Guitar Harmonics: How To Play Natural, Artificial, Tap & Pinch Harmonics

A complete guide to guitar harmonics, covering natural, artificial, tap and pinch harmonics. Enhance your playing with these useful harmonic techniques for electric and acoustic guitars...

What Are Guitar Harmonics?

When you pluck a guitar string, the sound you hear comprises the “fundamental frequency”, which is the main note you hear, together with a series of “overtones”, which provide additional color to the overall sound.

By playing a guitar string in a certain way, single overtones can be isolated. This results in a harmonic, which not only has a different sound to a “normal” note, but (in many cases) is also a different note to the normally-fretted note at the same fret.

Guitar harmonics have a crystal-clear, bell-like sound compared to the more complex tones of a normal guitar note.

Once you know how and where on the fretboard to play harmonics, you have the option of playing either single notes or entire lines with this contrasting, bell-like sound. It’s a great technique to have at your disposal, whatever style or type of guitar you play.

Heavy metal guitarists take harmonics to the extremes, using a “pinch harmonic” technique to produce squealing tones to accentuate riffs and solos.

On this page, you’ll learn how to play guitar harmonics using a variety of techniques.

Types Of Guitar Harmonics

There are four main types of guitar harmonics: natural harmonics, artificial harmonics, tapped harmonics and pinched harmonics.

  • Natural Harmonics – harmonics played at any of the several nodes of an open guitar string.
  • Artificial Harmonics – harmonics played on a string on which a note is being fretted by the fretting hand.
  • Tapped Harmonics – harmonics played by lightly striking the string with a finger of the picking hand.
  • Pinched Harmonics – harmonics produced by simultaneously picking and damping a string with the thumb of the pick hand, resulting in a “squealing” sound favored by rock and metal guitarists.

Natural Vs Artificial Harmonics

Natural harmonics are harmonics played on open strings. They occur naturally at various points (known as “nodes”) along an open string.

Artificial harmonics, by comparison, are harmonics that are produced on fretted strings (i.e. a string that is being held down by a finger at a certain fret). Holding down the note changes the position of the nodes along a string.

Natural and artificial harmonics are essentially the same; they’re both produced by playing a string at any of its nodes in such a way as to isolate an overtone. The only difference is that, when a string is held down at a certain fret, the position of the nodes shifts relative to the fretted note.

Tapped harmonics (or tap harmonics) and pinched harmonics (or pinch harmonics) are variations on artificial harmonics, each of which has its own right hand technique. Both techniques are discussed further down the page.

How To Play Natural Harmonics On Guitar

Now you know the theory, it’s time to actually play some guitar harmonics.

Natural Harmonic At 12th Fret
Natural harmonic being played at 12th fret - note that instead of pressing down inside the fret, the finger is lightly touching the string above the fretwire.
  • Lightly place the second (middle) finger of your fret hand over the fret wire between the twelfth and thirteenth frets of the low E string on your guitar.
  • Keeping this finger in place, pluck the string as normal with your picking hand.
  • If your fretting finger is in the correct position, instead of hearing the usual low E note, you’ll hear a harmonic – a bell-like note that is the same pitch as the note at the 12th fret (i.e. the E an octave higher than the open E).
  • Remember, you’re not pushing down on the string between the fretwires with your fretting finger as you would if playing a conventional note; instead, you’re lightly touching the string over the fretwire with your fingertip.
  • If you don’t hear the harmonic, move your fretting finger slightly up and down the string while continually picking the string. Eventually, you’ll find the “sweet spot” that results in a clear harmonic every time.

When you successfully play a natural harmonic, you can remove the fretting hand from the string entirely; the harmonic will ring on regardless.

In the example above, the middle finger of the fretting hand is used to touch the string; once you've learned how to play harmonics, any of the fretting hand fingers can be used.

