Harmonics are fun. Not only are they fun, but they are also a valuable tool in every guitarist’s bag of tricks.
They add some extra flavor to your playing, making it truly stand out. The most important type of harmonic for every shredder and rocker is the pinch harmonic.
The pinch harmonic is one of those secret weapons that rock and metal guitarists have to take their performance to the next level. Mastering the pinch harmonic is, therefore, very important and useful for aspiring hard rock guitarists.
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How Pinch Harmonics Work
Pinch harmonics are characterized by their high-pitched sound. This sound is often referred to as a “squeal” or “scream”, especially in metal guitarist circles.
Simply put, a pinch harmonic is caused by cutting off the frequency of a note. This is done by preventing the string from vibrating fully and cutting it short.
How to Create Pinch Harmonics
The crucial part of getting a good pinch harmonic sound lies in the position of your thumb and how you hold your pick. Your thumb should stick out over the edge of your pick slightly. Not too much but just enough to ensure that your thumb makes contact with the string
When you pick the string, twist the pick away from your body slightly. As soon as you pick the string, twist your thumb and wrist slightly. The important thing is that you shouldn’t feel the string hitting your thumb. If your thumb makes too much contact with the string, it will just mute it. It is a lot easier to listen for a pinch harmonic than to feel it.
It will take a few attempts to get the angle of your picking and thumb contact right. The best way to practice is to fret the dotted frets on either the D or G strings.
These strings are usually the easiest to pinch and these frets the loudest. This will let you focus just on the picking until you can do it consistently.
Changing the Pinch’s Sound
Unlike natural harmonics, pinch harmonics aren’t as static. The pitch of the harmonic depends on the note. Higher notes will create higher-pitched harmonics.
Where you pick on the string can also change the sound. Closer to the neck will create a more rounded harmonic, while closer to the bridge a twangier one.
Pinch harmonics can then also be sustained by adding some vibrato. This will let those pinches ring out and really make an impression.
Getting the Best Sounding Harmonics
While you can create pinch harmonics with a clean sound even on acoustic and classical guitars, they won’t sound as great. You will also need to pick much harder to get a nice and audible harmonic.
To get the most out of a pinch harmonic, use a lot of gain. Distortion is the best and the more you add, the more aggressive and piercing the pinch harmonics will be.
Clean, early breakup, and slightly overdriven pinch harmonics tend to have a more “pinging” sound like a coin being flipped. For reference, the James Gang’s “Funk #49” and ZZ Top’s “La Grange” feature clean pinch harmonic sounds.
When you add extra distortion, the additional compression and saturation inherent to the tone makes the pinch harmonics sound louder and clearer.
With extremely high levels of gain you can achieve the loud, clean squealing tone of metal pinch harmonics popularized by Ozzy Osbourne and Black Label Society axeman Zakk Wylde.
Pinch Harmonic Sweet Spots
Once you master the technique behind pinch harmonics, you can start to play with the pitch of your pinch harmonics.
Pinch harmonics have various “sweet spots” for both your fretting and picking hand. Where you play the harmonic with your right hand should vary depending on which fret you’re playing with your left hand.
The pitch, quality, and timbre of the pinch harmonic will vary enormously based on where you strike the string with your right hand.
Play a pinch harmonic on the seventh fret of your D string, for example. Now move the right hand around, sometimes closer to the bridge, sometimes closer to the neck. A distance of a centimeter or less can have a huge difference on your artificial harmonics.
You’ll find that some spots sound particularly good. These are the pinch harmonic “sweet spots” that are absolutely vital to mastering this technique.
Billy Gibbons memorized all the “sweet spots” on his guitar for all the frets, helping him to develop his pinch harmonic technique as demonstrated throughout the ZZ Top discography.
This, in turn, influenced Zakk Wylde to develop his harmonic technique.
It takes hours of practice and experimentation to find these spots, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor for any guitarist looking to add this flavor to their arsenal of techniques.
Getting to grips with the harmonic sweet spots available with your right hand technique will take your pinch harmonics from good to great.