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.
- Science-y explanation
- Natural harmonics
- Artificial harmonics
- Alternative hand positions
- Harp harmonics
So what is it?
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 that sound as notes relative to the division of the string.
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 normal 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 name the harmonic by which fret your finger creates the node at (12th fret harmonic, 7th fret harmonic, etc…).
If you touch a node ? of the way along a strings, you create three vibrating arcs. This raises the pitch of the string to an octave and a perfect fifth.
Dividing the string into four parts creates two octaves up and so on…
Now that your head hurts from the technical explanation, let’s look at them in a more practical way.
Harmonics aren’t hard to play, but take a little bit of an “A Ha!” 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 on 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 centered directly above 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 pitch of the open string (the same pitch as fretting a note on the 12th fret). If it doesn’t ring out, keep trying.
The hardest part is figuring out the left hand finger’s minimum required pressure on the string along with 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 (remember our little science lesson above?)! Here are the main frets that natural harmonics work on along with the notes that appear with them (from 4th, top-string to 1st, bottom-string going left to right):
- 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 to create harmonic chimes at these other frets for different, higher pitches. They get harder to play as you move towards the nut!
Of course, there are many more natural harmonics than are shown here – as many as you can feasibly divide a string into, actually. But these are the main ones that have a pleasant sound and are potentially useful.
The concept of natural harmonics is great, but it’s fairly limited, musically. Wouldn’t it be great to, instead of only having only a handful of notes, be able to play any note you wished with a chime sound?
Here is how you can take the easiest-to-play, 12th fret harmonic and move it around the fretboard to 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. This new string length still has the same harmonic divisions, but they now happen in different places on the ‘ukulele.
The trick is getting several things to happen at once: fret a note, thus shortening the string and sounding the harmonic node. If you had three hands it would be easy! But the standard biped has to learn some slight-of-hand to make it work.
Proper Hand Positioning for Artificial Harmonics
The good news is that your left hand does exactly what it already knows: fretting notes like normal. These notes, when played with harmonics, are named the same, only they sound an octave higher than the fretted note.
The bad news is that your right hand has to learn a new shape and function: how to pick and touch the harmonic node at the same time. There are multiple ways to do this, but I’ll start with the easiest: using your index finger to “chime” the node and your thumb to pick. This is how 99% of ‘ukulele players play artificial harmonics.
To get this technique dialed in, it’s easiest to forget about the fretting hand for a moment. Simply (haha!) learn to chime the 12th fret natural harmonic with one hand.
To do this, hold your right hand with your index finger and thumb extended in the shape of a backwards “L” – the same kind your put on your forehead to tease somebody about being a loser. Make sure the rest of your fingers are curled up to keep them out of the way. Now bend your thumb up towards the index finger until they are at about a 45 degree angle to each other. This is the basic starting position.
Playing Artificial Harmonics: Easy
Now, bring your ‘ukulele into the picture and, holding the same position with your right hand, place your index finger lightly onto the A-string above the 12th fret. Just like natural harmonics, you want to be chiming above the actual metal fret bar. (This is the true location of any note on the ‘ukulele. Placing your finger in a fret simply causes the string to break over the bar and tune to the pitch of that precise ridge.)
The tricky part is to do this and then, while keeping your index finger stationary, pluck the A-string with your thumb. Once you hear the harmonic, pull your hand away so that it can ring without being dampened.
I find that my hand naturally sort of nudges into the light touch on the string as I pick. So you don’t need to necessarily start in the perfect position and stay there – just as long as your index finger is lightly touching the node at the moment the thumb sounds the string.
Spend some time getting your right hand used to chiming at the 12th fret. Once you can consistently get a clear, strong sound, try moving on to true artificial harmonics by pairing the right hand with the left.
Playing Artificial Harmonics: Harder
As long as you can count, you can combine the two hands easily at this point. To play an artificial harmonic, all you need to do is fret a note and then chime exactly 12 frets above the fretted note. 12 frets up will always be the center of the string, no matter where you start from!
For fun, try holding the common C chord. Try to play an artificial harmonic on the A-string where your fretting hand is holding the 3rd fret. Count up 12 frets from the 3rd (or just add 3 to 12) and you end up at the 15th fret. This is where your right hand will chime. Still holding the 3rd fret, bring your index finger to lightly touch the A-string above the 15th fret and set it in motion by plucking with your thumb. You should hear a C note one octave higher than fretted.
As practice, you can work with chord shapes and try playing them as artificial harmonics. For instance, hold an F chord: 2010. The frets for harmonics are: 14-12-13-12. Play them in order to work on moving around and chiming from new places.
