Aug 192010

Clearly the harmonics that open the Yes classic “Roundabout” represent the most definitive use of harmonics in a rock song, but what’s the second-most definitive use of this device? There are a couple of instances of what sounds like an arpeggio of harmonics in my favorite Fleetwood Mac song, “Over My Head,” but I wouldn’t call this the second-most definitive use of harmonics in a rock song. One especially distinctive and definitive use of harmonics in a rock song comes to mind, but let’s see if you suggest it as rock’s second-most definitive use of said device…once and for all.


  47 Responses to “Once and For All: What’s the Second-Most Definitive Use of Harmonics in a Rock Song?”

  1. The first song that came to mind for me was “I Will Follow,” specifically the bridge. It’s so elementary, unlike the Yes song that goes into more heady stuff.

    The Edge kind of sounds, well, like a beginner who just found that he could make those sounds and wants to explore it for a while. (Note, I’m not really putting down the Edge because of this or doubting his guitar playing abilities.)

  2. Mr. Moderator

    That’s a good one, cher, maybe the best “modern” use of harmonics. There’s still one harmonics run that I think may top that one, but I’m sure there will be many contenders for this important #2 spot before this discussion reaches its conclusion.

  3. “Yes It Is”? Or is that doohicky just volume manipulation?

    E. Pluribus

  4. hrrundivbakshi

    Oh, come on. The obvious answer is “Dazed and Confused.”

    The third-most definitive use was in “Barracuda.”

  5. Mr. Moderator

    I thought that was volume pedal stuff, but I’m never clear on those tricks. I bet your oldest brother, EPG, can play the harmonic run that I have in mind as possibly the second-most definitive use of harmonics in a rock song. I bet he can play it in his sleep!

  6. Mr. Moderator

    Good ones, HVB, and I’d say they might push the lick I had out of contention for this all-important #2 spot. Here’s what I had in mind: the little harmonics run that follows some line in “Sweet Home Alabama.” I guess that’s not as definitive as your examples, but who’s to say you’ve settled this…once and for all?

  7. The beginning bit in I Found That Essence Rare by Go4, pretty definitive for me anyway.

  8. BigSteve

    The first one that came to mind was the opening of Junior’s Mama Used To Say, but I know that’s not definitive.

    How about the opening of Cheap Trick’s Clock Strikes Ten?

  9. “Clock Strikes Ten” Very Good.
    Also Rush “Red Barchetta”.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    I forgot that the opening of “I Found That Essence Rare” was done on harmonics. Good one, but I’m not sure if it’s worthy of the #2 spot. We’re talking about a use of harmonics in a rock song that would teach future generations of guitar players what harmonics is and how easily their use can impress friends. Maybe this is a contender, because it was a good trick to know in our time.

    Should I know the song “Clock Strikes Ten”? The title is not familiar, same for the Rush number suggested by k. I’m not sure the second-most definitive use of harmonics can appear in any band’s deep cuts.

  11. mockcarr

    First one that I thought of was at end of George’s solo in Nowhere Man.

  12. Mr. Moderator

    That’s a good one, mockcarr. Isn’t the feedback in “I Feel Fine” initiated by use of a harmonic? Hendrix kicks of “Stone Free” with a similar harmonic, right? I’d say none of these make the #2 spot, but they’re good ones.

    There must be some more challengers to the leading candidates, including “Dazed and Confused” and “Barracuda.”

  13. “Nowhere Man” was the first thing that came to my mind. It’s a doozy. Give it up for “For What It’s Worth” by the Springfield.


  14. Mr. Moderator

    Oh man, I think “For What It’s Worth” has vaulted over “Dazed and Confused.” What do you think?

  15. I’m voting for Clock Strikes 10 as well.

    All of the other examples are of someone taking a harmonic and writing a riff around it. In Clock Strikes 10, Rick Nilson takes a well known riff and recreates it with harmonics, which I think is tougher to do.

    It’s also the only one of the examples that you can whistle. The others examples really just add “atmosphere” to their songs.

  16. mockcarr

    I always thought there were harmonics in the opening of Big Star’s When My Baby’s Beside Me, but I guess it could be another guitar just echoing things up higher.

  17. ladymisskirroyale

    Um, hi there Guitar Gods. Could you explain to this complete novice how you create harmonics? And what exactly they are?

  18. BigSteve

    There are certain points on a guitar string where you can create a kind of chiming sound by just touching the sting while it’s plucked instead of fretting it. Does that make sense?

