A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away . . . .
Actually it was the mid 1970’s and a young bassist from Florida, Jaco Pastorius, released his first self-titled solo album that featured bass harmonics as a major part of composition and chord structure. Two tracks in particular, Portrait of Tracy shows the softer side of harmonics and Okonkole Y Trompa showing a creative use of harmonics creating almost arpeggiater style chords and rhythm to a song. Sure harmonics were nothing new as orchestral bassists had been bowing thems for hundreds of years and electric bassist’s had been using them for fast tuning and thickening up and decorating bass lines. But Jaco actually took these chime like noises and created some beautiful and innovative music with them. Now this isn’t a lesson on Jaco’s harmonic playing style, I will cover that extensively in a future column. This is the basics of easy to play bass harmonics, understanding what notes and scales you have at your disposal in standard EADG tuning and a couple of familiar little movie themes to play.
PART I UNDERSTANDING HOW HARMONICS WORK
Harmonics are created by lightly resting your finger on the string and plucking.
First and foremost harmonics do not work the same as fretted notes, harmonics come from equal divisions across the open strings. For example if you were to place your finger at the half way point (12th fret) and pluck any of the bass strings you will create a harmonic that is one octave higher than the open string. If you were to then to play halfway between the 12th fret and the nut (the 5th fret) you will create a harmonic 2 octaves higher than the open string, this would also be exactly the same harmonic as the 24th fret as that is the halfway point between the 12th fret and the bridge.
Some other examples are if you were to cut the string into 3 part (the 7th fret and the 19th fret) the harmonic will sound as a perfect 5th of the open string. If you were to cut the string into 5 parts (4th fret, 9th fret, 16th fret and in the area a 28th fret would be) you will create harmonics that are a major 3rd from the open string. Lets look at the these examples below. I have written the names of the notes, as you can see some of them are the same as the fretted note below, some are different.
You will see in the 3rd bar the harmonics on the 3rd and 2nd fret. There is actually a few harmonics that lie around this area be sure to hit the exact pitches as written
The 3rd fret harmonics are a division of the 5th fret, hence giving you a harmonic one octave above the perfect 5th you would create at the 7th fret. The second fret harmonic gives you a major second above the open string. These harmonics are difficult at first to get sounding right, PLUCK HARD and BARELY TOUCH THE STRING.
It is important to note there is a min7 and a also double octave harmonic in between the 3rd and 2nd fret harmonic. We will cover these in another column when I explain more complex harmonic chord structures and alternate tuning. For now lets just focus on the harmonics we can get to by roughly lining up with the frets. If you have a reverb pedal, the time has come to use that guy, this will make the harmonics shine. I also recommend a compressor for performance, however when practicing try not to rely to heavily on it as some harmonics chime louder than others and you want to get a good feel of the different dynamics in the different playing positions.
HARMONICS ACROSS THE FRET BOARD
If you were to play all the above harmonics above from lowest to highest you would end up with a pattern such as this. I have also included the regular notation/tab as a cross reference. You can’t actually play the 26th fret, unless you bend your 24th fret up a tone. on a standard bass it is just written in to give you an idea of comparison and how much range the harmonics have.
Now this isn’t scale, however 3 common complete modes in the key of D major can pulled from this array of notes. A Mixolydian, G Lydian and B Aeolian. There are also several Pentatonic scales and multiple arpeggio shapes but for the rest of this column lets just focus on these 3 modes.
PART II B AEOLIAN (MINOR) and the Skywalker theme music
This is your standard minor scale or 6th mode, below as before is the regular notes for you to cross reference the pitches. Notice how some harmonics sound louder than others. Practice an even dynamic as you play through this scale.
Once you have a good grasp of going up and back through the scale, start creating different patterns using the notes as you would if you played them normally. Here is an example of a simple classical inspired bass riff. Play the normal one first and familiarize yourself with the music then move on to the harmonic version.
Now we move on to STAR WARS inspired tunes, I have chosen 3 themes from the movies as they are well known and familiar melodies to play. We are going to use the harmonic B minor scale to play the Luke Skywalker theme music. Here it is in music, familiarize yourself with the melody.Now this time we are going to play that using harmonics. Note the 3rd fret harmonics aren’t anywhere near as clean as the 5th fret. To get it sounding smooth and clean you will need to back off your plucking on the 5th and pluck the 3rd fret harmonics a lot harder.
Congratulations, “You have taken your first step into a larger world.”
PART III A MIXOLYDIAN and the theme from STAR WARS
For this next set of exercises we are going to pull another mode from the available harmonics. This time it will be the 5th mode of the D major scale, A Mixolydian.
Now I have notated this for the sake of exercise and practicing a nice wide stretch between the 3rd and 7th frets. As you know tuning with harmonics the 5th fret is duplicated with the 7th fret harmonic on the string above. This means you can for example substitute your 7th fret harmonics on the G string with a 5th fret harmonic on the D string.
Now this time we are going to play something nice and easy, the main theme from STAR WARS first up play it regularly and familiarize yourself with the timing and the melody.
Now that you are confident try it playing it with harmonics.
Now as you may have heard in many bass solo pieces, harmonics can be grouped together to play some complex and interesting chords. Below is an example of a simple harmony based around the same STAR WARS theme. Now it is important to practice each chord and get a feel for the dynamic of the harmonic. Go slow with this one these can be a little difficult to wrap your head around at first.
“I am looking forward to completing your training”
PART IV G LYDIAN and the IMPERIAL MARCH
Now with this next exercise we will introduce a new harmonic technique but First familiarize your self with the G Lydian shape. Notice with this one there is a large jump from the root note on the 12th fret, practice slowly up and back and you will eventually find the quick shift quite natural.
The Imperial march is the classic Vader theme music. Now this is slightly difficult to play at first, familiarize yourself with the regular melody. Notice in the 4th bar the harmonic on the 4th fret. Now as there is no Bb harmonic on the bass we need to shorten our active string length. So we fret the 1st fret and then stretch across and play the harmonic at the 4th fret on the same string. What we looking for is an high Bb note, if you move your pinky around while fretting you will notice the same array of harmonics, just 1 semitone higher. I will discuss harmonics of this style in greater detail in future columns. These are difficult stretches to get used to at first.
“No more training do you require. Already know you, that which you need.”