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How Harmonics Work in 90 Seconds

Take a deep breath.... Ready? Get set! GO!

All the world around us is vibrations — sound and light, bouncing around in time and space. Simple evidence of this is visible and audible in the back-and-forth bouncing of the metal strings on a guitar, bass, or violin.

The frequency that the vibrating string produces is dependent upon many factors, like string tension, material, and perhaps most significantly, length. It is through manipulation of this string length at specific fractions that we can achieve the eerie, hauntingly beautiful effect known as string harmonics.

The Overtone Series

How does one actually sound a harmonic on a stringed instrument? Basically, if a finger is placed (not pressed) onto a particular node on a string at a mathematically relevant position (i.e., divides the string into two, into three, etc.), one of the naturally occurring overtones of the root note of that string will prominently sound, instead of that root note.

Standard open A string guitar harmonics

The standard A string of a modern electric guitar has a string length of 25.5 inches and creates a fundamental frequency of 110 Hz. If we were to place a finger right in the very middle of that string (at 12.75 inches), the resulting tone would vibrate twice as fast, and therefore sound a fundamental frequency double that of the open string, or 220 Hz. In the overtone series, this note represents the second overtone, which is one octave above the fundamental frequency.

Where do we find the rest of these harmonics? Anywhere that there is a whole-number ratio between the original string length and a fraction thereof. Put in plainer English: just keep cutting.

The harmonic created by placing a finger on the string one third of the length of the whole string produces a fundamental frequency of 330 Hz — one octave and a fifth above the open-string fundamental — and can be found just above the seventh fret (and on the mirror-image point on the other side of the guitar, 8.5 inches from the guitar’s bridge, or a 2:3 ratio). This is the third natural overtone of the series.

From there, we can keep extrapolating available harmonics by continuing to divide the string into bits:

  • A 1:4 ratio creates a note two octaves above the open-string fundamental, found most prominently at the fifth fret.
  • A 1:5 ratio creates a note two octaves and a major third above the open-string fundamental, found most prominently just before the fourth fret.
  • A 1:6 ratio creates a note two octaves and a perfect fifth above the open-string fundamental, found most prominently just beyond the third fret.
This node search continues well beyond even the 1:7 ratio. Beyond that, there are touch harmonics, pinch harmonics, and all kinds of other ways to divide the string length to create these odd, sparkly, ghastly whistles we know as string harmonics.

Okay, you can exhale now. Want more? Read my extended version of how harmonics work.

Martin Fowler, Soundfly Mentor & Associate Producer

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Creative Prompt: Create a Track Using String Harmonics 

Guitarist and composer Alexander Turnquist created an entire album out of nothing but plucked guitar string harmonics, and it's absolutely mesmerizing! Never underestimate your overtones.

Get creative and see where you can add some airy, eerie harmonics into your track. We'd love to hear what you come up with — reply to this email and share your submission with us! As always, you can earn a big discount on your next mentor-guided course (take your pick). The next session starts today, but you can enroll all week!

Need help?
Read Fowler's excellent article on the weird, creepy world of string harmonics here, or head over to our free course, Alternate Tunings for the Creative Guitarist, to start thinking in new tuning schemes, where the harmonics will only get weirder. 

Here's what we're talking about on Flypaper this week. 
How to Turn Nasty Noise into a Creative Mixing Tool
Use white noise, hiss, and crackle to enliven your track for a more dynamic end result.
The Sony Walkman Just Turned 39 Years Old
The struggle was real, and we loved it.

On this day... 
In 1971, Jim Morrison of The Doors was found dead in a bathtub in Paris, France, at age 27. No autopsy was performed, and while drugs were suspected, the official cause is listed as "heart attack induced by respiratory problems."
Eric Lake's new track, "Those,"  was just a rough sketch of an idea before his Headliners Club session with a Soundfly Mentor. Here's what he had to say about tightening up the track and improving his workflow:

"The most important thing I learned in my session was how to approach producing with intention and a spirit of experimentation to achieve the specific sound and feeling I’m shooting for, rather than simply stumbling through my song."

Listen to more student works in the seventh volume of our Student Spotlight series.

Anything you'd like to learn in an upcoming Soundfly Weekly issue? Send us an email and let us know!

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