  19. BigSteve

    Mod, on Clock Strikes Ten Nielsen plays that little eight-note melody that plays before a clock strikes the number of times that indicate the hour. What is that melody called anyway?

  20. Full Disclosure: I’m no Guitar God

    1. Place a finger of your fretting hand lightly on a string, touching the string but not pressing all the way down to the fret board.

    2. String the string with a pick as you would normally and at the same time, remove the finger that is touching the string.

    3. Enjoy the satisfying “Bing” noise.

    This can be helpful when tuning a guitar by ear if you hit a harmonic on the 5th fret of one string and the 7th fret of the string right below it (except for the B string).

    A false harmonic is a cool sound too. There, you hold down the string normally with your fretting hand. With your picking hand, you hit the string with the pick and immediately/simultaneously hit it with the thumb that you are using to hold the pick. You know the sound, even if you don’t know it by name. I’m drawing a blank on examples right now, except for one particular guitar player who does it a lot but who’s style I hate so I won’t mention him.

  21. Oops! #2 above should read “STRUM the string…

  22. Mr. Moderator

    Man, I really have little taste for Cheap Trick. I just checked out that “Clock Strikes Ten” song. I don’t think I’d ever heard it before. It’s thoroughly mediocre, and you mean to tell me a few of you find the harmonics in that song more definitive than “Dazed and Confused,” “I Found That Essence Rare,” “Barracuda,” and “For What It’s Worth”??? I don’t get that band – and I know I made the mistake of watching a video of them playing it live at Budakan. Just seeing Rick Neilsen clown around during songs bums me out.

    Anyhow…so those of you who are willing to suggest that the harmonics in “Clock Strikes Ten” is rock’s second-most definitive use of harmonics are telling me that this bit of harmonics is a defining moment for you, the sort of part that made you want to figure out how to play along? I’m just asking for a reality check because I have so much trouble grasping the wonders of this throwaway Cheap Trick number. I love you all, don’t get me wrong…

    ladymiss, harmonics on a guitar are created by lightly resting your finger on a string, above a fret, and then plucking the string while simultaneously lifting that finger. Here’s a good instructional video, if you want to try it at home:

    There’s also a cool style that the Lynyrd Skynyrd guys and The Band’s Robbie Robertson (among many others, I’m sure) employed in which they pick notes fully while also getting the harmonics by using their pick-hand thumb to brush the string an octave up the fretboard from the fretted note. I wish I could find a really clear example of a guitarist doing this, so you could see the technique, but here’s Robbie Robertson doing it on his solo in “It Makes No Difference.” Go to the 3:13 mark or so, for the little guitar solo, which consists almost entirely of notes played with this technique:

    If I ever get around to practicing guitar, this is a trick I’d love to learn and abuse!

  23. The reason I nominated “For What It’s Worth” is beacuse it defines the song. It’s the song’s main riff. In “Barracuda,” it’s used more for effect. Of course, “Dazed and Confused” is up there. I just don’t think there is anybody who could here those harmonics from “Worth” and not recognize the song.


  24. *hear those harmonics…You knew what I meant…


  25. Couple things:
    – I’m not suggesting that Clock Strikes 10 is the second best use of harmonics; I’m saying that it is the number one best use of them.

    – I’m not all that crazy about the song itself. It’s okay, but not nearly as good as the harmonics themselves.

    – False harmonics are pretty easy to do. You should take another crack at them.

  26. And the Band is a great example of the technique although you posted the wrong link.

    Here it is:

  27. Totally with Mr. Mod on Cheap Trick, don’t get ’em, never will.

  28. GREAT! Now that stupid mommy’s alright song is stuck in my head. Thanks a lot RTH!

  29. Mr. Moderator

    cdm wrote:

    I’m not suggesting that Clock Strikes 10 is the second best use of harmonics; I’m saying that it is the number one best use of them.

    OK, in that case your nomination is disqualified. We’re specifically seeking rock’s second-most definitive use of this device. That said, thanks for correcting my link, man!

  30. BigSteve

    It’s too late for y’all to get Cheap Trick, but, as with Herman’s Hermits, they’re a great example of the ‘listen but don’t look’ principle.

  31. buddy whelan

    there is another YES song that uses harmonics for the main riff on both the bass & guitar (The Fish) in 7/4 time. too obscure to be a nomination

  32. alexmagic

    Mod, on Clock Strikes Ten Nielsen plays that little eight-note melody that plays before a clock strikes the number of times that indicate the hour. What is that melody called anyway?

