There is something quite magical and unique about the overtone series. As musicians, when we look at it from a mathematical and theoretical perspective, it gives us idea of how much more infinitely complex and beautiful musical tones really are. Even with something as common as a four string bass guitar, each individual partial adds a layer of color much deeper than what is heard on the surface. For those readers who are not readily familiar with what I am talking about, harmonics are the sounds with which we experience this wonderful phenomenon.
There is nothing quite like the beautiful chimes we use for both tuning and adding beauty/range to our chords and melodies. When you first learn how to play, you start by learning the basic and easiest to find harmonics, in many times just as a quest to get in tune.
In this edition of BMM, I wanted not only to discuss some techniques to achieve what is commonly called “false harmonics”, but also to show some musical applications for the exercises ahead.
Let me start off by saying that the term “false” when referring to these tones does not make much sense. They occur naturally in the overtone series, but the difference is that they require fretting and specific location playing to have them come to life. For the novice bassists who have yet to hear these wondrous tones, I suggest hearing Jaco Pastorius’ famous intro to Teen Town. The Bass Extremes duo of Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey are notorious for including them in their repertoire and the Metal/Hard Rock world has had false harmonics as a staple sound for decades among guitarists. The high pitch bent squeal, implemented by countless shredders, is just one of many ways these notes have come to life. Subjectively, as an opinion of the author based on my adolescence, I have a soft spot in my heart for the art of heavy sound and energy. But having bass guitar as my true voice, lush and less aggressive tones suite these techniques best.
As a former bass instructor, when the topic of false harmonics came up, students with the well-known technique of Pinching frequently approached me. This was usually the direct result of seeing guitarists, as well as the great Jaco Pastorius perform his awesome feats. And while Master Jaco had it down cold and made it work for him, in my experience I have come across some techniques that allow for the false harmonic to not only to be played easier, but more accurately with more sustain, and range.
Which leads us to our first example.
This is the technique I like to call the STEVE BAILEY TECHNIQUE. Mr. Bailey is the famous counterpart to Victor Wooten in the Bass Extremes duo from the 90’s and early 2000’s. He is also a successful sideman and solo artist with a signature 6-string made by Fender.
The technique for the most part is pretty simple, and consists of you first fretting a note with your right index finger placed a perfect octave above the intended note. For example, if you are playing a D on the G string (7th fret), you place your right index finger gently above the 19th fret perpendicular to the strings. This should then be followed by your ring finger plucking the string quickly while simultaneously sliding your index finger off it in order to allow the note to ring out with sustain and fullness.
I always mention this technique first because it gives some major advantages over the pinching technique. To elaborate, it allows the players hand to stay in position to pluck again almost instantly after playing the harmonic, with no need to re adjust. Secondly, It allows a much greater rate of accuracy when playing the note. Many times pinching cuts the sustain of the note and makes the striking surface smaller. Nails can also sound quite un-desirable and reduce the purity of the tone in recordings. Thirdly, this technique allows you to play chords made up of false harmonics, just as quickly as if you would they had strummed a natural chord.
The Second technique I want to discuss is one that I can’t really cite any other bass players as currently using to my knowledge, (If anyone can find someone who does please let me know, I love seeing what people are doing out there). It is what I like to call HARP MOTION harmonics. Guitarists in the jazz idiom have been known to use it, as well as some rock and acoustic musicians. The best example of a true master of the technique is a man by the name of Tommy Emmanuel. For those of you who do not know this man, I highly suggest you get familiarized.
This technique takes more practice but is both lush and beautiful sounding, making it really worth the time and effort.
It starts off the same as the Steve Bailey technique but instead of having the index finger perpendicular to the strings you will position your index finger parallel.
Once you have accurately placed your index, you must pluck with the thumb. Then an alternation of your thumb and ring finger (being used to pluck the non harmonic notes) should be practiced to increase ease of the flow.
I hope the video helps everyone and I wish everyone the best of luck in their endeavors. These exercises take some time, so be patient, and I know you guys can pull it off!