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Where the Natural Meets the Fractional

 

By Jon Chappell

 

Natural harmonics on the guitar—the ones found on open strings by laying a left-hand finger lightly over a fret—are a great weapon in the arsenal of a performing and recording guitarist. Often a well-placed harmonic is just the thing a sustained note needs at the climax of a solo. On overdubs, they make nice punctuation points when applied judiciously, and can add a nice splash of color.

 

But when you’re in the studio, the pressure can be on to hit the harmonic the first time, or to hit it repeatedly, consistently, and with good, ringing tone. For that kind of situation, you can’t leave it to chance or experimentation. You have to know where the harmonic falls exactly so that you can nail it take after take. And if you actually want to be facile with adding harmonics on overdubbed solos on a regular basis, you need to develop a system for identifying and playing them quickly.

 

Transcriber, Help Thyself

I originally charted that all the natural harmonics on all six strings, because it used to facilitate transcribing solos when I worked as a professional transcriber and music editor. When figuring out solos, I could hear the note clearly, but since I couldn’t see the guitarist’s hands, I always had the hunt and peck for the right string and the right fret.

 

Calculating harmonics from scratch got very tedious very quickly (“reinventing the wheel” was the analogy that often sprang to mind”). So one day I just took time out and made myself a chart that had all the natural harmonic possibilities for all six open strings. Now when I hear a natural harmonic on a recording—or I want to produce one of my own—I look at my chart.

 

Find Your Fret

In addition to making transcribing a whole lot more efficient (especially for Steve Vai and Joe Satriani solos!), I found knowing the location of all the natural harmonics helped my own playing. For example, if I were soloing in A, and I knew a high A would be just the thing to nail at bar seven of my eight-bar solo, I could quickly scan my chart and see where all the available A’s were. Or, if I was playing on a floating-bridge guitar, I could hit a G harmonic and pull the bar up a whole step. Check out the chart in Fig. 1, which shows the all the harmonics on all six open strings.

 

Notes the fractional-fret harmonics. These occur not directly over the fret wire, but at the indicated distance between two frets. For example, fret 1.6 is a little more than halfway between frets 1 and 2. These are harder to play, because their node points are much narrower than the “strong” harmonics on frets 12, 7, 5, and 19, but with practice, you can get a pretty full tone consistently.

 

Fret Out

Some harmonics are easier to play than others. Of course, any non-fractional fret will be easier than a fractional one. And the closer to the 12th fret you are, the easier the harmonic is to invoke. So if you want to produce A5, you’ll get better results from the second string on fret 5.8 than you will on the fifth string, fret 2.4. (This is where the chart comes in handy.) The exciting thing is that once you have this “menu of harmonics” in front of you, you’ll create more and more opportunities for harmonics to appear into your music.

 

Whole-Fret Harmonics

Fret

Octave + Interval

Open-String Pitch*

12

1

E2 A2 D3 G3 B3 E4

7/19

1 + 5

B2 E2 A3 D3 F#3 B3

5/24

2

E3 A3 D4 G4 B4 E5

4/9/26

2 + 3

G#3 C#4 F#4 B4 D#5 G#5

3

2 + 5

B3 E4 A4 D5 F#5 B5

6/15/22

2 + b7

D4 G4 C5 F5 A5 D6

17

3

E4 A4 D5 G5 B5 E6


Fractional-Fret Harmonics

Fret

Octave + Interval

Open-String Pitch*

1.6

3 + 5

B4 E5 A5 D6 F#6 B6

1.7

3 + #4

A#4 D#5 G#5 C#6 F#6 A#6

1.8

3 + 3

G#4 C#5 F#5 B5 D#6 G#6

2.0

2 + 3

F#4 B#4 E#5 A5 C#6 F#6

2.4

3

E4 A4 D5 G5 B5 E6

2.6

2 + b7

D4 G4 C5 F5 A5 D6

3.3

2 + 5

B3 E4 A4 D5 F#5 B5

5.8

2 + b7

D4 G4 C5 F5 A5 D6

*C3 = Middle C. The guitar sounds an octave lower than written. For example, the open high-E string sounds E3, the lowest line on the treble clef.

 

Fig. 1. A chart showing the natural harmonics on all six strings of the guitar. The top part shows the whole-number frets where the left-hand finger is placed directly over the fret wire. The bottom section shows the fractional frets, where the finger is placed between two frets.

 

 
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