Now play more natural harmonic notes:

Natural Harmonic Played At 7th Fret
Natural harmonic being played at 7th fret of the low E string. This will result in a harmonic with the pitch of B.
  • Repeat this process by playing the harmonic above the twelfth fret of each of the remaining five strings of the guitar.
  • Now, repeat the process again, this time at the fifth fret of each string (i.e. rest your fingertip on the string above the fretwire of the fifth fret).
  • The resulting natural harmonic at the fifth fret is the note two octaves higher than the open string. (Therefore, the harmonic above the fifth fret of the low E string is the same note as the open top E string.)
  • Now try playing natural harmonics at the 7th fret of each string. The natural harmonic at the 7th fret is an octave plus a perfect fifth above the open string (in other words, a compound perfect fifth). (Therefore, the harmonic at the 7th fret of the low E string is the same note as the open B string.)

Natural Harmonics Notes Chart

Guitar Natural Harmonics Notes Diagram
Diagram showing the position of natural harmonics on the guitar fretboard.
Fret 3Fret 4Fret 5Fret 7Fret 9Fret 12Fret 16Fret 19Fret 24
Open StringPerfect 5th + 2 OctavesMajor 3rd + 2 OctavesPlus 2 OctavesPerfect 5th + 1 OctaveMajor 3rd + 2 OctavesOctaveMajor 3rd + 2 OctavesPerfect 5th + 1 OctavePlus 2 Octaves
E (high)BG#EBG#EG#BE

Tips for playing natural harmonics

The harmonic at the twelfth fret is the easiest of the natural harmonics to play, and those at the 5th and 7th frets are only slightly harder.

As well as at the 5th, 7th and 12th frets, natural harmonics can be found at the 3rd, 4th, 9th, 16th, 19th and 24th frets. (Even if your guitar doesn’t have 24 frets, you can still play the harmonic where the 24th fret would be.)

The harmonic at the third fret is actually positioned slightly higher up the string; around 1/5 of the way between the third fret and the fourth fret.

The additional natural harmonics are slightly harder to play, requiring more precision in your finger position (learn where the "sweet spot" is by moving your fingertip fractionally up and down the string over the fret, playing which you do so).

As with all things guitar, practice makes perfect.

If you’re using an electric guitar, you may find that using the bridge pickup makes harmonics (of all types) more audible. Distortion / overdrive will also help emphasize the harmonics, but we recommend that you practice harmonics using a clean tone at first. This will help you get a feel for the “sweet spots” that produce clear, bell-like harmonics.

Can You Play The Hidden Harmonics?

You may also be able to coax out additional harmonics between the second and third frets. Around 2/3 of the distance between the 2nd and 3rd fret is a minor seventh harmonic (a compound minor seventh plus another octave above the open string note), and around 1/3 of the way between the 2nd and 3rd frets is a harmonic that is three octaves higher than the open string note.

These additional harmonics are quite difficult to play clearly, but with practice you should be able to find them reasonably reliably.

Artificial Harmonics

Artificial Harmonic Guitar Right Hand Technique
Artificial harmonic guitar right hand technique

The main limitation of natural harmonics is that there is only a limited range of harmonics available on each open string (namely octaves, major 3rds & perfect 5ths).

That’s where artificial harmonics come in. By substituting the nut of the guitar with a fretting finger, harmonics of any pitch can be produced.

However, with the fretting finger now engaged in holding down the note, a different technique is required in order to play the harmonic.

How To Play Artificial Harmonics On Guitar

  • First, fret the G at the third fret of the 6th string just as you would do if you were playing a normal G note, but don’t pick the string.
  • Keeping the G note fretted, place the index finger of your picking hand lightly over the fretwire of the 15th fret of the 6th string (i.e. one octave higher than the fretted G).
  • Now, keeping the note fretted and the index finger of your picking hand in place over the fretwire, pick the string with the 3rd finger (the ring finger) of your picking hand.
  • If you’ve positioned the index finger of your picking hand at the correct point, you’ll hear the bell-like sound of a harmonic with the pitch of G an octave higher than the G at the 3rd fret.
  • If the sound is dull or muffled, shuffle your index finger in small increments up or down the string, picking with the third finger as you do so, until you find the sweet spot that produces a crystal-clear harmonic.
  • Once you have mastered the technique, try playing an A, by moving both your fretting finger and the index finger of your picking hand two frets higher on the same string, and again sounding the string with the third finger of your picking hand.
  • Now try playing other notes on other strings, by repositioning your fretting hand and playing the harmonic above the fretwire an octave higher.

