Beyond the Veil: Echoes to Come, or How Guitar Harmonics Work

Welcome to “Beyond the Veil! In this feature, its name (partially) taken from the Gods of Eden track, we’re going to delve into some theoretical aspect of the music we love in an effort to elucidate the behind-the-scenes workings at play, but in a largely jargon-free manner intended to be accessible to those who don’t necessarily have a music theory background

While we’ve previously covered topics more along the lines of specific scalesintervals, and chords, today’s topic is unique in that it concerns a technique (or, well, a subset of that technique) that’s mostly specific to guitar playing, as opposed to a general musical concept.

Harmonics describe a number of different sounds that are absolutely littered all over metal riffage in their various forms. An easy-to-understand catch-all definition for the term is difficult to put down, but they generally describe high pitched sounds that are not always achievable through standard, ‘fretted’ play. (If this makes no sense to you so far, that’s fine; I promise it’ll get more obvious once we delve into the different kinds of harmonics.)

It’s tempting to start with pinch harmonics, which most of us are likely familiar with already, but it’s best for us to zoom out and concern ourselves with the more general classes of harmonics first. These are built around the dichotomy of natural vs artificial harmonics, which, interestingly enough, conceptually differ far more in how they’re brought into existence, instead of how they sound.

Natural harmonics are sounded when a guitarist’s fretting hand is lightly in contact with a certain point on a string without actually fretting it, after which the string is played. These points are fixed across the fretboard, with ‘desirable’ harmonics occurring at the 5th, 7th, 12th, 17th, and 19th frets of the guitar. The reason this is the case has to do more with wave physics than anything else, so it’s probably best left glossed over for now!

The video below is useful for demonstrating what natural harmonics sound like, but for the purposes of this article, I wouldn’t be too concerned with the specifics involved.

Natural harmonics usually have a pleasant bell-like sound, and are more often than not found in clean passages and the like. They tend to have quite a bit of sustain on them and will continue ringing out for some time if left undisturbed, which makes them ideal for clean guitar parts that are already going for a gentle, ambient vibe.

Artificial harmonics, on the other hand, are a slightly larger family, and one that consists of what’s probably more familiar territory for most of us. Unlike with the open string harmonics shown in the video above, these often involve fretting of some sorts.

Indeed, the most popular kinds of harmonics in metal, and the ones we’re quite intimately familiar with, are termed pinch harmonics. The term is arguably a bit of a misnomer — they don’t actually involve a strict ‘pinching’ motion, they do require some kind of impact from the thumb on the picking hand as soon as a string is picked. This creates a characteristic (and quite well-loved) ‘squeal’ sound. You’ve definitely heard this before. Everyone’s heard this before.

Lastly, tap harmonics are more or less what the name implies, involving a quick tapping motion from the right hand a certain distance away from a fretted note. This results in a sound that’s fundamentally similar to a natural harmonic, if a little more malleable given that the left hand is also involved and able to add inflections to the note in its own way. Tap harmonics are also sometimes given a bit more leverage with added pick usage, where the guitarist makes the tap harmonic motion but also picks the string at the same time (a very tricky technique, as you can imagine!) While tap harmonics probably the least used of the ones we’ll discuss today, they can be a subtle yet powerful weapon in a guitarist’s arsenal that are still more prevalent that some might think.

Psycroptic – Ob(Servant) [2008]

We start off our examples with Tasmanian tech death four-piece Psycroptic, who are arguably the absolute masters of clever and musically interesting harmonic usage. Guitarist Joe Haley quite liberally uses all the kinds of harmonics we discussed above, often within the same riff at that, to liven up what are already highly intricate guitar parts.

One could go through virtually every single Psycroptic song and pick apart all the instances of harmonic usage, but we’re just going to focus on three today.

On “The Throne of Kings”, easily one of Haley’s most harmonic-heavy moments, the entire verse riff is based off of tap harmonics save for two quick natural harmonics at the start. This allows Haley to achieve a dense, almost cascading sound with simply one guitar part, alternating the harmonics with a low end riff to keep the passage relatively grounded.

Similarly, in the chorus of “Initiate”, Haley works almost entirely with natural harmonics (with a quick tap harmonic in between at 2:16, which allows for that sliding motion). The sustained ringing out that’s characteristic of harmonics is very much on display here, intertwining with the lower notes to make for a very musically interesting end result.

Even this solo on “A Soul Once Lost” begins with two natural harmonics followed by a tap harmonic:

Did I mention I really love Psycroptic? Because I really love Psycroptic.

Beyond Creation – The Aura [2011]

But Haley’s mastery of harmonics doesn’t mean they aren’t highly prevalent in other tech death as well. Quebecois tech death band Beyond Creation are big fans of the technique, starting off a tapping segment in “Coexistence” with three clear natural harmonics, panned left:

And let’s not forget this perfectly placed pinch harmonic in “Omnipresent Perception”:

Virta – Tales From The Deep Waters [2012]

Maybe that’s a bit much in the way of tech-death — why not side-step a bit towards Finnish jazz? Virta are a three-piece instrumental outfit that flawlessly combine jazz with elements of electronica and even post-rock, with their latest album Hurmos being far and away one of our favourite releases last year.

“Traffic”, a standout from previous album Tales From the Deep Waters, begins with a shimmering cascade of natural harmonics, but in a way that — interestingly enough — forms the backing track for trumpet leads, as opposed to becoming the focal point of the music as was the case above. The resulting effect is certainly dense as far as the sheer number of notes goes, but in a bright, almost immaculate way.

Obscura – Akroasis [2016]

We round off today’s piece with Obscura‘s latest album Akroasis (yes, back in the realm of tech death). Now, Akroasis‘s harmonic usage is generally quite by-the-book, all things considered, but then-lead guitarist Tom “Fountainhead” Geldschläger brings a few interesting ingredients to the table.

Remember what I said above about how tap harmonics can be considered more malleable, due to a fretting hand also being involved? Fountainhead effectively inverts tap harmonics, using the picking hand to dampen the strings and tapping out harmonics with his left hand instead. That coupled with the fact that he plays a fretless guitar makes for an interesting resultant sound. Here’s the technique in action:

On “Sermon of the Seven Suns”, Fountainhead then uses the technique on the first solo:

Similarly, at the end of the 15-minute masterpiece “Weltseele”, Fountainhead adds harmonic touches on top of the outro lead, bringing it to what’s almost a mournful wail:

Further listening:


Caffeine, tech death, and computational biology.

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