A harmonic is a chime-like sound that happens when you lightly touch an ‘ukulele’s string in a special spot – without actually fretting a note . Following their own set of rules, harmonics can be thought of as a secondary instrument that is super-imposed above the frets of an ‘ukulele. And not just an ‘ukulele! This is a natural occurring mathematical sequence that happens whether you are playing a Stradivarius violin or a piece of fishing line tied between your house and a fencepost.
The Science of Harmonics in a Nutshell:
Picking a string sets off a series of vibrations. These vibrations and their frequencies are defined by nodes. A node is a point on the string where there is no vibration when the string is played. Normally there are two nodes occurring when you play a note: one at the saddle and one at the nut (or fingered fret). When this is the case the string vibrates in one big arc and creates the normal pitch. This is called the 1st harmonic.
By creating extra nodes at mathematical divisions of the string (1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, etc…) with a touch of a finger, you can create higher harmonics. The most obvious is achieved by dividing the string in half by creating a node at the 12th fret (the 2nd harmonic). This doubles the frequency of the note and brings it up one octave.
While you can use the “mathematically correct” term by naming harmonics after their appearance (1st harmonic, 2nd harmonic, etc…), for the purposes of this lesson and the rest of the uke world, you can call name by which fret your finger creates the harmonic at (12th fret harmonic, 7th fret harmonic, etc…).
If you touch a node to divide the string into 3 pieces you will create three vibrating arcs. This in turn raises the pitch an octave and a perfect fifth.
Dividing the string into four parts creates two octaves up and so on… Go to Wikipedia for some good diagrams of the concept and a list of all the harmonic divisions.
Harmonics aren’t hard to play, but take a little bit of an “aha!” moment to realize what slight-of-hand movement you need to use.
To play a harmonic on the ‘ukulele, place one of your left hand fingers lightly over the A string over the twelfth fret without pressing down. This is a totally different concept than fretting a note. Just lightly touch on the magic spot (always over the metal fret itself!)… Then pluck the string with your right hand and lift your left hand finger away from the string. This should produce the “chime” or bell-like sound that is an octave above the open string (or the same pitch as fretting a note on the 12th fret). If it doesn’t ring out, keep trying.
The hardest part if figuring out the left hand finger’s minimum required pressure on the string and timing your pluck and release. Picking closer to the bridge will help make the harmonic “jump out” more.
Harmonics don’t just happen at the 12th fret. They work all over the place! Here are the main frets that natural harmonics work on along with the notes that appear with them (G string on the left):
- 12th (octave) = GCEA
- 7th (octave + perfect 5th) = DGBE
- 5th (two octaves) = GCEA
- 3rd (two octaves + perfect 5th) = DGBE
Use the same technique as described above on those other frets for different, higher pitches.
Of course, there are many more natural harmonics (as many as you can feasibly divide a string into, actually), but for the most part those are the ones that you can make noise with on an ‘ukulele (the other oddball is at the 9th fret).
The concept of natural harmonics is great, but you only have a few notes to work with. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to move them around the ‘ukulele and have access to all the notes? You can! Here is how you can take the easiest-to-play 12th fret harmonic and move it around the fretboard and make “artificial harmonics”.
The natural series of harmonics occurs on every string regardless of tuned pitch and length. Because of this we can in concept “shorten” the length of the string by fretting a note. By working with this new string length you can still play the same harmonics, just in different places and at different pitches.
Artificial harmonics are played with your fretting hand holding the note that is to be played “in harmonics” (i.e. 12 frets up), and the thumb and index finger of your picking hand forming this kind of shape:
The index finger of your picking hand (still in the same shape) touches the string twelve frets above the note your left hand is fretting. Use your thumb to pick the same string and lift your right hand away.
You can practice this right hand shape just by just using your index to touch the node at the twelfth fret and picking with your thumb. Then, when you are comfortable with the concept, fret a note with your left hand and count up twelve frets to find the place where your index finger should touch the node.
Artificial Harmonics From Other Nodes:
Any formerly-natural harmonic is available in this manner, but the 12th fret one is the easiest to play. That’s not to say you can’t experiment and have success playing harmonics 3, 5, or 7 frets above the fretted note (hint: the closer to the fretted note your index finger gets, the harder it is to play the harmonic. That means the 7th fret one is second easiest!).
The idea of 7th fret artificial harmonics is the same as that of the 12th fret artificial harmonics, the only difference is where you place your chiming index finger. Instead of playing the artificial harmonic 12 frets above the fretted note, you only play it 7 frets above the note – but it will sound higher. When you do this, you are essentially dividing the string into 3 pieces by playing the harmonic at the “7th fret node” (in parentheses because you will be moving the harmonic – only natural or open harmonics will be played at the 7th fret). So are you confused yet? Maybe an example will clear things up:
Here’s what goes on with normal 12th fret artificial harmonics (take note of the pitches under the first measure):
Here’s what goes on with 7th fret artificial harmonics (again, take note of the pitches – they change):
The pitches from the 12th fret AH and 7th fret AH differ by a perfect 5th – or 7 frets. C goes up to G, A goes up to E, F# goes up to C#, etc… The cool thing is, whatever fret your chiming finger is hovering over is the name of the note you are playing, only an octave higher.
This idea is good for getting even higher harmonics without having to move your fretting finger way up the string. The idea can also be applied to chiming at the 5th fret (5 frets higher than the fretted note). This is harder to produce a clean sound with, but might warrant a try.
Great examples of artificial harmonics are the intros to Jake Shimabukuro’s “Mrs. Robinson” and “Heartbeat (reprise)”.
Harp harmonics are a cool way to add a little something more to your ‘ukulele playing. The concept is very simple – hold a chord and play some notes normal and some notes with artificial harmonics.
The first note is normal and the second is a harmonic. This alternates all the way down the strings. The picking pattern goes like this:
- 3 (4) 2 (3) 1 (2) (1) – notes in parenthesis are harmonics
Say you are holding a G chord, the tab would look like this:
I find that using my middle finger to pick the non-harmonic notes works best. Then I use my index and thumb to play the chime.