String harmonic

Playing a string harmonic is a string instrument technique that uses the nodes of natural harmonics of a musical string to isolate overtones. Playing string harmonics produces high pitched tones, often compared in timbre to a whistle or flute.[1][2] Overtones can be isolated "by lightly touching the string with the finger instead of pressing it down" against the fingerboard (without stopping).[3]

Playing a harmonic on a string. Here, "+7" indicates that the string is held down at the position for raising the pitch by 7 semitones.


When a string is plucked or bowed normally, the ear hears the fundamental frequency most prominently, but the overall sound is also colored by the presence of various overtones (frequencies greater than the fundamental frequency). The fundamental frequency and its overtones are perceived by the listener as a single note; however, different combinations of overtones give rise to noticeably different overall tones (see timbre).[4] A harmonic overtone has evenly spaced nodes along the string, where the string does not move from its resting position.


Table of harmonics, indicating in colors on which positions the same overtones occur

The nodes of natural harmonics are located at the following points along the string:

Harmonic Stop note Sounded note relative to open string Cents above open string Cents reduced to one octave Length fraction Audio
2 octave octave (P8) 1,200.0 0.0 12  Play 
3 just perfect fifth P8 + just perfect fifth (P5) 1,902.0 702.0 13, ​23  Play 
4 just perfect fourth 2P8 2,400.0 0.0 14, ​34  Play 
5 just major third 2P8 + just major third (M3) 2,786.3 386.3 15 to ​45  Play 
6 just minor third 2P8 + P5 3,102.0 702.0 16, ​56
7 septimal minor third 2P8 + septimal minor seventh (m7) 3,368.8 968.8 17 to ​67  Play 
8 septimal major second 3P8 3,600.0 0.0 18, ​38, ​58, ​78
9 Pythagorean major second 3P8 + Pythagorean major second (M2) 3,803.9 203.9 19, ​29, ​49, ​59, ​79, ​89  Play 
10 just minor whole tone 3P8 + just M3 3,986.3 386.3 110, ​310, ​710, ​910
11 greater undecimal neutral second 3P8 + lesser undecimal tritone 4,151.3 551.3 111 to ​1011  Play 
12 lesser undecimal neutral second 3P8 + P5 4,302.0 702.0 112, ​512, ​712, ​1112
13 tridecimal 2/3-tone 3P8 + tridecimal neutral sixth (n6) 4,440.5 840.5 113 to ​1213  Play 
14 2/3-tone 3P8 + P5 + septimal minor third (m3) 4,568.8 968.8 114, ​314, ​514, ​914, ​1114, ​1314
15 septimal (or major) diatonic semitone 3P8 + just major seventh (M7) 4,688.3 1,088.3 115, ​215, ​415, ​715, ​815, ​1115, ​1315, ​1415  Play 
16 just (or minor) diatonic semitone 4P8 4,800.0 0.0 116, ​316, ​516, ​716, ​916, ​1116, ​1316, ​1516

Above, the length fraction is the point, with respect to the length of the whole string, the string is lightly touched. It is expressed as a fraction n/m, where m is the mode (2 through 16 are given above), and n the node number. The node number for a given mode can be any integer from 1 to m − 1. However, certain nodes of higher harmonics are coincident with nodes of lower harmonics, and the lower sounds overpower the higher ones. For example, mode number 4 can be fingered at nodes 1 and 3; it will occur at node 2 but will not be heard over the stronger first harmonic. Ineffective nodes to finger are not listed above.

The fret number, which shows the position of the node in terms of half tones (or frets on a fretted instrument) then is given by:


With s equal to the twelfth root of two, notated s because it's the first letter of the word "semitone".

Artificial harmonicsEdit

Artificial harmonics on a G fundamental, as written (below) and as sounding (top). The round note (below) is pressed with one finger, and the square note is lightly touched with another one.  Play 
Natural versus artificial harmonic

When a string is only lightly pressed by one finger (that is, isolating overtones of the open string), the resulting harmonics are called natural harmonics. However, when a string is held down on the neck in addition to being lightly pressed on a node, the resulting harmonics are called artificial harmonics. In this case, as the total length of the string is shortened, the fundamental frequency is raised, and the positions of the nodes shift accordingly (that is, by the same number of frets), thereby raising the frequency of the overtone by the same interval as the fundamental frequency.

