Friday, May 28, 2010

Look Ma, No Frets:
The Vibrating String

I've been playing guitar for 30 years. For nearly 25 of those years, I told myself that I would not add slide guitar to my practice regimen. I didn't have a good enough ear, I thought. And I didn't have the time.

I was wrong about the my ear, it turns out. Learning to play slide guitar has been the best ear training I have ever practiced, aside from singing pure harmony over a drone. Careful attention to listening to the vibrating string on either side of the slide has opened my ears and deepened this guitarist's understanding of harmony.

I was right, however, about not having enough time for slide. Ever since I started practicing slide, I don't want to do anything else. So now I have a real time crunch. Playing slide in tune feels fantastic, and the benefits are manifest in all of your playing, not just your slide playing.

The first step to playing slide, in my honest opinion, is to learn about the vibrating string, and the harmonic series contained in it. Musicians from Pythagoras to Sonny Landreth have made the most of this practice. This is a lesson where I truly wish I could make a video. If only I did not hate being on camera so much.

Despite the mis-spelling in the video title, here is the best video I could find on how to physically produce harmonics on a guitar string.

This video shows and describes how to produce the first overtone or harmonic by placing your finger exactly half way between the nut and the bridge of your guitar. Playing a harmonic at exactly one half of the string length, the string will resonate an octave higher than playing the open string. You have a visual aide to find this: the twelfth fret of your guitar.

Practice that a little bit. Then check out this very old school visual aide: a drawing from my notebook. Placing a fretting finger lightly at the locations suggested in this drawing will teach you the harmonic series: the song that any vibrating string produces. In solfege: do, do, sol, do mi, sol, ta, do.

These are the first 8 vibrations on the fifth string of your guitar, the first 8 of this string's Harmonic Series. Getting to know these harmonics brings you in touch, experientially, with the physical laws of music. On each I have written the exact frequency of each note in Hertz, the solfege name of each note using the system of movable do, and very approximate fret locations for the other harmonics.

How do you find the other harmonics on a string?

The trick is this: approximate fret locations for these harmonics are given in diamonds above each line. Harmonics have nothing to do with frets. They are at equal divisions of the string. Frets confuse the matter. The 12th fret harmonic is the only one that is exactly over the metal fret. The other harmonics are at locations that aren't quite at the frets. The 5th and 7th fret harmonics are about 2% off, so I haven't notated them as approximate. 2%, IMHO, is close enough.

Look at the bottom four lines of the drawing, showing you the locations of harmonics at 1/5, 1/6, 1/7 and 1/8 of the string length:

You will find these harmonics at the 'approximate fret locations' I have notated. The fourth fret harmonic isn't anywhere near the fourth fret, for example. Learning about this will help you to play a lot more in tune, whether you are using a slide or not.

There is a lot to talk about in this drawing, but I have to go practice. (See what I mean about Slide being time consuming?) I will be back to discuss more.

Please feel free to post questions and I will do my best to sort them out. In the meantime, here are a few other links that may be helpful on this subject:

The Rosetta Stone of Music:

Some practical advice on producing harmonics:

Another Youtube Vid:

Tickets to Sonny Landreth at the Birchmere Tonight, Saturday May 29th:

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