Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Harmonics for Dummies (like me)

I play guitar and back in the 60s, 70s and 80s it was how I made my living. I used to know the chords, words and arrangements to over 2000 songs but now I just noodle around playing wild fuzz solos over simple chord patterns. I play maybe two hours a week and consequently I am one of the most undisciplined guitarists you'll ever hear.

But I've developed a way of playing "harmonics" on the guitar that I don't think anyone else plays the same way. Harmonics are bell-like tones you get by touching the string at the same time you pick it. At least that's one way of playing harmonics. ZZ Top, Eric Clapton and Roy Buchanan have used harmonics on their recordings a lot. Probably many others, too -- I dunno, I haven't listened to music in decades. So if you're an electric guitarist and want to play some wild sounding harmonics, you might try doing them the way I do.

The picture above shows that as I pick the string on the upstroke, I also hit the string (lightly) with the pad of my fourth (ring) finger at the same time, about an inch down the string from where the pick hits it. NOTE: I can only do this on an upstroke of the pick. This means I can't play harmonics very fast. Perhaps you can figure out how to do it on the downstroke too and play harmonics like a demon?

By hitting the string at two points at the same time you get a bell-like tone, the pitch of which is determined by the fret you're playing AND the length of the string from where my ring finger hits the string and the bridge. It's the two pitches sounded at the same time that gives the ring modulation (bell-like tone) that we call harmonics. By moving my right hand a different distance from the bridge I get a completely different pitch even if my left hand is playing the same fret -- or open string.

Here is a link to a simple boogie that I play on my Fender G-Dec amp that is straight for the first verse and has a bunch of harmonics on the rest of the song. Note that in order to get the harmonics to ring out nice and loud you need to have a treble, hot sound on your guitar. My harmonics are probably very hard to do on an acoustic guitar.

Surely any guitarist who practices regularly and knows some good licks can take this technique and make something really good out of it. I only play at home and I'm sure my family wonders why those obnoxious bell-like tones keep annoying them from the depths of my book room.

1 comment:

Gavin L. O'Keefe said...

Fender - I always wondered how guitarists made that particular sound - and now I know! You do it very nicely, by the way, as you're playing the Blues.

Keep making those 'bell-like' sounds!