The Source of Human Zero and Finding the Vibrating Harmonic

When you re-string your guitar, it isn’t enough to just tune it up.  You also need to fine-tune the natural harmonics to help ensure your guitar “sounds right” up and down the fretboard.  Most guitarists test their harmonics at the 12th fret.  Others also test the open-string naturals at the 9th and 7th and 5th frets and sometimes the 19th fret.  It can take a careful touch to get the harmonic to sound — let alone ring right — but the process of divining those harmonics so your guitar can vibrate in tune is of great, melodic, importance in creating memorable music.

Harmonics are an important part of every note. Every time a guitar string is struck it vibrates in a complex pattern, and the sound it generates is composed of several elements. The basic building block of the sound is the fundamental. This is the loudest element we hear and the one by which we identify the pitch of the note. It is the sound generated by the string vibrating in a single loop along its entire length. At the same time, the string produces a series of harmonics, overtones or upper partials. These are simply tones with frequencies that are multiples of the frequency of the fundamental, and they are generated by the string also vibrating simultaneously in shorter loops. They begin one octave above the fundamental and then rise in pitch in specific intervals – the fifth, the next octave, the following third, and so on.

When John Entwistle, the fantastic bassist and classically trained musician for The Who died, Pete Townshend said in a television interview that to replace John’s single contribution on stage in a live performance would take five people:  A bass guitar, a trumpet, a saxophone, a piano and a second drummer.

Pete said the reason John was able to “sound like” those five instruments at once was because he understood, like no one else, how to pull the harmonics out of his bass guitar to create an entire orchestra in his fingers.  I remember Pete yelling this point at fellow bandmate Roger Daltry when he was trying to explain why they couldn’t do a one-for-one replacement of Entwistle on tour: “It’s John’s harmonics, Roger!  Nobody else can do them.  IT’S THE HARMONICS!”  I don’t think Roger ever got the point.

Here’s an example of Entwistle in performance with The Who, and you can see and hear just how magnificent his understanding of the art of harmonics really was.  I think he sounds like ten people, not five!

Here is Entwistle playing his infamous bass line from “My Generation” that defined the modern bass guitar sound for a generation of Rockers:

Now the question becomes, what can we, as people, take away from finding, and fine-tuning the natural harmonics of our guitars in the direct application of our personal lives?

Do we have an orchestra living with us, or are we just a single, uncomplicated vibrating bass string flopping in the wind?

Can we find our tuning of human neutrality where our bodies and minds are so perfectly in harmony with each other that we become the source of human zero?

If you pluck a natural harmonic just right on your guitar, you get a specialized and unique ringing that you can’t produce any other way.  You have to touch the string just in the right spot without actually really touching the string.

The same must be true in our lives.  We can ring out like an orchestra, or we can live like a dead-struck string — the choice is ours, and the world is waiting to hear our tone.

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