Playing Killer Pinch Harmonics on Guitar

man playing guitar near window

Pinch harmonics are a great tool for musical expression and special effects on the guitar. However, playing killer pinch harmonics takes practice and know-how. Harmonics can be tricky on any instrument, but mastery of them can improve your sound. They can even help you play guitar faster. After decades of teaching guitar, we know many of the stumbling blocks that make this skill difficult to master. You have to know exactly where to touch the string to elicit the harmonics you want, and then be careful to keep your thumb out of the way. Also, a good strong vibrato is crucial to effective pinch harmonics. Here are some other pointers for playing pinch harmonics on guitar.

What are Harmonics, Anyway?

Every pitch, or note, is actually made up of several notes sounding at the same time. Most of them are “support” notes for the actual note, or fundamental, you are playing. By the way, part of tuning your instrument involves making sure these harmonics are in tune, as well. Your pinch harmonics will eliminate several of the notes playing, allowing only the harmonic you want to be heard.

The combinations of overtones on any instrument are among the many variables that affect the overall tone. That’s one of the reasons you can tell, just by listening, the difference between a Fender, Ibanez, Gibson, and others. It’s the same with pianists, who can recognize the sound differences in Steinway, Bosendorfer, and Fazioli pianos. The notes of the harmonics are the same, but they may ring out differently.

How to do Pinch Harmonics

There are several techniques necessary to play pinch harmonics guitar.  Most of them involve the proper use of the pick.

- Each string has a “sweet spot.” You need to try to find the particular spot on each string that allows it to ring out. Pause for a couple of seconds after you play, to give the note a chance to sound.

- Position your thumb on the pick so that it is an extension of the pick. Your thumb will barely graze across the string after you pick it. BUT – be careful not to mute the string with your thumb!

- You will play the note on the neck of the guitar. The thicker strings will be harder to get harmonics from. This is because they play lower notes, with slower vibrations. Mastering the pinch harmonic on these strings will be more difficult. Also, as you go up the neck, making strings shorter, the harmonics will be harder to play.

- In general, picking about one inch from the neck pickup gets you closer to the sound you want.

Holding the Pick for Pinch Harmonics

We mentioned that you need to hold the pick with your thumb close to the tip.  You will probably just see about ¼” of the pick under the thumb pad.

Twist the pick slightly as you strum. When you twist the pick, your thumb should graze the string ever so slightly. The harmonic will be a bell-like, ringing sound.

Guitar Setup for Pinch Harmonics

Most guitarists working on their pinch harmonics will set up the guitar signal for distortion. So, turn up the gain to make those harmonics more reliable.

Finding the Sweet Spot

There are actually scientific ways to find the sweet spot on each string to produce pinch harmonics. Each string has several nodal points. If you touch the string there, it will produce vibrations with a higher frequency. These nodes are usually found at the halfway point on the string. Then, find the middle of that section – the ¼ point. The next harmonic will be halfway from that point on the string. It’s almost a mathematical activity.

Whether you are working for the Zakk Wylde sound or trying to channel Billy Gibbons, killer pinch harmonics will give you the expressiveness you have been looking for. You can go from screaming pitches to soulful, smoldering tones with the stroke of a pick. The more control you have over your instrument, the better music you can make. And, you’ll rock out with your screaming guitar, making amazing music.