Artificial Harmonics and Natural Harmonics (For Bass Guitar)

June 21, 2024
Bass Harmonics (Artificial Harmonics and Natural Harmonics)

Ever heard of bass harmonics? Or artificial harmonics and natural harmonics? These are like hidden gems on your bass! It’s those sweet, shimmering sounds you hear from bassists Jaco Pastorious, Michael Manring, Steve Bailey and Victor Wooten. These guys all use harmonics in their compositions, bass lines and even when they solo!

You see when you play the bass normally you press the string against a fret to make different notes, right? But here’s the cool part: there’s a whole other way to make notes called harmonics.

Instead of pressing down you lightly touch certain spots on the string and pluck. And voila! You get these higher pitched tones that add a little magic to your bass sound.

It’s like having a secret trick up your sleeve to expand your bass range and make your bass playing pop.

In this bass lesson we’ll look at how to get crystal clear harmonics on bass.

Let’s get started.

Artificial Harmonics: 2 Cool Ways To Play Them

Here’s a few ways to achieve artificial harmonics (also known as pinch harmonics).

Victor Wooten’s Approach

Check out how Victor Wooten does it.

YouTube video
Victor Wooten’s “secret” harmonic technique for the “Sword and Stone” bass solo

Steve Bailey’s Approach

Steve Bailey frets a note and then uses his index finger (and sometimes the side of this thumb) to touch approximately half the distance of the string. Check it out.

YouTube video
Steve Bailey on Artificial Harmonics Technique @ Musikmesse 2012

Natural Bass Harmonics Locations Chart

Harmonics on the bass guitar are produced by lightly touching a string with your fretting hand right on top of a fret and plucking with the other hand. The 5th, 7th or 12th frets are the most common. But, there are many more hidden locations on your strings!

This produces a bell like tone that’s higher pitched than fretted notes. The key is to touch the string very lightly so it can vibrate freely and produce the harmonic tone.

This chart lays out the locations for many of these natural bass guitar harmonics on your fretboard. You’ll notice that some of these locations are in between frets. In my personal experience, accurate finger placement is crucial. A slight shift in finger placement can produce an entirely different note in a different octave!

Natural Harmonics Chart For Bass Guitar (4-String)
Natural Harmonics Chart For Bass Guitar (4-String)

What are harmonics on a bass?

Harmonics on a bass are additional tones that can be produced by lightly touching specific points along the vibrating string, rather than pressing it against a fret.

While playing the bass, the usual method involves pressing the string against a fret to produce different notes. However, by employing the technique of touching the string lightly, a bass player can unlock a range of higher-octave, bell-sounding tones.

How to play crystal clear harmonics on the bass guitar?

Here are key takeaways for playing bass harmonics that sustain and shimmer:

  1. Crank up your mids: Harmonics sound great when your mid-range os cranked up. Mid-range frequency is critical to getting your harmonics to ring out and sustain. The easiest way to do that on the bass guitar is to turn down your pickup that’s close to your fretboard and turn up your pickup that’s closest to the bridge. Mid frequencies give clarity and the bridge pickup is the secret to getting that clarity. If your bass only has a single pickup and tone knob, you’re going to want to turn up your tone knob. Doing that will at least emphasize the higher frequencies of the bass.
  2. Pluck your strings closer to the bridge: The placement of your plucking fingers matter in getting a harmonic to sound out with little effort. When you pluck your strings closer to the bridge of the bass guitar, you’ll further emphasize the mid-range frequencies that live in this area of your strings.
  3. Touch the string lightly: When playing harmonics, you’ll want any finger that touches the string to have a very light touch. You’re not pressing down on the strings, because that’ll actually sound a note. Instead, you’re just going to rest your finger tips on the surface of the string, just above the location of a harmonic.
  4. Keep your fretting fingers curved: When you curve your fretting fingers you keep any fleshy part of your hand from damping the strings. This will allow your harmonics to sustain indefinitely. So, keep it curved.
  5. Pay close attention to location: The location on the string matters. A small movement can yield a different harmonic entirely. There’s nothing wrong with cool surprises. But if you have a certain note in mind, be aware of the exact location for sounding that harmonic.

Natural versus Artificial Bass Harmonics

There are two ways to produce harmonics on a bass:

  1. Natural Harmonics: Natural harmonics are produced by lightly touching specific points along the string, called nodes, without pressing the string against a fret. These nodes are at specific fractions of the string’s length, usually the 12th, 7th, 5th and 4th frets. When you pluck or strike the string at these points it produces harmonics higher in octave than the open string’s fundamental frequency. Natural harmonics are called “natural” because they occur naturally on the string and are part of its harmonic series. One benefit of natural harmonics is once the harmonic is sounded the string doesn’t need to be touched. This frees up your hands to do other things like shift to another location on the fretboard.
  2. Artificial Harmonics: Artificial harmonics, also known as pinch harmonics or touch harmonics, are produced by a combination of fretting the string with one hand and lightly touching the string with the other hand. To produce artificial harmonics a bass player frets a note on the string with their fretting hand and then plucks the string with their picking hand. Immediately after plucking the string the picking hand lightly touches the string at a specific point, usually 12 frets higher than the fretted note. This alters the vibration of the string resulting in a harmonic overtone. Artificial harmonics produce a wide range of pitches and are used in rock, metal and other genres to achieve expressive and dramatic effects, especially when effects pedals are brought into the mix. One benefit of artificial harmonics is there’s no limit to your note choices. You can literally play any note you want.

Exploring Harmonics On The Bass Guitar

The sky is the limit when it comes to incorporating harmonics into your playing and all the ways they can be applied to your music. Here are a few ideas that are worth exploring.

Natural Harmonics with bass notes

When you’re playing natural harmonics you don’t need to leave your fretting fingers on the string once the harmonic has been sounded.

The harmonic will continue to ring on its own.

This leaves your fretting fingers free to do something else. This is where the good stuff can happen.

A cool thing Jaco Pastorious did often was to play a harmonic followed by a bass note. This extended his range of chords that he could play on the bass.

YouTube video
Jaco Pastorius – A Portrait Of Tracy

Artificial Harmonics while sliding

When you’re playing an artificial harmonic, a neat trick you can do is to slide up or down to a different note. I saw Victor Wooten do this at a live show once and it had a great effect on the music.

YouTube video
Victor Wooten: Amazing Grace

Change your string tuning while the harmonic is sounded

Wether you have a hipshot tuner or not, a super-cool thing you can do is to change the string tuning while the harmonic is being sounded.

Michael Manring does this a lot with his solo bass arrangements.

I’m always mind-blown when I see him do this stuff.

YouTube video
Michael Manring – Selene – DVD

Now It’s Your Turn

​Playing harmonics on the bass guitar opens up a world of unique and expressive possibilities. When you learn the technique to play bass harmonics, you can add complexity, texture, and captivating tones to your solos, arrangements, and bass grooves.

Remember to crank up your mid-range and keep a light touch. Get ready to unlock a palette of bell-sounding tones and mesmerizing effects that’ll leave your listeners spellbound.

Always be exploring and keep shedding.

Click the here for more bass guitar lessons and explanations.

PosidoVega

Hi! I’m Posido Vega, a multi-passionate creative. I’m an artist, bass player, jazz theory enthusiast, children’s book author and illustrator, and SEO 😅.

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