Friday, October 13, 2006

harmonics pt. 2, the picking hand and

Following on from the discussion of the physics, and what the fretboard hand should be doing, let’s look at the picking hand when playing harmonics.

Many guitar players, when playing harmonics, will pick the string near the bridge. This maximizes the treble content of the sound, and you’re likely (for reason explored below) to ‘bring out’ the harmonics. Although this approach does work (if a bit of a kluge), the player will probably be moving the picking hand excessively when repositioning from ‘normal’ playing to playing harmonics. Many guitarists do not position the plectrum right at the bridge in their ‘rest position.’ In my case, for example, the plectrum is normally positioned somewhere between the 18th and 22nd fret. When playing harmonics, I generally shift this, not right up to the bridge, but to where either the 24th or 27th fret would reside: A shift of only 5 centimeters or so. With a little practice, the results sound almost as clear as (sometimes clearer than) the sound made if I were playing nearer the bridge.
Before we all rush off to try this, we need to understand how this works (mindlessly picking at the 24th fret will give mixed results).

Let’s look at a representation of playing a harmonic (A, B and C represent three possible picking positions):
Now, what kind of tone would you expect if picking at position B? Answer: A pretty poor quality tone since B coincides with one of the nodes. A node is the non-vibrating part of the string, so picking there would be counterproductive. Shifting the picking position towards A or C will get you much better results.
Now that you understand the principle, all that’s left is a little experimentation to find the optimal picking positions. Here’s the algorithm: Choose a harmonic to play; identify the node positions (recall the previous post on harmonics); try picking anywhere between nodes (keep in mind that your idea of optimal sound may not reside exactly half-way between nodes).
Once you've found optimal picking positions, you can begin to think about compromise positions. ‘Compromise’ in regard to your picking hand’s ‘rest position’ and in terms of maximizing the number of harmonics that sound in a given picking position. Again, in my case, for example, when playing harmonics, most of my picking is done at roughly the 24th fret and the 27th fret positions. Picking at the 24th fret position is acceptable (if not ideal) for harmonics up to about the 7th, but not for the 4th and 8th harmonics. On the other hand, picking at about the 27th fret position, the 4th and 8th harmonics sound acceptably, but the 5th and 6th do not. Thus, when playing harmonics, I’m shifting between those two picking positions depending on the harmonics I’m playing.

Incidentally, the position of the nodes also helps to explain why, in the case of guitars with magnetic pickups, different pickup settings will give radically different results. Again, there’ll be a temptation to just use the pickup nearest the bridge, but a little experimentation will yield viable alternatives.

Good luck and have fun in the search!

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