I think I got a decent grasp on producing pinch harmonics (when I do it in isolation, i.e. playing just one note, it comes out pretty reliably.)

I want to practice it within a musical context but I realized that I don't actually understand how do people decide to add pinch harmonics in their solo/phrasing.

What exactly is the pitch of a pinch harmonic sound? I am muting its fundamental frequency or the lower n overtones, leaving the higher n overtones to ring. Am I just producing X octaves higher note? Because pitch is a perception, we perceive a non-existing fundamental frequency if the overtones imply it.

If I apply it to a musical context, is there a possibility that I go out of key if I pinch it at the wrong spot on the string? My guess is no? What is the correct way to use this technique? What is it supposed to express?

Thanks for reading/answering

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    Have you studied several solos that have pinch harmonics in them? That seems like one place to start – Todd Wilcox Oct 16 at 21:30
  • Currently only one solo on my "todo-list" has pinch harmonics in it, i.e. outro solo in Comfortably Numb with the first D note pinched. Cliffs of Dover also has it but it's a bit advanced for me. I often hear it on YouTube when people demo gear. Do you have any recommendation for intermediate level? Your suggestion is much appreciated! – mofury Oct 16 at 21:34
  • Actually I did a quick search, I can find the list of solos with pinch harmonics in them. I guess I will have to go through them and see which one is appropriate for my level, thanks again! – mofury Oct 16 at 21:38

Pinch harmonics, just as any other harmonics, produces one of the notes belonging to the harmonic series of the note, that is:

  • octave
  • octave + 5th
  • 2 octaves
  • 2 octaves + major third (flat)
  • 2 octaves + fifth
  • 2 octaves + minor seventh (flat)
  • 3 octaves

and so on - see the entry on the Harmonic series on Wikipedia. The ones I put in bold will be probably the easiest and the most common.

Will they fit? It depends on whether these notes will fit. Your ears are to decide.

The most often heard application of pinch harmonic is accenting certain notes, often in combination with other techniques like bending or vibrato.

A characteristic feature of pinch harmonics is that they often sound together with the base frequency. You control it by changing amount of contact of your thumb with the string. This can be used intentionally to produce a "dirty" sound, or to slightly brighten up sound of some notes. This can be applied to whole melodies or riffs.

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Harmonics are produced when a string is touched at a node. That is, a spot where the string can split an equal number of times. The obvious one is the half way point - fret 12 on an open string. It's the easiest one to produce - the node itself being slightly wider than others further away, and is also the loudest. On an open string, the next node splits the string into 3 vibrating sections, the next, 4, and so on. The other answers explain what the notes are.

When a pinched harmonic is played, exactly the same thing happens. So fret at, say fret 7, the 1st harmonic available is over the 19th fret. That's its octave.

Often, a pinched harmonic is played wherever the player happens to place his hand (thumb, usually), so can be a random harmonic. That could well be out of tune to what's going on, but if it's a very high note, it won't necessarily come over as a note from the tune - just an effect.

To make sure a particular pinched harmonic is actually a note that you want to play, you'll need to decide what that note is, and then work out what string, what fret, is played. Next, you play several pinched (or for now, touched artificial) harmonics from that closed point, until you hear the one you want. Then, all you have to do is remember where your thumb was. Maybe exactly between two pups, or right over the pole pieces of a pup, etc.

Bear in mind though, that just like open (natural) or any harmonics, they can be played either as a pure harmonic, or with some of the original base note sounding too. For the latter to sound clearer, the half-way or quarter-way along the closed string might be better. All the terms 'harmonics' here do not include the base note - which is also often called 'harmonic'.

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What exactly is the pitch of a pinch harmonic sound?

It's a harmonic, done in a specific way. Often, you press the node with your fretting hand and hit the note with your picking hand, but with the pinch harmonic, you're doing both with your picking hand.

The harmonic most guitarists first encounter is the one at the 12th fret, which is the octave of the open string. If you're fretting the 5th fret and hit a harmonic on the 17th fret, you get a note that sounds one octave higher than the fifth fret note.

Harmonics, being a natural thing, have always existed, but are able to be used musically because of amplification and compression, because, as the notes are a subset of the whole string's vibration, the note is weaker.

The note you're likely going to get will be the octave, fourth or fifth, with the strength falling out, but a little movement will change a lot.

If I apply it to a musical context, is there a possibility that I go out of key if I pinch it at the wrong spot on the string?

There is a point that I've first heard in context of Jerry Garcia's lead playing for the Grateful Dead; that the further away from the root you get, the less "dissonant" dissonant intervals seem. For example, C is a minor 2nd from B, and is about as spicy as intervals get, but if you jump up a octave, so it's the minor 9th, or even beyond, that note sounds better.

With pinch harmonics, you're likely getting a higher harmonic on a higher fret on a higher string, making that note far from the root. So, you might not prefer that note you're getting from the harmonic, it won't stick out as particularly wrong, and you can bend it to a better note as well.

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  • 1
    I was going to comment about Jerry Garcia directly to the question above, but you brought him up so I’ll put it here. In this live recording of the song “Loser" from 1977, Jerry plays the entire solo (starting at 4:20,) with pinch harmonics (youtu.be/bdexAK_KDrE). And here’s a link to an analysis of the performance from a guitar teacher that might be of interest: youtu.be/QYM0ZzJGclw – wabisabied Oct 18 at 17:53
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    I didn't know that version, but thanks for the pointer. Watching now. – Dave Jacoby 14 hours ago

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