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.

Posted by David Boles

David Boles was born in Nebraska and his MFA is from Columbia University in the City of New York. He is an Author, Lyricist, Playwright, Publisher, Editor, Actor, Designer, Director, Poet, Producer, and Boodle Boy for print, radio, television, film, the web and the live stage. With more than 50 books in print, David continues to write 2MM words a year. He has authored over 25K articles and published more. Read the Prairie Voice Archive at Boles.com | Buy his books at David Boles Books Writing & Publishing | Earn the world with David Boles University | Get a script doctored at Script Professor | Touch American Sign Language mastery at Hardcore ASL.

9 Comments

  1. Beautiful article, David! I love the idea of living a harmonic life.

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    1. Right, Gordon! I wonder which came first? The human harmonic or the stringed harmonic?

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  2. Here’s a fantastic new tutorial from Arlen Roth on using harmonics in your guitar playing!

    http://www2.gibson.com/Lessons/Lesson-Of-The-Week/Combining-Harmonics-And-Chords.aspx

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  3. Nice, David. I wonder how a non-musical person would find the harmonic within them?

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    1. That’s a great question, Anne. I think you could do it by finding your center space and becoming neutral. Then your heartbeat will find the harmonic in your bloodstream.

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  4. […] gasping globe mocks her continued lack of a human harmonic as she spins wailing tales into a vendetta victory of the […]

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  5. […] only because those unison plucks create a piano sound, but with a woody guitar coloring, and the harmonics ring out just a little more […]

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  6. […] wrote in 1996 — and before! — and test to see if what you said in the past still has a vibrating, human, harmonic that still sounds within you […]

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  7. […] It has been a wild week of mindless copying and pasting from the old Go Inside website — to the New And Improved Go Inside Magazine blog — but we are pleased to announce we have over 750 articles dating from 1996, and before, right here for you to search and read and enjoy once again!  Gordon Davidescu imported all 140 articles he wrote over the last decade or so and we now have 510 “Guest Author” articles that still ring with authenticity and authority. […]

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