Derek Bailey Style Chords with Harmonics

I've been revisiting some Derek Bailey recordings lately and realised I never really worked on one of his most distinctive sounds: combining normal fretted notes with natural harmonics. These fascinating effects can be harsh, percussive or shimmeringly beautiful, and the technique can be applied outside Bailey's own very idiosyncratic style.

Here's DB doing his thing, in case you're not aware of him:

His approach is uncompromising but there's nothing haphazard going on here even if, at first, it might seem random. Bailey was in full control of these sounds and played them with great consistency.

Bailey started off playing jazz, Freddie Green style, but moved away from that music almost entirely to embrace classical and avant garde music. I think I still hear a bit of Green in his playing sometimes, but it's probably an illusion; the only procedural thing he kept from jazz, as far as I can tell, is the practice of improvisation. His musical world is much closer to Anton Webern's:

One of his influences in choosing the particular sound we're looking at today must surely have been Cage's prepared piano pieces; some of the sounds there are very similar:

You can read more about Bailey here, here and here (and in many other places).

Note on Setup

I'm going to assume you know how to produce natural harmonics on guitar -- if not there are lots of videos about that. High harmonics are easier to produce if you have:

  • A hard pick;
  • A bright pickup such as a bridge humbucker;
  • Minimal high-end rolloff in your signal chain (a buffer might help here);
  • Action that isn't absurdly low.

An acoustic guitar works fine (steel strings tuned down a semitone help, nylon is harder but do-able).

In a completely different style from Bailey, the contemporary master of guitar harmonics is surely Mattias IA Eklundh, who has numerous videos demonstrating his approach. Here's an example:

Plenty of sounds there that Bailey would have enjoyed, I think, and a useful reference for the folks who prefer a high-gain sound. I can't do what he does so won't comment much on it, but I suspect his setup is important to making what he does feasible. As well as lots of practice of course. Experiment!

Re-learning the Fretboard

Many guitar players know about harmonics but use them only as "special effects", without always being aware of which notes they produce. To use them chordally, we're going to need to re-learn our fingerboard, memorizing the notes in the available harmonics. Fortunately there isn't much to learn, at least until you want to get into the extreme high register (which we won't do here).

First, note that all harmonics repeat above the 12th fret in the same way normal notes do, but the higher ones also repeat in other places.

The 12th and 5th (17th) fret harmonics are easy: they're the same as the open strings. For the sake of brevity, I'll say here that two notes are "the same" if they have the same letter name, although often they'll different by one or more octaves -- in this case the 12th fret harmonics match the 12th fret notes (1 octave above open) while the 5th (17th) fret ones are 2 octaves above open.

The 7th (19th) fret harmonics match the fretted notes there: BF#DAEB high to low. [An earlier version of this post had the wrong notes here -- thanks to Dharma for the correction!].

The next easiest to produce are the ones at the 4th (16th) and 9th (21st) frets, which very approximately match the fretted notes at the 4th: G#C#F#BD#G# high to low. But we've already gone too high up the harmonic series for these notes to match up with equal temperament; they are off by a significant factor and will sound out of tune in a tonal context.

That doesn't stop us using them, though. Bailey loved these sounds: they create a weird shimmer that can sound almost unpitched, like a sizzling ride cymbal.

There may be even higher (and more out-of-tune) harmonics available, depending on your setup. You can probably find some between the 4th and 3rd frets, and in the corresponding places elsewhere on the fretboard. But I won't include those in this post (maybe in the future).

Semitone Combinations

To me the quintessential Bailey sound involving harmonics is to play a chord made up of one or more harmonics and one or more fretted notes. Because of the music he was attracted to, these are usually chosen to produce extremely dissonant intervals: minor seconds, major sevenths, minor ninths and so on are especially characteristic. This section gives some examples -- they're the only ones I've made diagrams for so far, and they're enough for me to be getting on with for now.

You may need to work on plucking different strings with different amounts of attack. Harmonics generally need to be picked harder than regular notes so they can get swamped by the regular note if you hit both with the same force. This is a good thing to work on anyway as it's essential to good voicing in fingerstyle guitar (including classical, folk-style, hybrid picking etc).

Please note that these are sounds I've found and I'm crediting Bailey for having influenced me to find them. They sound to me like things he would use but they're not based on any transcription and don't represent an analysis of his approach. They're just resources I think are interesting that his playing inspired me to seek out.

Each of the following is a harmonic plus a normal note separated by a semitone plus one or more octaves. Each diamond represents the harmonic and each circle is a fretted note. Play the diamond + circle of matching colours simultaneously to get the sound.

In each case it says "b9" if the harmonic is a semitone + some octaves above the fretted note and "7" if the harmonic is a semitone below (+ some octaves). I think this is the easiest way for me to think about these structures -- I think of the fretted note as a temporary "root note" and the harmonic as something that "decorates" it. Of course this is just a suggestion.

12th Fret Harmonics

7th Fret Harmonics

5th Fret Harmonics

4th Fret Harmonics

9th Fret Harmonics

(NB these are the same notes as the 4th fret harmonics, but their location on the figerboard makes different fingerings possible).