Fiddling with Harmonics

Fiddling Harmonics, not Just a Trick

The trick of fiddling  harmonics is common enough, but nowhere is it used more than in the third time through Whistler’s Waltz. We’ll get to that. Let’s start by saying what the harmonic is.

There is a physical property of the vibrating string called the node. That’s a place on the string at whole number divisions where a secondary vibration is started. You find these nodes at the one half, one third, one fourth and one fifth spots, especially. Although the one fifth spot is more often the two fifths spot.

Harmonic Nodes shown with wave forms
Harmonic Nodes shown with wave forms

Look at the length of string between the nut, the little piece of wood that the strings go over from the peg box, to the bridge. That would be the vibrating part of the string. If you find the exact spot at one half the length of the string, you have your first, most common harmonic placement. It plays a note that is one octave higher than the open string.

The most common example of this note, and fiddling harmonics  generally, is found in tunes where you use this harmonic on the E string. Gray Eagle, Ostenelli’s Reel, Limerock, Herman’s Rag, these are tunes that come to mind immediately for use of this harmonic.

Clearly, you have to move your hand up the neck to play the harmonic. Going up the neck with the third finger stretched and very lightly touching the string, you find the harmonic spot about the same time your palm touches the body of the violin.

Light Touch When Fiddling Harmonics

The light touch is the main thing beginners miss. They press too hard and mute the harmonic. It  will ring like a bell when your finger lightly touches the right spot. Here’s how to zero in on the right spot.

You can see where half way is on the length of the string. That’s the general area. You slide your finger, did I mention very lightly?, over that spot up and down. At one tiny place the harmonic will ring out. Go further up the neck, just a few millimeters, and the sound is lost. go just a little down the neck from the exact spot and the sound is not good. It’s very fussy. But it’s also very clear. It’s a learned skill.

It’s called a hard skill. You have to do it the same way each time or you get no success. I wrote about this in The Little Book of Talent post.

Other Harmonics on the Fiddle

There are other useful harmonics, too. I cited Whistler’s Waltz at the beginning. It typically used the harmonics at the one third and one fourth spots. These can be reached in first position.

For the one third node, use your fourth finger, again very lightly, (I know you’re tired of hearing this nag, but I have to inflict it upon my students). If you used the hard finger pressure to produce a normal note it would be the next adjacent string higher. In other words, when you use the fourth finger on the A string you get the same pitch as the E string. If you get the harmonic you will hear an E note that is the same pitch as the octave harmonic E on the E string.

By the way, that is a tuning pitch if you want to use it that way. Let’s suppose your A string is perfectly tuned by ear to a tuning fork that produces the pitch of 432Hz. (Heh-heh) You can play the harmonic with the fourth finger, and then play the octave harmonic with which ever finger you are use to, going up the neck. They should have exactly the same pitch. If the pitch on the E string is higher or lower, you can change the pitch with your fine tuner.

Players in the groups I play in see me tuning this way frequently. No one asks me about it. So, maybe it’s best to avoid this, being a totally arcane subject..

I was reluctant to use this method to tune until I heard the bass player from the Florida Orchestra, in a concert hall with a hammered dulcimer player, (the instrument was hammered, not the player). He played harmonics on each string, matching the pitch. It was so clear! It just rang in the hall. Well, if it’s good for him, it’s good for me.

The next harmonic is at the one fourth node. In first position you can get it with your third finger, playing where it normally plays. OK, a quick quiz. How hard do you want to press this finger? (You know the answer.)

Using Harmonics in Whistler’s Waltz

This should yield a pitch two octaves higher than the open string. That’s very high for a fiddle note isn’t it? And yet, that note is often used by fiddlers playing Whistler’s waltz. They will play the fourth and third fingers at the harmonic nodes, most often on the D and A strings to get the combination of sounds they want.

When I play this waltz I also utilize the one fifth, and two fifths spots. They play the same note. It’s two octaves and a third above the open string. On the D string it plays a very high F sharp. And that’s the note I’m looking for when I go for it. When I first came up with this idea, it just didn’t happen. Too tricky. Thanks to serious practice method, I get it more often than not. It’s available on the D string where you normally play your 2nd finger.  Also in third position where you play your third finger, and maybe it sounds more readily there. Put all this together and it’s definitely a hot lick for Whistler’s Waltz.

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