Pinch harmonics are a staple technique for lead guitar players. For most bassists, on the other hand, it is a technique that is rarely even considered.
This makes sense, as pinch harmonics are great for creating power and rawness. However, they are not that great when trying to hold down a groove and rhythm of a song.
But can you do pinch harmonics on a bass guitar, and how would it sound? I’ve experimented with the technique in the past and did some additional research for the sake of writing this article. Thus, you are about to learn all you need to know about this technique as a bassist.
You will learn what pinch harmonics sound like on the bass, and how they can be utilized in different ways. I will also show you some examples of bassists that have used the technique, and how to perform the technique both as a fingerstyle and as a pick player.
Can you do pinch harmonics on a bass guitar?
It is possible to play pinch harmonics on the bass guitar, just like on the electric guitar. Pinch harmonics can be played with both a pick or with your fingers and are more pronounced when played with distortion or overdrive.
Pinch harmonics are commonly associated with rock and metal guitarists. In these genres guitarists tend to apply distortion and overdrive, resulting in pinch harmonics having a squealing character.
The bass guitar is capable of producing a similar type of sound. When adding distortion the sound of a pinch harmonic played on the bass can even be difficult to distinguish from that of the guitar.
Related reading: 5 reasons why learning bass will make you a better guitarist
The most noteworthy bassists to make use of pinch harmonics are Billy Sheehan and Jaco Pastorius.
Sheehan often adds distortion to his bass and uses it as a lead instrument. As a result, his use of artificial harmonics is similar to that of electric guitar players.
Jaco, on the other hand, played pinch harmonics on his bass of doom in a less traditional way. He developed a unique style without the use of distortion. As a result, he used pinch harmonics more for the sake of beauty and melody, than for power and rawness.
Pinch harmonics are a difficult technique to perform with consistency and clarity. Therefore, I recommend listening to these two bassists, as they are great examples of how to apply the technique consistently in different musical settings.
How do you play pinch harmonics on the bass?
Pinch harmonics are played on the bass by creating a node with your picking hand when you pluck a string. When plucking use your thumb or a separate finger to lightly touch the string and then move it away without muting the string to produce the harmonic.
If you are playing bass with a pick, you can play a pinch harmonic the same way a guitarist would. A common way to do this is to use your thumb to gently tap the string as you pluck it. You can also use your index finger by moving your picking hand to a slightly different position.
If you are a fingerstyle player, you can use your nails, your thumb, or any other one of your fingers to create the node. Personally, I use my thumb and pluck the string with my index finger. When doing this the thumb rests close to the string that I`m playing.
The best place to pluck the string for a resonant pinch harmonic depends on which note you are playing. Thus, you want to experiment and find the best place to pluck them on your particular bass.
Once I`ve found where the harmonic should be plucked, I find it helpful to associate the spot with something on the body of my bass. It’s easier to remember to play “right above the bridge pickup”, or “right in between the pickups”, rather than remembering how far down the string I’m plucking.
Below is an example of Billy Sheehan playing pinch harmonics. Notice his left-hand technique, and how he is plucking right below the bridge pickup:
Also, I find pinch harmonics easier to perform on the thinner strings of my bass. I am able to produce them much more consistently on the G string of my 4-string, rather than on the E.
If you are playing with a pick, thinner picks can also make this a more difficult technique to perform. Thus I recommend using a thicker one (1.14mm worked well for me) if you are having trouble producing pinched harmonics consistently.
Can you do pinch harmonics on any fret on the bass?
It is possible to do pinch harmonics on any fret of the bass guitar. However, the technique can be more demanding at certain frets and different tunings. Pinch harmonics are also generally easier to perform on lighter strings.
Pinch harmonics are fundamentally artificial harmonics. When playing an artificial harmonic you are creating a node instead of solely relying on a fret to produce the correct pitch.
This is not to be confused with natural harmonics. Natural harmonics can be done on any fret too, but tend to be more resonant at certain frets, such as the 12th, 7th, or 5th.
In the case of pinch harmonics, the challenge lies in finding where you need to pick the string and create the node.
For example, you could fret the 15th fret of your G string for an A# harmonic. Then produce a pinch harmonic by plucking the string slightly below your fretboard. Aim at where your 27th fret would have been, as this is the octave for the G and produces an artificial harmonic.
This is an intuitive example and is among the easier picked harmonics to perform. In other cases, it will be harder to pinpoint where the string needs to be plucked. Thus, you will need to spend more time finding the spot and picking it consistently.
Pinch harmonics don’t fit in very well with bass players` traditional role of providing groove and rhythm. Thus, for most bassists, it is a technique best used sparingly or not at all.
However, bass players with more of a melodic lead style like Sheehan and Pastorius have used the technique to great effect. If you are a bass player that takes on more of a lead role, especially in rock or metal, pinch harmonics could add a lot of flavor to your style.
Pinch harmonics can be done on any string and at any fret but will vary in difficulty. Overall, it is a technique that requires a good bit of practice to perform consistently. This is because it requires precise control of your plucking hand. It is also because you need to find out where individual harmonics need to be plucked.
Doing just a couple of pinch harmonics during a show is guaranteed to put the attention on you. Thus, if you do stick with practicing the technique you will have a great tool for standing out as a bassist.
Are you looking to play the bass more like a lead instrument? In that case, the best place to start is by adding more melody to your basslines. To learn more, read my article on these 9 Helpful tips for creating melodic bass lines.