Pinch Hitters: Harmonics in Rock
Did you ever wonder how guitarists like Slash or Def Leppard’s Phil Collen gets those really high-pitched squealing tones in their solos? Well, they are called harmonics, and it is something every guitarist should at least have a basic understanding of. These tips are geared toward beginners, but I am making the assumption that you have a basic understanding of playing simple solos using the pentatonic scale and how to read guitar tablature.
When trying to learn a guitar solo from a tablature, you may have found that although you’re playing all the right notes, it still does not quite sound like the actual recording of the song. It might just be that the guitarist was making use of harmonics to get that high-pitched sound. We will look at two different types of harmonics – natural and artificial. In order to distinguish between the two, we could say that natural harmonics have a bell-like sound, while artificial harmonics sound more like a squeal.
Natural harmonics are the easiest to get the hang of for most guitarists. If we assume that your guitar is tuned to a standard E tuning, you will find the most common natural harmonics on the twelfth, seventh, and fifth frets. Although there are more positions where you can get natural harmonics, these are the ones that are the easiest to master. To play a natural harmonic, simply touch the string you want to play with a finger on your left hand (assuming you are right-handed) right above the fret you want to play. Strike the string with your guitar pick as you normally would, and immediately release your left finger. You will notice that this produces an almost chime-like sound, which is the harmonic of that particular note played.
The harmonics move in relation to your root note, so if you were to put a capo on the first fret, you would find the natural harmonics on the sixth, seventh, and thirteenth frets, respectively. One guitarist that has based a considerable part of his trademark sound on natural harmonics is U2 guitarist The Edge.
Moving on to artificial harmonics, or pinch harmonics, these babies are a bit trickier to get the hang of, but with a little practice I’m sure you can do it. If you’re unsure of what a pinch harmonic sounds like, take a listen to almost any solo by Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, for example the outro solo to the song “La Grange.”
To play a pinch harmonic you fret the note normally, but when you hit the string, your thumb should touch the string lightly, instantly after it is hit by the guitar pick. In order to facilitate this maneuver you should hold the guitar pick so that only the tip sticks out from between your thumb and index finger. Now, as if this wasn’t tricky enough, you also need to pay attention to where on the string you are striking it. There are several “sweet spots” along the guitar string for every harmonic, where they will chime bright and clear. For example, if you want to play a pinch harmonic one octave higher than the fretted note, you will find it in the middle of the string, halfway between the fretted note and the bridge of the guitar. This means if you’re playing an artificial harmonic on the fifth fret followed by a harmonic on the seventh fret, you need to move your picking hand slightly closer to the bridge for the second note to sound correct. Now, in rock music it is most common to play pinch harmonics with your picking hand somewhere over the pickups, where you would normally strum the strings. You simply need to practice your pinch harmonics and experiment with where on the string you should pick for them to sound good.
There are ways to increase the likelihood of your artificial harmonics sounding good. You should set the pickup switch to the bridge position, and use plenty of overdrive or distortion. This will help you figuring out pinch harmonics, and make them sound much more beefy, as they can be a bit hard to detect if you don’t use enough distortion. Another way to strengthen the sound of an artificial harmonic is to apply some vibrato to the string with your fretting hand.
Good luck and happy soloing!