Using Harmonics on the Bass Guitar

Harmonics sound great in solo bass music but I want to show you a few chord shapes that can be used in songs. They are especially effective used in endings or occasionally over certain chords. 

As bass players, we provide the foundation for the music and that must never be forgotten. Unless we are playing a solo or a particularly prominent part then we are in the background providing a solid platform for the band. Don’t forget that role and always use these ideas with taste. In other words, don't use an idea all the time just because you’ve recently learnt it and you want to show everyone you can play it well!

A harmonic or two used in the correct place will turn heads for all the right reasons. That said you can go crazy when you’re on your own practising or if you want to use them as part of a solo arrangement. These are by no means all the harmonic chords you can play on a bass but it will get you started.

 Download the free chord charts: bass-harmonics-chord-charts

 

Background

Natural harmonics are points on a bass string where an unusual, bell-like tone is produced if you lightly fret just above the fret itself and pluck the string. Jaco Pastorius opened the door for all bass players with his composition ‘A Portrait of Tracy’; a jaw-dropping piece of music written in 1976. That piece became the harmonics manual for all bass players from that point forward. Victor Wooten took it further years later with his pyrotechnical playing.

Notes on the Bass

Here's a chart for a 4 string bass showing all the harmonics up to the 12th fret. Notice that at frets 2 and 3 you have to play next to the fret to get the harmonic to ring and not directly over the fret as with the others. If you have a 2 pickup bass, solo the back pickup and also boost treble frequencies if you can. Harmonics ring out more on some basses than on others but you should be able to make a good sound with any bass.

 

Bass Harmonics Fretboard Diagram

It’s well worth learning the names of these notes.

Observations

  • At frets 4, 7 and 12, the harmonic produced is the same note as the fretted.
  • a major triad is produced if you play the harmonics in order from frets 5 to 4 to 3 across any string (e.g. On the G string, going from fret 5 to 4 to 3 you get G, B and D which is a G major triad)

Once you grasp the patterns and learn the notes you can then start making up some nice chords. If you know a little about chords and how they are formed you can really come up with some interesting harmony. By the way, there are also ‘artificial’ or ‘false’ harmonics where you can fret any note and then find the harmonic for that note further up the string. But more on that another time….

NOTE: It takes a little while to get used to the amount of pressure you need to apply to the fret to get a harmonic so take your time and be patient.

Sometimes you have to use one left-hand finger to hold two harmonics at once. Be patient with that technique and it will pay off.

Learn as many of these chords as you can and experiment with them in song endings, over the corresponding chords in songs, as part of a bass line or in your own solo piece. Here's a little improvisation in the key of G using some of these chords.


Download the free chord charts: bass-harmonics-chord-charts

 

September 20, 2019

February 8, 2019

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  • Since there is some notes inaccessible to harmonics, note choice is a big challege. Whether you choose to have a b3 or a b6 or be safe with a 5, its very hard to compose one. Thank you for making my life easier. Although im on D standard

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