range of your playing. In this lesson, I’ll break down how to create both open and fretted harmonics, explain how to play them cleanly, and provide tips on how to get the best tone from them.
These exercises are intended to be played with a thumbpick for clarity, dexterity, and volume. You can use nails, a normal pick, or your fingertip for picking harmonics, but these methods may make it more difficult to play smoothly and get a clear sound. I use either Dunlop Medium thumbpicks or Fred Kelly Bumblebee Jazz Heavy picks for harmonics. The materials and edges of these picks are most comfortable for me, and I like the swivel feature on the Bumblebee pick because it reduces the range of motion necessary for picking fretted harmonics.
You can create a basic octave harmonic by plucking an open string and gently touching—not fretting—it at the 12th fret, which is exactly at the midpoint between the nut and bridge. If you lightly place a barre across all six strings at the 12th fret and then strum them, you’ll hear all six open-string notes an octave higher. You can also reach higher harmonic notes by hovering over the 5th, 7th, and 9th frets (Ex. 1). After you’ve hit each set of harmonics, release the grip on your fretting hand so the notes ring out without being choked. Once you’ve hit an open harmonic, there’s no need to stay in contact with that string—the harmonic will continue to ring on its own. Try alternating between upstrokes and downstrokes for this exercise.
In Ex. 2, you’ll alternate between playing an open string and its respective harmonic at the 12th fret. Remember to lift your finger off the string after you’ve played each harmonic.
Intervals and Arpeggios with Open Harmonics
You can use all these open, unfretted harmonics to create standalone musical phrases and melody lines (Ex. 3 and Ex. 4). The 12th, 5th, 7th, and 9th frets aren’t the only places to find natural harmonics, but they’re the clearest and thus the most practical places to remember. Other places to reach clear harmonics are the 17th, 19th, and 21st frets.
The palette of open harmonic notes available to you is, of course, determined by the tuning you’re using. For example, it’s quite easy to play melodies in G major and E minor when you’re in standard tuning (Ex. 5), while dropped-D tuning gives you more room to play melodies with harmonics in the key of D, and DADGAD gives you a whole different range of harmonics.
It’s important to know that your harmonic reference points change when you use capos. For example, if you were to capo your guitar on the 3rd fret, your 12th-fret harmonic would be moved to the 15th fret, since 12 + 3 = 15. Likewise, your 5th-fret harmonic would move to the 8th fret, the 7th-fret harmonic would move to the 10th fret, and your 9th-fret harmonic would move to the 12th fret. Of course, if you use a partial capo, you’ll only have to recalculate these harmonic sweet spots on the strings that are clamped down by the capo,
All stringed instruments have harmonic points where the 12th, 5th, 7th, and 9th frets would hypothetically be. The open harmonic’s sound is completely independent of the frets, and you can create harmonics regardless of what a stringed instrument is tuned to, or whether the instrument has frets.
An admitted disciple of both Chet and Lenny, Tommy Emmanuel demonstrates a wealth of harmonics during his intro to The Beatles’ “Michelle.”
These are a bit more difficult to play than the open harmonics, but they provide a lot more compositional flexibility and can essentially be used in any key. The technique involves fretting a chord, then using your picking hand to simultaneously touch the harmonic and pluck the string.
Ex. 6 involves fretting all six strings, barred at the 4th fret, and then picking the harmonic with your picking hand. In this instance, your octave harmonic will be at the 16th fret (12 frets up), thanks to your 4th fret barre. It’s as if you have a capo on the 4th fret.
Your picking hand is doing two things at once during this exercise: While extending your index finger, you’ll touch the octave harmonic at the 16th fret with your index fingertip. Then with your thumb straight in line behind the index finger, pluck the string at exactly the same time that you touch the harmonic point on the string. One or two inches of space between your index finger and thumb will give the harmonic a clear tone when you pick it. Too far away or too close, and the note will sound choked.