Using the artificial harmonic technique outlined above, you can play entire melody lines in harmonics.

You don't have to use the ring finger to pluck the note; you could use the middle finger if you find it easier. Some guitarists even touch the string with the index finger and pluck it with the thumb. Experiment to find out what works best for you!

Playing Notes Other Than Octaves With Artificial Harmonics

Essentially, when you are playing natural harmonics, your fretting hand is acting as the guitar nut. This means that you can play all of the harmonics available as natural harmonics – in relation to the fretted note – by positioning your fretting hand index finger softly over the fretwire relative to the note being fretted by the fretting hand.

For example, on an open E string, you can play a natural harmonic at the 5th fret, resulting in a harmonic with a pitch 2 octaves higher than the open string.

If you finger the string at the 3rd fret (as if you were playing a standard G note), and position the index finger of the picking hand so it is lightly touching the string above the fretwire of the 8th fret, the resultant harmonic will be the G two octaves higher than the fretted note.

Your fretting finger is acting as the guitar nut, and you’re now playing what would have been the natural harmonic at the 5th fret at the 8th fret instead.

Tapped Harmonics

Tap harmonic right hand technique
Tap harmonic right hand technique. Tap the string above the fretwire of the 15th fret (the left hand is holding down a G note at the 3rd fret) - this will result in a G harmonic an octave higher than the fretted note.

Tapped harmonics, also known as tap harmonics, are similar to artificial harmonics, and result in harmonics with the same pitches as those produced using the artificial harmonic technique explained above.

When playing tapped harmonics, instead of touching and picking the string with separate fingers of the picking hand (as you’d do playing an artificial harmonic), you instead perform both actions with one finger, by lightly striking the string over the fretwire an octave* above the fretted note with the fingerpad of one of your picking hand fingers.

* Or at other nodes – see the “Playing Notes Other Than Octaves With Artificial Harmonics” section, above.

Which finger you use to play a tap harmonic is a personal choice; the index finger is probably the easiest / most accurate, but the middle finger can be used if you’re holding a pick between the thumb and index finger.

How To Play Tapped Harmonics

  • With either the index or middle finger of the fretting hand, fret the G note at the 3rd fret of the 6th string as if you were playing a normal G note.
  • Using the fingerpad of either the index or middle finger of the picking hand, lightly tap the 6th string above the fretwire of the 15th fret.
  • The resulting harmonic will be the G an octave higher than the fretted G (i.e. the G at the 15th fret).
  • Although this is the same note as that you’d hear if you played the string at the 15th fret normally, the harmonic has a distinctive tone of its own.

You can used tapped harmonics to play melody lines just as you can with artificial harmonics.

Pinched Harmonics

Pinched harmonics is a guitar technique that involves a string being picked and almost simultaneously dampened with the flesh of the side of the thumb that is holding the pick. This creates a high-pitched harmonic instead of a regular note.

It is a technique that is most effective with an overdriven / distorted guitar sound, and is therefore favored by rock / metal guitarists. Pinched harmonics can be combined with string bends, to create screaming, squealing sounds that add color to metal riffs and solos.

Learning how to play pinched harmonics on guitar is a matter of trial and error at first; it’s a technique that is “felt” rather than described, but once you have “got it”, you’ll be embellishing your solos with no end of wild sounds!

Guitar Harmonics Overview

We hope that the information on this page has helped you to learn and master the art of playing harmonics on guitar. If you have any questions on playing guitar harmonics, feel free to ask in the comments section below; we’d be happy to help!

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