Steel Guitar Harmonics

Playing Harmonics

Jerry Byrd taught that harmonics say, “I have a secret!” Harmonics are beautiful. Most steel guitarists avoid playing harmonics because they scare themselves, thinking they can't do it; but if you'll think ahead just a little bit while you're playing, then you can play accurate harmonics. The trick is to make sure your right palm is directly over the proper fret (usually 12-frets higher than where the bar is resting). You can also play harmonics by placing the palm (or a finger) 5 or 7 frets higher than the rot bar position. There are known as ARTIFICIAL harmonics.

NATURAL harmonics occur only with the strings open, at the 5th, 7th and 12-frets (and also at the 17th, 19th and 24th frets). Natural harmonics work great in the song, WHEN THEY RING THOSE GOLDEN BELLS. On the E9th pedal steel, I play a verse and chorus once through in the key of Eb and then modulate up to the key of E, which allows me to play the harmony using natural harmonics.

On the C6th lap steel, songs such as KEWALO CHIMES are composed entirely of natural harmonics. You can here this song on Jerry Byrd's album, HAWAIIAN SUNSET. Here's a short clip of KEWALO CHIMES (MP3). These are all natural harmonics played by using the pinky finger of the left hand on frets 5,7 and 12. The song is not difficult to play, it just requires patience to learn the song. The trick to playing good natural harmonics is to pick the strings closer to the bridge for frets 7 and 5 (especially fret 5 natural harmonics). The same is true of frets 19 and 17 (especially fret 17).

I've heard that harmonics are harder on the Fender guitars, but I've never had a Fender. I have a 1936 Rickenbacher (also called “Rickys”) and the sustain is MUCH longer than on my $79 Artisan lapsteel I had started learning on. I couldn't believe the difference. If you've never played a Rickenbacher (pre WWII models are spelled with an h; whereas post WWII Rickys are spelled with a k... "Rickenbacker"), then you have a treat awaiting you my friend if you ever have the opportunity to play one. On the Rickys, the tone is incredible due to the horseshoe pickups and the dense Bakelite body; but stay away from any guitars that have had the volume and/or tone pot swapped out. It ruins the sound completely and there's nothing you can do about it except to find old spare parts... good luck!

I recently bought a great used S-8 lap steel that was built with gorgeous canary wood from South America. The guitar has a Jerry Wallace pole pickup in it, and the sustain is some of the best I've heard. It's awesome. You can hear me attempting to play some of Jerry Byrd's awesome harmonics from the terrific song... SONG OF THE ISLANDS!

A lot of students of the steel guitar become quickly frustrated when they go to tackle harmonics, and get tackled instead, buried upon a pile of missed notes. They think at that point that harmonics is too difficult to learn, and will require too much work, so they give up on the harmonics. The problem is that they don't understand the proper techniques of great harmonics. If they could get great harmonics in their playing, then they'd love playing harmonic chimes and use them extensively I assure you. Playing harmonics needs to become as natural as breathing for the steel guitarist.

The 2 things that you need to do is:

  1. KNOW THE MELODY THAT YOU WANT TO PLAY. Practice in advance what you want to play with harmonics (usually the melody line). Even if you can play great harmonics, it won't help you if you aren't sure where to place your hand next (and that creates mental obstacles to make you trip and stumble in your playing). That's not good at all. So we want to become familiar enough with a song and it's melody, so we know exactly what we want to play.

  2. PICK THE STRING EXACTLY OVER THE FRET. It helps to keep the right picking hand as perpendicular to the strings as possible. Since your hand is curved, it's easy to pick off the fret and miss the mark. You must place the palm of your right hand over the fret to be chimed. Being off even a little bit will result in either a missed chime altogether, or no sustain because you struck the string TOO HARD. Gentle is better when picking chimes. You don't want to pick too hard, but just hard enough to get a nice chime (and then raise up the volume pedal to make the best of your chimed note while it rings out it's life). This is equally important. Finger chimes are a bit easier, because you can see what's going on under your palm. So it's easy to be off by a fret when using palm harmonics, especially higher up on the fretboard. Practice makes perfect.

    I much prefer the warmth of palm harmonics instead of finger harmonics. Finger harmonics are brighter, thinner and have a more crisp sound. I generally use finger harmonics in areas of a song where I tend to miss the mark while using Palm harmonics (or of course, natural (or open fret) harmonics). The reason why palm harmonics might fail could be the speed of the song, an awkward chord-progression, or just how you feel bodily and/or emotionally at the moment. If you want to hit the note sure fire and not risk missing it, then use finger harmonics because they are the easiest, giving you excellent view of the area. Lam harmonics by their nature make it more difficult because you cannot see through your hand. Still, I

I used to have a hard time with harmonics, because I didn't have my palm exactly over the note that I had chimed. It's much easier to place your hand accurately when you know in advance exactly where and when to put it down on a particular fret. This is the reason why point number 1 is so important above. If you know your song, then you won't waste those critical milliseconds in panic trying to find the correct place to put your hand.

Of course, seasoned musicians who know their instruments inside and out, backward and forward, can play adlib on a dime and execute superb harmonics nearly all the time. I'm still working at it. I don't claim to be an expert on harmonics, but Jerry Byrd certainly was. I learned from Jerry to THINK AHEAD a little bit in the song, to anticipate and plan your chimes.

Here's BALI HAI, in which I play some nice harmonics. They're not hard to do; it just takes work to get them right. It's easy to chime a note; but it's harder when you're chiming a melody line. I knew exactly where I was going start my first note, and made sure to place my right palm exactly over the 10th fret where I begin at 1:29 in the video...


There a few different ways of using harmonics that I am familiar with:


Adding some harmonics every-so-often is an important part of playing any slower steel guitar song, which adds a personal touch. Listen to this wonderful recording by John W. Peterson playing THEN I MET THE SAVIOUR. You can hear him play a palm harmonic note several times throughout the song. Follow your heart and ears and you'll feel where to play harmonics. Palm harmonics sound best in my opinion. Finger harmonics are brighter, but have less substance to the chime.

After awhile playing harmonics will become natural and you'll know exactly when to play them, as your ears will tell you. Most players avoid harmonics because they are challenging at first to learn, but I guarantee you that you'll be so glad you kept at it once you get proficient at them. No matter how bad you are at picking harmonics, keep at it. Make sure that you're right hand is not curled up; but rather, more straight across the fret. It's won't be perfectly straight, but straight enough. If you're having trouble getting good harmonics, try to straighten your right picking hand a bit when you go to chime. You'd be surprised how just re-adjusting your picking hand can make a big difference.

The bottom line is that if you're not obtaining good harmonics, you're doing something incorrectly. Once you identify what it is, you'll be playing nice harmonics. Study your playing until it is what you want it to be. When my harmonics seem to be dropping off, it's usually because I'm not straightening my right hand enough across the fret. The hand's muscles and tendons cause the hand to naturally curl, which makes for poor palm harmonics.

What really got me into palm harmonics was listening to myself play on a video recording that I made. When I heard how nice the harmonics sounded when I played a few, I realized that I should be playing harmonics on a regular basis. Record yourself, play some harmonics, and you'll see what I mean.

Like Tony The Tiger (remember that old TV cereal commercial) says, "THEY'RRREEE GREAT!" Keep at it, you can do it!

~By David J. Stewart

Above: Rogue Lap Steel with Aluminum Nut. There's a coconut palm tree painted on my neck. I took a photo of the guitar and then used an effect in my Microsoft Photo Editor program called "Edge" to give it a drawing look. Pretty neat!

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