BY DANIEL WARD | FROM THE FALL 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Have you ever wanted to learn how to play harmonics on a ukulele? Read on!
When a string on an instrument is divided and sounds up an octave, it’s as if a glass bell is being struck by a mallet powered by a quick burst of wind. This is called a harmonic. For ukulele, the short string length can make achieving these chime-like pitches more challenging, but the time spent learning these techniques is worth it!
In order for an acoustic instrument of any kind to make sound waves and be heard, a resonator such as a column of air or a string is used. When you blow into a trumpet or pick a string on a ukulele, a complex group of sine waves, called partials, resonate all at once. Partials reinforce and cancel each other out to form standing waves, the lowest of which is then perceived by the human ear as the fundamental pitch.
The harmonic, or overtone series, is a group of tones in which each frequency is an integer multiple of the fundamental. Got that? All this really means for us ukulele players is that there is a pitch that resonates from a string, and it’s made up of several partials (sine waves). The magic comes when we divide the way the string resonates; by touching the string in different places, we hear the partials differently. If you want a more in-depth overview of the science behind these sounds, a quick web search will produce loads of information.
All the examples in this lesson are written for a low-G ukulele, and if the G is a wound string, you’ll have an easier time finding and hearing the more difficult harmonics. The harmonics in Example 1, shown as diamond-shaped noteheads,are all natural. Play the strings open first, then put your middle finger across the 12th fret directly over the fretwire like you are holding a slide. Let your finger barely touch the strings and pick one string at a time.
When you get it just right, lift your finger off the string as the note sounds. You’ll know right away when the harmonic is produced, as the pitch will go up an octave and have that special bell tone to it. Now repeat the process at the seventh fret and then the fifth. It might take a bit of practice, but it’s not too hard to get these first three after the fundamental open strings. Keep at it until the natural harmonics really pop.
Because of the short string length on ukulele, the upper pitches in the harmonic series can be quite difficult to produce, and each takes a firmer pluck while hitting the right spot with an even lighter touch. Example 2 is a study to feel how they work, but I’ll stick with frets 12 and 7 for the other examples. In this example, all the harmonics are explored on just one string, and the bigger the string, the easier it is to produce the sound. By extracting each upper harmonic on one string, your technique will improve. Also note that the last two here are placed in between the frets, and the approximate place is marked. These are only a few of the 32 (five octaves higher) harmonics but are really the only useable ones on ukulele.
In Example 3 we apply the technique to some music. The delightful tune played by Big Ben and thousands of clocks around the world is called “Westminster Quarters,” or “Cambridge Quarters,” which is where it originally was composed and played by tower bells. Simply use your new skills from Ex. 1 and follow the tab on frets 12 and 7. The last bell that tolls 3 o’clock is back to plain strings with no harmonics.
Artificial or harp harmonics (indicated as H.H.) are a way to make harmonics with pitches that aren’t on the open strings. They really aren’t artificial, in that they still ring according to the overtone series and work the same way, but the technique is a bit different. To play Example 4, begin by fretting the open G chord and playing each note conventionally. In bar 2, keep your fingers anchored on the chord and lightly point at the string with your index finger at each fret indicated in parentheses while picking the same string with your thumb. The resulting harmonics should sound an octave higher than the fretted notes. Again, this will take a bit of practice, but will come easily once you get used to it.
Now try a simple melody using harp harmonics, as shown in Example 5. All you need to do is add 12 to the fret number you are fingering. If you are fretting at 2, then point to the 14th fret and pick. Try this one picking with your thumb and also with your ring finger.
Harmonics are frequently used as ornaments to dress up the ending of a song or make an intro really pop. Daniel Ho uses harmonics beautifully, and you can hear them very clearly on his recordings. I wrote Example 6 as an intro that should be played rubato. Take it nice and slow.
You can apply harmonics to anything you want, and the possibilities are endless. The more you listen and watch, the more you’ll find, but hopefully now armed with the technique to apply them.