Lenny Breau-"Fingerstyle Jazz"

Octave Harmonics, Part 1

Guitar Player Magazine May, 1981

Guitar Player is proud to welcome the eclectic Lenny Breau to its staff of monthly columnists. Lenny's ability to draw upon jazz, flamenco, and classical sources, along with his dazzling use of harmonics and way of making one instrument sound like two, makes him one of today's most unique gruitar stylists. His latest recording, Lenny Breau [Direct Disk Labs (16 Music Circle South, Nashville, TN 37203), DD-I12], includes Chet Atkins on guitar, Don Thompson on bass, and Claude Ranger on drums.

One of the first questions guitar plavers ask me is, "How do you p]ay all those fancy things with harmonics?" So, to get off to a good start, my first few columns will cover various ways ot playing octave (or artificial) harmonics, how to use them, and what types of chords they work well with.

First, lets take a look at how harmonics are traditionally approached by classical guitarists. tu. Lightly rest your right index finger on any open string, directly over the l2th fret. Don't press down! (Note: Depending on the length of the nails on your right hand, you may have to experiment with the angle of contact between your index finger and the string.) At the same time, pluck the string with the 3rd, or ring, finger of the same hand.

If done correctly, in one continuous motion, you'll hear a bell-like tone one octave higher than the pitch of the open string; hence, the term octave harmonic. Note that although other relationships for harmonics exist, they're not always practical. The following example shows octave harmonics for all six strings (the diamonds denote which notes to play):

With practice, your right hand should glide smoothly across the strings, sounding each note in succession.

The octave harmonic of any fretted note can also be produced, as long as there is a I2-fret distance between the fretted note and the tip of the right-hand index finger. (With open-string harmonics, the nut takes the place of the left hand.) Although initially difficult, practicing scales with harmonics is a good way to improve your accuracy. Play the following G major scale slowly at first, sounding each note as cleanly as possible.

[Ed. Note: For examples of beautiful octave harmonic passages for classical guitar, see Miguel Llobet's arrangements of La Filla Del Marxant, El testament D'Amelia, and El Mestre (published by Union Musical Espinol, Carrera de Jeronimo, 26, Madrid 14, Spain). For an example of harmonics used in a single-note jazz style, listen to Tal Farlow on "My Romance" (Guitar Player, Prestige, P-24042).]

Chet Atkins was the first guitarist I heard who played harmonics, and it really impressed me, because he was playing them on the electric guitar! Toward the end of one tune in particular, "San Antonio Rose" [out of print], he played an interval that consisted of an octave harmonic and a regular note. After fooling around with different combinations, I finally realized that in order to duplicate what Chet was doing, I would have to play the harmonic on the lower string with my right thumb and index finger (although I use a thumbpick, many players prefer not to):

After a little experimentation, I found that I could play arpeggios, pull-offs, and trills-all from just this one technique! The following arpeggio, which I figured out originally from Chet's recordings, is the basis for much of what I do with harmonics. It involves a back-and-forth motion, alternately playing the regular note with the 3rd finger, and the harmonic with the thumb and index finger:

To keep things simple, we'll use only open strings on this ascending arpeggio (the chord produced is an Em7sus):

Now try this descending version of the same arpeggio:

Finally, tie the ascending and descending versions into one long, beautiful sounding arpeggio:

The above arpeggio will work well with a straight bar at any fret (see diagram); just remember that the index finger of your right hand should stop the string 12 frets above any note fingered by your left hand. In the following example, an Am7sus chord, your right-hand index finger should stop the strings at the 17th fret:

At this point, I want to encourage you to experiment, to be original, and try to build upon what at first may seem to be simple concepts. You can't base your whole playing style on some other guy's ideas. But whether you're dealing with scales, arpeggios, or harmonics, look for different patterns and ways of changing things so that they become your own. That's the only way you'll find the freedom that we're all looking for.