Harmonics: A Starter Guide for Bassists

HarmonicsWhatever the genre, we bassists seem to love harmonics. From Jaco to Dittersdorf, bass music is full of them. When we are introduced to playing harmonics however, the prospect can be a bit tricky. At first, we may be unsure where the harmonics are on the string, or what note will sound when we attempt them. While I can’t possibly cover everything on the subject in this space, below are some introductory thoughts that might help those just discovering the beauty of harmonics on the bass.

How do you produce harmonics?

  • To play a natural harmonic (your standard harmonic) you will bow or pluck normally. With the fingering hand you will press the string only partially. Do not press the string entirely to the fingerboard. Of course you must place your finger in the appropriate spot. For that, read on.
  • Some harmonics sound more easily than others. Some are forgiving, when it comes to finger placement. Others, however, are not. If you are not on the exact spot, they will not want to sound. You will know you are in precisely the right spot when you feel the least amount vibration under your playing finger.
  • Artificial harmonics, plucked harmonics, pinch harmonics, etc., are a more expansive topic which we won’t deal with today

Where can I find the natural harmonics on a string?

You can find all the harmonics on a string by dividing the string into equal parts. For example:

  • If you divide the string in half (i.e. two parts) you will produce a single point in the middle of the string. You will find a harmonic at this middle point. If you had frets that point would be 12th fret.
  • If you divide the string into 3 parts you will produce 2 points. There will be harmonics at each of these points. If you had frets, those points would be on the 7th and 19th frets.
  • Divide the string into 4 parts, creating 3 points. You will find harmonics at each of these points. 5th, 12th and 24th frets…if you had frets.
  • And on it goes. You can continue this infinitely, in theory. In practice we are somewhat more limited.

What notes will be produced when I divide the string like this?

Let’s use the A string as our example string:

  • If we divide the string in half, we will get a note 1 octave above the open string. “A” using our example string.
  • Divide the string in 3 parts and we will get a note 1 octave and a perfect 5th above the open string. “E” using our example string. Note this is the “E” in the same octave, whether we play the harmonic at the 7th fret or the 19th fret….if we had frets.
  • Divide the string in 4 parts (5th, 12th, and 24th fret) and you produce a note 2 octaves above the open string…at least at the 5th and 24th frets. Note that the 12th fret falls into the previous division of the string “at the half.” 12th fret is still only 1 octave above the open string. All the notes are still “A,” however, using our example string.
  • Divide the string into 5 parts and you will produce a note 2 octaves and a major third above the open string at each of the 4 resulting points… albeit a bit flat. At approximately the 4rd, 9th, 16th, and 28th frets you will produce a “C#,” using our example string.
  • As mentioned above, this dividing of the string can continue infinitely in theory, but is more limited in practice.

As we increase our divisions of the string, things become slightly more complicated. This is because the divisions begin to “overlap” a bit. We noted this when we divided the string into 4 parts. The resulting harmonics, although the same pitch, were of different octaves due to the overlap. At higher divisions of the string, we see not only differing octaves, but also differing pitches. Nonetheless, harmonics are under the resultant points.

Also, as we divide the string further, some of the harmonics will be significantly out of tune. Specifically many that are in common usage will sound flat. In most cases, we should bend or press the string to bring them in tune.

Harmonics are for all to enjoy. Divide away!

Be sure to check out all of the installments in this bass harmonics series.

Photo by Kameron Bayne

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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  1. Pure coincidence, last Saturday February 9th, I played a lot of harmonics, in a concert together with my teacher of bassguitar :).

  2. Hi Donovan, I see every time you split the string further, you have to make it longer. Are there any 30-frets basses? I guess so, but it would be too hard to play. Anyhow, is there any math related to this (i.e., an equation or something)? Does this mean that I can’t split the strings in my 21-frets anywhere beyond 3 parts? Thank you very much.

    • It’s like grabbing a jump rope that two people are twirling. Grabbing it exactly in the center will create two equal waves half as small as the original. Grabbing it in thirds will create 3 and so on. These nodes don’t always fall directly over a fret because string length is independent from fret placement. Incidentally, all the harmonics that you can in the first 5 frets or so you can also get around the pickups by the bridge.

  3. When you say “some of the harmonics will be significantly out of tune”….. wont they be in tune with the other harmonics, but just out of tune with their corresponding note on another string? I would argue that its the other notes that are not in tune with the harmonics!