Artificial Harmonics vs. Natural Harmonics

What’s up!

Today you’re gonna learn about harmonics, one of the coolest sounds you can produce on the guitar and banjo.  To the untrained ear, harmonics may leave your listener scratching their head, wondering, “How on earth is that possible?”

Time for you to learn how to make this AWESOME sound and trick.

Artificial Harmonics Natural Harmonics

What’s the difference between natural and artificial harmonics?

Sometimes, a picture (or in this case, A VIDEO) is worth a 1000 words.  I’ll detail what I’m doing more below.

Click on Images to play videos

banjo players right hand

Natural Harmonics

First off, natural harmonics are much easier than artificial harmonics to do on the guitar and banjo. Start with these before moving on to artificial, sometimes called false harmonics.

How do you do Natural Harmonics?

Natural Harmonics are all about splitting a vibrating string into sections.  You can take the length of the vibrating string and split it into half, 3rds, 4ths, and so on.

Let’s begin by cutting the string in half as it is the easiest one to get sound out of.

Place your finger above the 12th fret (ANY STRING) on either the guitar or banjo.  Don’t press in, just lay your finger on top. Be careful not to put your finger BEHIND the fret as you normally would with fretting, put it right on top of the fret.

Next, hit the string with your right hand finger.  You should hear a nice, ringing chime or bell-like tone.  If you don’t get a nice tone, take it slow and figure out what is causing it to happen.

To be clear how harmonics function-with this 12th fret harmonic, you have a string vibrating on two sides of your finger at once.  This results in a note that sounds one octave higher than the fretted note would.

Splitting the string into 3rds:

Place your finger on the 7th fret (any string).  You are now cutting the string into three equal parts.  This produces the fifth of the string (If you are on a D string, the fifth would be A).  You can also try to do a harmonic at the 19th fret as well.

Splitting the string into four equal sections. 

Place your finger on the 5th fret.  You’ll note the sound is similar to the one at the 12th fret.  The other fourths are the 12th fret and the 24th fret (off the neck of the banjo!).

Some other Natural Harmonics of note:

You can find some at the 9th and 4th frets.  These dudes are difficult to pull-off on a regular basis.  In particular if you have old & worn out strings.  These arise from the same  principles as above.  You can infinitely cut the string into sections.  However, the more you divide the strings into sections, the more difficult they become for your ear to hear.

Here I am playing Grandfather’s Clock on the 5-string banjo; it’s a great example of Natural Harmonics at work:

How do you do Artificial Harmonics?

How do you do Artificial Harmonics?

These are much more difficult to pull off on the guitar and banjo.  One false move a nanometer to the left or right, and capoooey, there goes that harmonic. 

Another issue is you really need two brains-one for your left hand and another for your right hand.  Both hands are now thinking about the frets they go.  Your left-hand moves in tandem with your right-hand.   Some SERIOUS COORDINATION wizardry.  Kids don’t try this at home (it was done by a professional stunt artist).

In the video above, I show how to do it on open strings only at first (START THERE).  You can do this at the 19th, 12th, and 57th fret…….ok, whatever that fret was.

Incorporating the left-hand with artificial harmonics

Start by making a C chord on the banjo like this:

Banjo Chord Chart of C major
C major Banjo Chord

The next half of the puzzle:

Whatever note you are fretting with your left-hand, add 12 frets to it and lightly touch that fret with your right-hand index or middle-finger.  I’m going to refer to this as the TOUCH finger**Plus 12 is the KEY to all of this**

Secondly, the note has to be struck with your THUMB, as that is the finger that’s free to strike the string.  The thumb strikes right behind the TOUCH finger.  That’s right, this time the left-hand isn’t making the harmonic, your right-hand basically is.

In the case of the C chord above, take your right-hand TOUCH finger, place it above the 14th fret of the 1st string (2nd fret plus 12) and strike it with the thumb.  This will take a lot of practice.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or email me.  Look around, this blog is heavy with banjo information, and there plenty of banjo tabs over on the store. 

Good luck on the BANJO JOURNEY!!!


Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've performed on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in 6 different countries. All things Banjo and Acoustic Guitar.

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