Video Lesson: 5 Ways to Master Artificial Harmonics on the Acoustic Guitar

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Extract from the February 2017 issue of Acoustic guitar | BY JEFF GUNN

The problem

You want to learn how to play those delicate artificial harmonics on your acoustic guitar that channel the sound of a harp, much like Chet Atkins did in his famous version of “Over the Rainbow”, or the way Lenny Breau did, a master of artificial harmonics. – has put its mark on standards such as “Autumn leaves”. But where to start ?

The solution

Immerse yourself in a series of progressive exercises designed to get you used to playing the harmonics of the harp, first alone and then in context.

1. Ring

Start by fretting a note the conventional way, say the F # on string 6, fret 2. Keeping this note held, place the index of your pick slightly above the note 12 frets higher on the same string, the 14th fret F# as shown on the Ex. 1. While playing on this harmonic, pull the string down, with the thumb of your selecting hand. If you play the harmonic correctly, you will get a chime-like sound that is an octave higher than the second F fret.#.

2. Build harp overtones around a familiar chord shape

Ex. 2 submits a barre chord to the harmonics of the harp. In notation, each harmonic is indicated by a diamond-shaped notehead; the location of the harmonic is indicated in the tablature in parentheses. To play the example, hold the G chord take while you choose the harp harmonics. Remember to lightly touch the string while producing each harmonic and to let all the notes sound as long as possible.


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In Ex. 3, keep the G shape held in your fret hand, but play the harmonics seven frets higher, as opposed to 12. The harmonics sound an octave plus a fifth higher than the fretted notes, so if you play the figure correctly, you I will hear an arpeggio D. Ex. 4, which combines harp harmonics with a conventionally fretted G note on string 1, fret 3, builds on Ex. 3. Produce the harmonics as you did in the previous examples and choose those Sols, indicated by normal noteheads, with your ring finger.

musical notation and tablature example 3 from Jeff Gunn's guitar lesson on how to play harp harmonics on acoustic guitar
musical notation and tablature example 4 from Jeff Gunn's guitar lesson on how to play harp harmonics on acoustic guitar

Next test Ex. 5, which is essentially Ex. 3, but with a distance of seven frets between the fretted form and the harmonics. The sound obtained, a Gmaj9, is rather colorful. Be sure to play the regular notes and harp harmonics at equal volume.

musical notation and tablature example 5 from Jeff Gunn's guitar lesson on how to play harp harmonics on the acoustic guitar

3. Add chord accents with regular notes

Ex. 6 extends the harp-harmonic concept with three-note chords, opposed to harp harmonics played 12 frets higher than the G shape. Scrape the chords with your ring finger. You will find the same idea, but, you guessed it, with harmonics seven boxes higher, in Ex. 7.

musical notation and tablature e.g. 6 from Jeff Gunn's guitar lesson on how to play harp harmonics on acoustic guitar
musical notation and tablature example 7 from Jeff Gunn's guitar lesson on how to play harp harmonics on acoustic guitar

You will raise the stakes Ex. 8 and Ex. 9, in which harp harmonics and regular notes are played in pairs. As before, choose each harmonic with your thumb while catching the other note with your ring finger. Be careful not to play the fretted notes too loudly.


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musical notation and tablature example 8 from Jeff Gunn's guitar lesson on how to play harp harmonics on acoustic guitar
musical notation and tablature e.g. 9 from Jeff Gunn's guitar lesson on how to play harp harmonics on the acoustic guitar

4. Play full chords using harp harmonics

Ex. Ten reveals how to sound whole chords using harp overtones. Use the index finger of your fret hand to bar the six strings at fret 3. Ring the Gm11 chord by placing the index finger of your selection hand at fret 15 and strumming the strings with your ring finger. Make sure to move your ring finger on the string set in sync with your index finger. In Ex. 11, do the same, but with your index finger in fret 10, forming a Dm11 chord.

musical notation and tablature for Examples 10 and 11 of Jeff Gunn's Guitar Lesson on How to Play Harp Harmonics on Acoustic Guitar

5. Move things

In practice, skilled guitarists don’t stick to one place when deploying harp overtones. Here’s how to start moving from place to place on the neck: Ex. 12, you will maintain this barre chord in G while switching from harmonics played 12 to seven frets higher. Ex. 13 moves even more, with a chord progression using a variety of different harmonics.

musical notation and tablature eg 12 from Jeff Gunn's guitar lesson on how to play harp harmonics on acoustic guitar
musical notation and tablature example 13 from Jeff Gunn's guitar lesson on how to play harp harmonics on acoustic guitar

Once you are comfortable with the exercises in this lesson, try spicing up some of your favorite chord progressions with harp overtones, and you will have some cool new tonal colors available to you.


Jeff Gunn is the author of Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on the Guitar series. He is the musical director of Emmanuel Jal. jeffgunn.ca


This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.


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