In Ex. 7 and Ex. 8, we’ll still be using the fretted harmonics, only this time we’re altering the fretted notes so you can get accustomed to playing different chords. For each note, just pick the harmonic of each string exactly 12 frets higher than you’re fretting each note. In other words, spell out the chord an octave up on the fretboard.
The more varied these chords are, the more control you will need to play them well, so I suggest anchoring your picking-hand pinky on the body of the guitar as you pluck the harmonics. That way you’re not stressing your arm and elbow while trying to hold your place. Some of the best sounding chord choices for cascading harmonics are full voicings that include a lot of jazzy colors. These work best for cascading harmonics because there aren’t many duplicate notes being played between the harmonics and the fretted notes. Harmonics are often used to make a melody line more interesting, but it’s difficult to make a melody line, much less an interesting one, if the notes you have available to you are mostly the same. By contrast, complex harmony can generate the most ethereal sounds when played in harmonic, or cascading harmonic form.
Alternating Fretted Notes and Harmonics
This technique builds on the ability to play fretted harmonics, only now it involves mixing normally fretted notes with fretted harmonic notes. To start a cascading harmonic roll, you’d fret a chord shape, then strum the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings. Then you’ll begin alternating between picking a harmonic, then a normal note, and back and forth, each time repositioning your picking hand to move to higher and lower string sets (Ex. 9).
Don’t push your hands past what you feel is safe. If you practice this gradually and consistently, your hands will build up strength to hold the fretted notes without accidentally decreasing pressure and blunting the sustain, and the longer you practice using the harmonic roll technique with your picking hand, the easier it will be to hit the harmonics accurately, and with even, controlled timing.
Ex. 10 features a cascading harmonic roll with your picking hand, but this time you’ll be fretting a chord instead of a simple barre across all six strings. To play this, fret the chord, then continue to use the harmonic roll with your picking hand. What’s different? As you pick the harmonic roll, you’ll be spelling out the chord shape in harmonics while you alternate between harmonic and standard fretted notes.
Our final example (Ex. 11) incorporates a technique called “Lenny Breau pull-offs,” since Lenny was the first guitarist to play harmonics like this. It requires immense fretting strength and pinky dexterity, as well as lots of stability in your picking hand. I strongly suggest practicing this exercise with a metronome, and tackling small chunks of it in a loop until it’s clean and you don’t get nervous when you think about playing it.
If you have trouble playing these exercises clearly, work through the passages as slowly as you can manage. The goal is to know exactly what you’re playing, musically. Also, it’s important to thoroughly analyze the range of motion you’re using, so you can tackle any weak spots in your posture and physical technique. Be sure you’re sitting up straight and looking down at the guitar neck, so you’re directly over the frets where you’re touching the harmonics. This sounds insignificant, but it’s a vital step because it keeps your eyes in line with the fretwire, and helps you aim and touch the harmonic sweet spot without having to really calculate where it is.
Setup and Intonation
It’s much easier to play harmonics on some guitars than others, so I encourage you to try out different instruments to discover which one works best for you. I find that acoustics and archtops work best for me. Your action shouldn’t be too high or it will feel impossible to hold the fretted notes necessary for cascading harmonics. Conversely, if the action is too low, the harmonics will get choked by vibrating against the frets. Also, if your guitar is intonated properly, it will be more in tune with itself, and the overtones will ring together in a way that actually causes the guitar to sustain longer and feel alive in your hands. (It’s really eerie when this happens, but hands-down it is one of my favorite things about playing guitar.)
This arrangement of “Tenderly” from Chet Atkins and Lenny Breau is an absolute masterclass in how to incorporate harmonics into a melody.
I hope this lesson serves as a solid foundation for you to be able to understand harmonics when you hear them, and for you to come up with your own unique uses for them. Complex harmonics are some of the most daunting guitar techniques to pull off smoothly, but the sonic payoff of playing them well is certainly worth the effort.