Ukulele Harmonics

Harmonics are a big part of Hawaiian lap steel playing where they’re referred to as ‘chimes’ because of their bright ping sound (hence tunes such as Maui Chimes). Unfortunately, because of the short scale length, they’re much harder to produce on the ukulele.

Natural Harmonics

You produce a harmonic by touching the string only very lightly. So that if you moved your finger a tiny amount, you wouldn’t be touching the string at all. Like this:

ukulele harmonic

The easiest place to play a harmonic is at the 12th fret. You have to position your finger directly over the fret bar itself rather than between the frets as you’d usually do. Pluck that harmonic and listen to what you hear. If you’ve got everything right, you should hear a bright ping that rings out and it should have the pitch of the string played at the 12th fret. If you hear a dull click, you’re pressing down too hard. If you hear just an open string, you’re not touching the string. If you hear something out of tune that dies away quickly, you’re not directly over the fret.

Playing all the strings in succession should sound like this:

 
MP3

You can also play this by barring across at the 12th fret and touching the string with the side of your finger.

harmonics on ukulele

As well as playing harmonics at the 12th, they can also be found at the seventh fret (where they sound 19 frets higher than the open string).

 
MP3

And at the fifth fret (where they’re 24 frets/2 octaves higher than the open string).

 
MP3

As you can tell from my rather dodgy attempt, these harmonics are very hard to get right on the uke.

Harmonics in Tab

Natural harmonics are tabbed by having a little diamond next to the fret number.

tab harmonics

Artificial Harmonics

I know what you’re thinking, “Easy peasy, lemon squeezey. Give me a challenge.” Fair enough.

With artificial harmonics you fret a note as usual and play a harmonic. To do this, you have to produce a harmonic by pointing with your index finger and picking the note.

artificial harmonic

I like to pick with my ring finger, but the middle finger or thumb work just as well.

You fret the note and play the harmonic 12 frets above it (or 5 or 7).

 
MP3

In this sequence I play the open C string with the harmonic at the 12th fret. Then fret at the 2nd fret and play the harmonic at the 14th fret. Then finger the fourth fret and play the harmonic at the sixteenth.

artificial harmonics tab

Artificial harmonics are tabbed by showing the fret played and the note produced underneath the tab. All these are have harmonics 12 frets higher than the fretted notes.

You can use this build up entire chords with harmonics.

 
MP3

Again, with all these you play the harmonic 12 frets higher than the fretted note.

Once you’ve got the hang of all these and have a load of time on your hands, you can work out how to play tunes using harmonics. Here’s my attempt:

  http://ukulelehunt.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/silentn.mp3[p/odcast]
Silent Night (MP3)

And if you want tab for that, you’ll have to wait until Christmas.

View Comments

19 Comments

  1. Minamin September 10th, 2008 9:31 pm

    Thanks a lot Al! You answered all my questions about harmonics in the first five sentences, then raised some more questions and answered those as well. Good stuff.

  2. amber September 11th, 2008 7:14 am

    Isn’t there one around the 15th fret too? For those who have more than 12, anyway. I can’t seem to find it, but I was sure there was one past the 12th somewhere.

  3. Ed September 11th, 2008 5:24 pm

    i play the double bass and the harmonies on that are unbelievable. There’s just so many because of the huge fingerboard. So the ukulele harmonies seem a little limited to me.

  4. Woodshed September 11th, 2008 7:20 pm

    Min: I’m glad it made sense to you.

    amber: I think, technically speaking, there’s one at the 14.7 fret. But if you can play it, you’re way more accurate than I am.

    Ed: Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. They are.

  5. zymeck September 12th, 2008 12:42 pm

    @Ed

    Wow – how do you switch from the Double Bass to the Uke without going mental!
    Do you have extendable/retractable fingers?

  6. Cardboardfrog September 12th, 2008 5:59 pm

    you’d be surprise how easy it is after the first week to transition between double bass and uke

  7. Essential Snippits: Amuse Your Friends | Ukulele Hunt July 17th, 2010 10:14 am

    [...] one uses harmonics but it works fine playing the same thing without them. It just won’t sound so [...]

  8. Ollie December 29th, 2010 11:08 am

    Thanks so much! The nicest thing about learning uke after guitar is it helps you practice up on vital guitar skills like this one.

  9. Woodshed January 1st, 2011 12:11 pm

    Ollie: You’re welcome!

  10. seamus4string November 13th, 2012 6:40 pm

    that’s just nifty

  11. Clark November 20th, 2012 5:54 am

    How do you do artificial harmonics? I couldn’t quite understand it. How can you play a harmonic on an open note? A video tutorial would help a lot.

  12. Michael May 19th, 2013 2:31 am

    This was an interesting lesson. Unfortunately, artificial harmonics won’t work on soprano ukes, since they have only 12 frets. Rats!

  13. Woodshed May 19th, 2013 10:17 am

    Michael: They’ll still work if you can figure out where the higher frets would be.

  14. Michael May 22nd, 2013 5:17 am

    Thanks for the suggestion, Woodshed. it’s a little tricky, but I’ve managed to create artificial harmonics up to the third fret.

  15. Woodshed May 22nd, 2013 11:24 am

    Michael: Well done! It certainly is tricky without frets to guide you.

  16. Jad December 6th, 2013 3:39 am

    Thanks for the help with harmonics, i have even managed to create artificial harmonics on my soprano ukulele after not even a week.

  17. Woodshed December 6th, 2013 12:25 pm

    Jad: Well done! Glad I could help.

  18. Ondrej January 28th, 2014 11:20 am

    I enclose a video how to use Artificial Harmonics on the ukulele.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpxGz4Jq7RE

  19. Woodshed January 29th, 2014 11:17 am

    Ondrej: Thanks for the link.

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