Alternative Hand Positions
Like I said earlier, the above technique keeps most people happy. But it has some limitations. Namely, that your pluck happens in a fairly poor spot on the string. If you had huge hands and could chime while picking near the bridge, this would not be the case. But since the thumb picks where it does, the notes don’t come through as strong as they could and you hear a lot of the picking attack “thunk” that is also inherent to any note played this way.
I’ve taken a page out the book of lap steel guitar where a lot of players chime with their palm or their knuckles. This allows them to pluck on the reverse side of the string from normal harmonics, resulting in a clearer tone and much less pluck noise.
Chiming with your palm is very difficult on ‘ukulele because the wider your chiming surface, the more precise you have to be. If you’re not perfect on the node, you lose tone and it’s so inconsistent that it’s not worth it.
But knuckles have an even smaller surface area than the tip of the index finger! This makes for a very clear sound and an ideal hand position for chiming.
To play artificial harmonics like this, ball your right hand up into a very light fist, but let your thumb stick out. Now, you can play the chime with any finger, but I like using the pinky since it’s the smallest and seems to be the least awkward (for me). Use what seem to work as the concept is the same regardless of the finger you use. Let the chime finger knuckle pop out of the fist enough so that it protrudes more than the other fingers.
Now hold your hand so that the 1st knuckle of the finger touches the node and point your thumb towards the ‘ukulele’s headstock. Pluck with your thumb and pull your hand away. A thumbpick makes this hand position more ergonomic.
Another variation on hand positioning I discovered not too long ago. It involves using the thumb to chime while picking with one of the smaller fingers (probably the ring). Same concept as the other techniques, but has it’s charm in the snappy way to string is attacked from the finger underneath.
Artificial Harmonics From Other Nodes
Just like you can play natural harmonics at the 12th, 9th, 7th, 5th, and 3rd frets, you can do the same with artificial harmonics.
By default, an artificial harmonic is played with the octave, half-string chime. But there are situations where it might be useful to use the “7th” or “5th” fret harmonics in an artificial way. This might include times when you are fretting in a certain area and the harmonic you want would mean a jump. Instead, you could play a nearby note and chime it to a higher harmonic than normal. You can also create super high notes in this way.
The idea of “7th” or “5th” fret artificial harmonics is the same as that of standard 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 instead of being a lower-sounding note, it’s actually higher!
The pitches from the 12th fret harmonic and 7th fret harmonic 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.
So when playing the first harmonic in the middle of the string, your fretting finger dictates the name of the note. When you play the 2nd harmonic at the “7th” fret location, it’s dictated by the chiming finger. If you go even higher to the “5th” fret harmonic, it goes back to your fretting finger two octaves above the original note.
This cascading effect is derived from artificial harmonics, but follows a specific pattern that warrants its own section. Lenny Breau pioneered this style by filling in the blanks of what other guys were already doing using a harmonic note as part of a chord. He blew it up into an arpeggio pattern.
This technique works better on guitar because the additional strings give you a longer cascade sound. But it’s worth exploring on the ‘ukulele because there are cool sounds to be discovered. A low-g is preferable to achieve this technique to keep the uke linear like a guitar.
The first part of harp harmonics starts with a chord. It can be any chord, really, but in the video linked to below, Lenny explains that a chord without repeating notes is best – something like a minor 7th or 6/9 chord. Any chord with doubled notes (even if they are an octave apart) will get those notes doubled again by the harmonics in this technique.
To set the right-hand cascade on its way, you pluck either the 2nd or 3rd strings normally with your middle or ring finger (the index needs to be free to chime). Then you chime the artificial harmonic on the top string. Move your next pluck to the next highest string past the first one your sounded. Then chime the next highest string above the first one your chimed. And so on and so forth.
If you were holding an Am7 chord: 2433, it would look like this with the harp harmonic arpeggiation if you played with a neighbor-string pattern:
A |-----------------3-------3<15>- E |---------3---------3<15>------- C |-4---------4<16>--------------- G |---2<14>-----------------------
If you played the pattern skipping a string down to the harmonic, it would look like this:
A |----------3------ E |-3----------------- C |-----------4<16>- G |---2<14>---------
As you can see, the first one is almost twice as long as the second. So that’s where I’ve always put my energy, but I’m sure a clever person could figure out how to extend the second pattern. The obvious solution is to repeat the chord shape up and octave. This would continue the pattern. Problem is, this continuation chord shape would be the same shape, but up 12 frets. That’s high enough that all but the largest ‘ukuleles would allow for this if you started the first chord on a low fret.