Artificial harmonics are produced by stopping the string with the first or second finger, and thus making an artificial 'nut,' and then slightly pressing the node with the fourth finger. By this means harmonics in perfect intonation can be produced in all scales.

Artificial harmonics are more difficult to play than natural harmonics, but they are not limited to the overtone series of the open strings, meaning they have much greater flexibility to play chromatic passages. Unlike natural harmonics, they can be played with vibrato.[6]

This technique, like natural harmonics, works by canceling out the fundamental tone and one or more partial tones by deadening their modes of vibration. It is traditionally notated using two or three simultaneous noteheads in one staff: a normal notehead for the position of the firmly held finger, a square notehead for the position of the lightly pressed finger, and sometimes, a small notehead for the resulting pitch.[7]

The most commonly used artificial harmonic, due to its relatively easy and natural fingering, is that in which, "the fourth finger lightly touches the nodal point a perfect fourth above the first finger. (Resulting harmonic sound: two octaves above the first finger or new fundamental.),"[8] followed by the artificial harmonic produced when, "the fourth finger lightly touches the nodal point a perfect fifth above the first finger (Resulting harmonic sound: a twelfth above the first finger or new fundamental.),"[8] and, "the third finger lightly touches the nodal point a major third above the first finger. (Resulting harmonic sound: two octaves and a major third above the first finger or new fundamental.)"[8][9]


The fundamental and the double- and triple-frequency overtones of a guitar string.

There are a few harmonic techniques unique to guitar.

Pinch harmonicsEdit

Pinch harmonics performed on an acoustic guitar

A pinch harmonic (also known as squelch picking, pick harmonic or squealy) is a guitar technique to achieve artificial harmonics in which the player's thumb or index finger on the picking hand slightly catches the string after it is picked,[10] canceling (silencing) the fundamental frequency of the string, and letting one of the overtones dominate. This results in a high-pitched sound which is particularly discernible on an electrically amplified guitar as a "squeal".

Tapped harmonicsEdit

Tapped harmonics were popularized by Eddie van Halen. This technique is an extension of the tapping technique. The note is fretted as usual, but instead of striking the string the excitation energy required to sound the note is achieved by tapping at a harmonic nodal point. The tapping finger bounces lightly on and off the fret. The open string technique can be extended to artificial harmonics. For instance, for an octave harmonic (12-fret nodal point) press at the third fret, and tap the fifteenth fret, as 12 + 3 = 15.

String harmonics driven by a magnetic fieldEdit

This technique is used by effect devices producing a magnetic field that can agitate fundamentals and harmonics of steel strings. There are harmonic mode switches as provided by newer versions of the EBow and by guitar build in sustainers like the Fernandes Sustainer and the Moog Guitar. Harmonics control by harmonic mode switching and by the playing technique is applied by the Guitar Resonator where harmonics can be alternated by changing the string driver position at the fretboard while playing.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Kamien, Roger (2008). Music: An Appreciation, p.13. Sixth "brief" edition. McGraw Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-340134-8.
  2. ^ Palisca, Claude V.; ed. (1996). Norton Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1: Ancient to Baroque, glossary, p.601. Third edition. W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-96906-1.
  3. ^ Palisca, Claude V.; ed. (1996). Norton Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1: Ancient to Baroque, glossary, p.601. Third edition. W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-96906-1.
  4. ^ "The Physics of Everyday Stuff - The Guitar". Retrieved 2015-08-03.
  5. ^ Grove, George (1879). A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (A.D. 1450-1889), Vol. 2, p.665. Macmillan. [ISBN unspecified].
  6. ^ Sevsay, Ertuğrul (2013). The Cambridge Guide to Orchestration, unpaginated. Cambridge. ISBN 9781107067486.
  7. ^ Potter, Louis (1995). The Art of Cello Playing, p.194. Alfred Music. ISBN 9781457400353.
  8. ^ a b c Grimson, Samuel B. and Forsyth, Cecil (1920). Modern Violin-Playing, p.79-80. New York: H. W. Gray (Novello). [ISBN unspecified].
  9. ^ Hurwitz (2006), p.87.
  10. ^ "Guitar Techniques: Pick Harmonic", Accessed: December 19, 2017.