    The Westminster Quarters. Which would be a good name if anyone wants to start up a band that does covers of songs like Winchester Cathedral and I’m Henry The VIII I Am.

  33. The Westminster chimes part is what really makes the song so it seems a worthy entrant. “For What it’s Worth” is probably better. That harmonic note was sampled in a Public Enemy song and it was totally recognizable even there.

    The harmonic part of “Red Barchetta” is just something I learned on guitar very early and it has always stuck with me. Probably not definitive.

  34. ladymisskirroyale

    The Westminster chimes are also the sound of Big Ben, I believe.

    Thank you for all the instructional info. It really helps! I play the piano know what certain harmonic chords are, so I’m guessing that this is the stringed instrument equivalent of striking 2 notes or intervals between notes at once (sort of?)

    Alright, check my technique here. How about the opening notes of Radiohead’s House of Cards?

  35. Only in my mind, David Sylvian’s “When Poets Dreamed Of Angels” is a contender:

  36. pudman13

    Best use ever is the Feelies’ “Loveless Love.” Period.

  37. ladymisskirroyale

    What is the difference in the sound you get from the harmonics technique and the sound you get from slightly bending the string?

    Nice David Sylvian, Cher.

  38. Hmmm, this would be simple to demonstrate but it’s kind of tough to describe.

    When you bend a string, you’re still hitting the actual note. The sound you hear is a single guitar note that is gradually going up in pitch.

    When you hit a harmonic, it’s almost like you’re just hearing some of the ringing tones but not the actual note itself. Sort of like if you turned the reverb effect all the way up on a guitar track so that you didn’t hear the actual notes, you only heard the tones reflected by the reverb.

    Although I’ve been plying guitar for coming up on 30 years, I don’t know much about theory so I’m not sure if that explanation is coherent or technically accurate but it makes sense to me.

    I think that you’re supposed to be able to hit harmonics anywhere on the neck if you do it right but I’ve never had success anywhere but the 5th, 7th and 12th frets for some reason (quite possibly my ham fisted technique).

    If you hear what you think is a harmonic and it’s bending, one of two things is likely happening:

    1. it’s harmonics and the guitarist is using a tremolo bar, OR

    2. it’s a false harmonic as previously described, and as used by Robbie Robertson throughout the lead in It Makes No Difference.

  39. Portions for Foxes by Rilo Kiley has a good example of regular harmonics in the beginning too, although not definitive. That honor goes to Cheap Trick.

  40. ladymisskirroyale

    Thanks, cdm, that was very, very helpful!

    I just showed this post to Mr. Royale, who mentioned that Bill Frisell is really well-versed at making harmonics. I like his version of Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me,” in which I can clearly hear the bell tones.

  41. alexmagic

    Cher mentioned “I Will Follow”, a good one, but I’m assuming Edge is pulling the same move on “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, that ringing bit right when the song gets ready to shift into its last quarter. That would be a real contender.

    But, if we accept for the spirit of the thread that Roundabout can’t be moved out of the #1 spot, it has to be “For What It’s Worth”. You only need to hear one of those chimes to instantly know the song, and as K pointed out, Public Enemy sampled and knew it was so recognizable that they had to bring in Stills himself to re-sing a verse to acknowledge that pretty much everybody hearing “He Got Game” would instantly go to FWIW.

    The Flava Flav/Stephen Stills team-up definitely should have come up in that Odd Couples thread from last week.

  42. ladymisskirroyale

    I’m agreeing with alexmagic…those opening notes are iconic.

  43. Mr. Moderator

    I, too, am in the “For What It’s Worth” camp. We’ll see if any more contenders enter the discussion, then we can put it to The People…once and for all.

  44. trigmogigmo

    Although it may be insufficiently blatant to qualify as definitive, I submit Andy Summers’ harmonics between 2:08 and 2:10 in “Message in a Bottle”, just before the 3rd verse launches.

  45. If you’re talking DEFINITIVE use, I don’t think “For What It’s Worth” can be beat. I’d even put it ABOVE “Roundabout”, but that’s just because I think it’s a better song, and I find Yes silly & wanky.

  46. bostonhistorian

    I’m thinking “Clock Strikes Ten”, if only because it fulfills Chuck Berry’s claim that someone can “play a guitar, just like ringin’ a bell”.

    “For What It’s Worth” is epic, however, so you couldn’t go wrong with either one.

  47. Mr. Moderator

    It has been determined…once and for all: Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” includes the second-most definitive use of harmonics in a rock song.

    Thank you, Townspeople, for your help in determining the answer to this long-debated question.

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