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Background

Something I’ve noticed playing electric guitar is that natural harmonics are easier to achieve under heavy distortion. For the sake of disambiguation, when I use the word harmonic, I mean plucking a string at the same time as you release your finger from the string at a particular fret, producing a noise like a ringing bell.

To elaborate on the phenomena, playing harmonics on the acoustic guitar is typically hard for me unless they’re performed at the 1/2, 1/3, or 1/4 ratios (12th, 7th, and 5th) fret. Still, the 12th is easier than the 7th and the 7th is easier than the 5th. Going further toward the nut is much more difficult (at least for me personally).

Playing electric guitar on a clean setting is mostly the same as the acoustic. However, as soon as gain is increased a little on the electric, the harmonics become easier. Using an effects pedal meant for playing metal music, the most intense distortion I have, the harmonics that are hardest to achieve are now easy. Playing at the second fret produces an extremely loud sound, even louder than playing a note normally.

Running Ideas

The best attempt at an answer I have at the moment is that the distortion pedals add frequencies that could resonate with the imperfectly played harmonic (those closer to the nut are harder to achieve) and produce positive feedback to make the note ring louder. However, I tested this by playing a recording of the cleanly played harmonic into the amp, and the distortion still had the same effect. This is a contradiction because the guitar is not live in this scenario to create the positive feedback. So, this effect is plausible but negligible at best.

My other idea is that the plucking noise of a harmonic is drowned out by the pedal which produces a sort of ambient fuzz, while the note is compressed to ring loudly. However, this is just my best guess.

Any ideas?

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  • Playing a harmonic - you don't need to take your finger off as you play. That point along the string (the node) isn't moving. In fact, you can put your finger back on again gently, and it'll carry on sounding. – Tim Dec 1 '20 at 11:25
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Distortion has a compressing effect- you may notice that noise gets louder when you turn up your gain, while (after a point) the guitar does not get that much louder since you're pushing up against the "ceiling" created by your distortion circuit. It's not just the noise that gets louder, but every quiet sound, including harmonics.

Here's a demonstration of @Tetsujin 's conjecture- you will hear a dry sampled guitar sound, then that sound through (cheesy) distortion, then that sound through compression. You will notice that the harmonic rings out clearly even without distortion, if there is enough compression.

Combine that effect with the added harmonics that distortion adds and you can easily get clear harmonics. Distortion doesn't really make harmonics easier to play, but it will help your harmonics (even if played less than perfectly) ring out clearly.

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Distortion greatly amplifies harmonics relative to the basic frequency, so naturally if you play harmonics through a distortion pedal, their volume will be much higher than without it.

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    Distortion generally adds a lot of compression too. I've never tested with just a compressor, but it wouldn't surprise me if that would work almost as well. – Tetsujin Dec 1 '20 at 9:10
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    @Tetsujin it would be interesting to try, but my guess would be that it wouldn't work so much after all: in case of distortion, the compression effect is due to the fact that harmonics are maxed out and clipped at maximum volume (hence both distortion and compression result). In the case of a regular compressor there is only an overall change of the volume envelope, and while that will give a bit more sustain to a faint harmonic, it will never come close to the amplification of that harmonic that distortion does. But that's just my guess, someone should try it and post a video... – MMazzon Dec 1 '20 at 20:42
  • This doesn't really answer the question, which I think is a bit of a red herring. Distortion does not make the mechanics of a harmonic easy. – ggcg Dec 4 '20 at 20:38
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    “Distortion greatly amplifies harmonic” is not true in general. Rather, distortion adds new harmonics, it is for that reason the result is richer in harmonics (which just happen to be on the same frequencies as the original harmonics). Now, some overdrive implementations do also include a mid/treble boost before the actual clipping, but this is basically just a simple equaliser, so your answer amounts to “why are harmonics on guitar easier with high-mid boosted equaliser”. That is certainly not the main reason why distortion can make harmonics easier to bring out. – leftaroundabout Dec 4 '20 at 22:33
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Define what you mean by "easier"? I have never experienced this in my life and I've played guitar for over 40 years. It is perhaps possible that some effects accentuate the higher overtones of a plucked note making them more "trebley" but the mechanics of creating a true harmonic are not in any way enhanced by effects. I can generate them just as easily and with sustain on a classical guitar.

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  • My understanding is that there's a greater error tolerance for placement of your finger at the twelfth fret than the second fret. This effect makes playing at the twelfth fret "easier" to me, as it takes less precision to get a ringing noise. This is important because I find the quality of the harmonic to be the ratio of ringing noise to plucking noise. – bearacuda13 Dec 4 '20 at 20:47
  • I don't know how to interpret that. If you are allowed a greater error tolerance how do you know that what you are hearing is a real harmonic and some other high frequency noise? The physics of it is the same and I would think that you still need to nail it right on to get a good tone. I play all kinds of music, metal included, so I've used distortion and I cannot say I am familiar with this phenomenon. – ggcg Dec 4 '20 at 21:57
  • The apparent pitch doesn't change. Try putting your finger on the twelfth fret for a harmonic and move it left and right. There's room to move it where the pitch sounds the same. Then, try putting your finger on the second fret and play a harmonic. Test the range in which you get the same pitch. When I personally try this experiment, I get the same pitch at a greater range of positions near the sweet spot on the twelfth fret than the same experiment repeated at the second. I assume it's the same as others, but I could be doing something wrong. – bearacuda13 Dec 4 '20 at 22:06
  • That has nothing to do with distortion – ggcg Dec 4 '20 at 23:52

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