Guitar: Natural vs Artificial vs Pinched vs Tapped Harmonics

In the world of guitar, we have discovered a lot of bands and musicians who have been eminences in this field. 

From the most basic examples to complex glamorous individuals have developed and employed dozens of techniques.

Of course, every musician expands his or her style through different methods. 

One of the most desired is the use of harmonics but, is there just a unique way of applying them? Let me tell you that there are many ways of expression.

We can find different kinds of harmonics being them natural, artificial, pinched, or even tapped harmonics. Each of them has distinctive techniques and sounds. 

Natural harmonics are played by gently grazing strings in particular positions. Artificial harmonics are played by grazing and plucking the string 12 frets up from a fretted note. Pinched harmonics by rubbing your pick finger on the string. Tapped harmonics are played by tapping 12 frets up from a note.

Furthermore, through this article, I will try to clarify every important aspect of each type of harmonics on guitar. 

From how they work to the music genres and guitar players that use them.

What are guitar harmonics and how do they work?

When you listen to a specific pitch, you are never just hearing that pitch. In fact, there are other higher frequencies and higher pitches, those are what we called harmonics.

Essentially, almost every instrument produces overtones being them frequencies other than the frequency of the note you are listening to.

Drums do not generally have harmonic overtones but other instruments such as guitars or violins do have them.

Harmonics are produced when you make a string vibrates in two halves (or thirds, or fourths, etc.). 

On a guitar, when you play an open string, the wavelength of the sound is double the length of the string.

But when you pluck a string on the twelfth fret, the wavelength is half of that, in that way the frequency will be doubled. 

So you may think of a harmonic as the string vibrating at both frequencies as if you were playing the open string and the twelfth fret at the same time. 

How to play natural harmonics

To play natural harmonics the first thing you have to do is identify the nodes on an open string. 

Those are the places in which you will find this kind of harmonics.

The most common location is found in the twelfth fret. What you need to do is to play an open string but touch gently over the twelfth fret. 

You can also get natural harmonics by applying the same techniques on the seventh. 

In this location, the pitch is an octave higher than the one found by fretting the string on that place.

What is more, the pitches match perfectly with the ones you get on the nineteenth fret. Another common natural harmonics place is the fifth fret.

There, the frequencies are two octaves higher than the open string pitch or one octave above the harmonic at the twelfth fret. 

In this case, the pitch matches the 24th fret pitches but not every guitar has so many frets.

How to play artificial harmonics

Although the previously mentioned are the simpler and most famous kinds, you are not limited to only playing harmonics that naturally occur along the strings. 

You can also produce harmonics by fretting the strings, these are called artificial harmonics.

To play these harmonics you will have to fret a note, and then graze the string 12 frets higher on the neck, while plucking with another finger behind it.

This has to be done at the same time. 

To apply this technique you require to pluck and graze the string with your picking hand. First, get a hang of it with open strings.

I suggest you put your pick aside and use your index finger from your picking hand to graze a string at the 12th fret.

While you are holding your index in place at the 12th fret, use your thumb or another finger from the same hand to puck the string. In this technique, the grazing and plucking come together just in one movement.

How to play pinched harmonics

A really interesting harmonic technique you can use in the guitar involves a pick.

To produce pinched harmonics you require to hold a pick very close to its edge, in that way, your thumb rubs the string as you pluck it. 

It is important to pluck and graze at the very same time, combining both sounds; the primary note and the artificial harmonics. 

Furthermore, this all occurs in the area between the neck and the bridge, where you usually play. 

But there is actually a sweet spot that you will have to find.

Tip: Use the neck pickup as a reference.

Needless to say, this technique works a lot better on electric guitar. 

That’s why a lot of distortion and volume help to get that pinched harmonic sound.

How to play tapped harmonics

As you may know, tapping is a technique in which you use your right hand to tap on the strings to produce notes instead of strumming them. 

The main idea of this method is to tap exactly twelve frets above any fretted note that you are playing. 

What you have to do is with your right hand you will tap on the fret that produces the harmonic. 

Make sure to play exactly the fret but not the space in between. If you do not press the fret itself, the harmonic won’t be audible.

With your left hand, you will have to press down the note you want to have as a reference for your tapping. 

This technique is well known worldwide because of the guitar legend Eddie Van Halen. 

Main differences between each type of guitar harmonic

We have already mentioned different types of harmonics but what are the differences between them? 

Well, the most relevant aspects are technique and sound.

If we speak in terms of sound, natural harmonics have a bell-like tone and tend to have a great sustain. 

By adding some effects, you could get really interesting hues.

As regards pinched harmonics, they are not common on acoustic guitars or electric guitars with clean sound. 

That will make them sound a bit squeaky but if you add some distortion, you will get a ping or squeal, which can sound wonderful.

Tapped harmonics are considered an advanced technique and in terms of sound, it varies depending on the notes you play. 

If you tap on the 12th fret they sound pretty close to a natural harmonic but if you tap in frets in between the second and the 14th, you will get an effect similar to a pinched harmonic.

Last but not least, artificial harp harmonics is the most difficult method of any mentioned. 

As its name shows, they sound very similar to a harp but the tone slightly changes according to the place on the instrument.

Do all harmonics sound the same?

As we said before, harmonics are slightly different as regard sound. This could be because of the technique applied or even because of the context they are being used.

It might sound obvious but as every method implies different skills, the tone acquired will be different. 

What is more, some of them work better on acoustic guitars or clean guitars (generally natural harmonics) whereas others are better achieved by using effects such as distortion. 

What notes do you get when you play harmonics?

When you play a harmonic what you will get is a higher pitch note. You might think that is a different note but in fact, it is the same note but with a different octave.

This may be confusing but let me explain that harmonics notes are the same as fretted notes. 

For instance, when you play an open E string, the sound at the 12th fret will be an octave higher in pitch, but still an E note. 

The same happens with the 5th and 7th frets. 

The harmonics found in those locations are also A and B notes but higher in pitch, that’s why we say the notes produced by harmonics are the same as fretted notes.

Which styles use each type of harmonic?

Any kind of harmonic works for any music style, you mustn’t limit a technique to a musical genre. However, some techniques are more common among certain genres.

For example, we may find generally pinched harmonics in metal groups. The intro of the song Cemetary Gates by Pantera is an excellent sample.

Artificial harmonics are typically used in acoustic fingerstyle. We can even detect full artificial harmonic chords in this genre. 

We talked about Eddie Van Halen, who mastered tapped harmonics and applied them in hard rock music. 

Finally, natural harmonics are the most usual harmonics.

They can occur in any style and context, from a quiet acoustic ballad to a progressive rock piece.