Pinched harmonics—now, there’s a sparingly used technique that’ll add a little sonic seasoning to a guitar part. The distinctively squealing sound can range from subtle (see number four below) to screaming (number five), but in any case there’s no mistaking it.
Unlike natural harmonics, which can only be sounded at certain points, or nodes, on the fingerboard, pinched harmonics can be sounded on any note. It’s accomplished by lightly brushing the side of the picking-hand thumb against the string immediately after picking a note, which cancels the note’s fundamental frequency and leaves only the higher-pitched overtones ringing. Also—and this is important—the pitch character of a pinched harmonic varies according to where along the string the note is sounded—say, closer to the bridge, closer to the neck heel or right in the middle. With effects, vibrato and volume, the sound can be quite dramatic.
Anyway, that’s all very technical. Pinched harmonics are a metal staple, but you do hear plenty of other guitarists play them (where would Zakk Wylde be without pinched harmonics?). Below are ten great Fender-fueled songs in which noted guitarists use the technique to fine effect. Each one of them will more than do in a pinch.
1. “The Shape I’m In” (The Band, The Last Waltz)
For the Band’s sprawling 1978 soundtrack album The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson peppered 1970 stomper “The Shape I’m In” with pinched harmonics, stinging the audience with them during his always-tasteful fills and solos. Robertson has long been an avid practitioner of the technique, likely influenced by Roy Buchanan, with whom he shared guitar duties for several months during the early 1960s in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Have a look and a listen:
2. “The Messiah Will Come Again” (Roy Buchanan, Roy Buchanan)
Speaking of Buchanan, well, the eccentric Telecaster great with the otherworldly talent and tone was an acknowledged master of pinched harmonics. Although great examples abound in his remarkable catalog, it is perhaps nowhere more searingly evident than on “The Messiah Will Come Again” from his eponymous 1972 album.
3. “Walk on Hot Coals” (Rory Gallagher, Irish Tour ’74)
Emerald Isle virtuoso Rory Gallagher runs through a whole catalog of technique and dynamics on this fiery extended live version of “Walk on Hot Coals” from 1973 album Blueprint. At just under six minutes in and again just after nine minutes, Gallagher—always a dazzling performer—deftly works in a barrage of pinched harmonics so forceful and expressive that you might believe the guy actually was fire walking at the time.
4. “Mayonaise” (Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream)
The astute listener will note the breathless flurry of pinched harmonics Billy Corgan dashes off just over half a minute into the delicately phrased clean-Strat intro of “Mayonaise” from 1993 alt masterpiece Siamese Dream. A new kind of guitar hero for a new generation, Corgan fused diverse influences into a William-S.-Burroughs-meets-Tony-Iommi guitar style of his own that made unerringly effective use of an expansive array of techniques, including the occasional pinched harmonic. You can’t miss it:
5. “Comfortably Numb” (Pink Floyd, The Wall)
Of the two outstanding guitar solos in haunting 1979 Floyd hit “Comfortably Numb,” David Gilmour’s immaculately phrased outro solo is widely regarded as not only one of his greatest solos, but also one of rock’s greatest solos, period. And it starts with a single positively gigantic squealing pinched harmonic. Just one note. Magnificent. Gilmour—who will one day be on the Mount Rushmore of electric guitar—is just that expressive.
6. “Funky Mama” (Danny Gatton, 88 Elmira St.)
For his Grammy-nominated 1991 fifth album (but first for a major label), D.C. Telecaster phenom Gatton didn’t waste any time: movin’-groovin’ first track “Funky Mama” is spiked throughout with squealing pinched harmonics that jump out like sonic exclamation points on immaculately phrased solo sentences.
7. “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” (Jeff Beck, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball)
Back when Jeff Beck still played with a pick, he pinched with the best of ’em. Case in point: this spine-tingling 1981 Secret Policeman’s Other Ball rendition of “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” from 1975 classic Blow by Blow. Backed by friend and Yardbirds predecessor Eric Clapton, Beck slings a hot-rodded Telecaster to turn in a typically stunning performance in which he uses pinched harmonics sparingly but to enormously soulful effect.
8. “East Wes” (Eric Johnson, Ah Via Musicom)
Leave it to Texas virtuoso Eric Johnson to play a an entire section of a solo using nothing but pinched harmonics, as he does halfway through “East Wes” from 1990 tour de force Ah Via Musicom. His effortless command of the technique isn’t so surprising, really, because, well, he’s Eric Johnson. Get a close-up look at a live performance of “East Wes” in this 1988 Austin City Limits clip:
9. “I’ll See the Light Tonight” (Yngwie Malmsteen, Marching Out)
Yngwie Malmsteen—he of neo-classical gazillion-notes-per-second fame—is known to occasionally march out a pinched harmonic or two as part of his phenomenally dexterous arsenal of techniques. The notes go by at light speed, but see if you can catch the handful of pinched harmonics in this live performance of “I’ll See the Light Tonight” from his second album, 1985’s album Marching Out:
10. “Loaded” (ZZ Top, Rhythmeen)
No conversation about pinched harmonics is complete without giving Billy Gibbons his richly deserved due. The vast ZZ Top canon overflows with prominent pinched harmonics—just listen to the hard-tail ’55 Strat solo on “La Grange.” Or spin under-appreciated 1996 album Rhythmeen, on which the trio returned to heavy blues—and we mean heavy—with Gibbons reportedly using a Fender Esquire. As always, pinched harmonics are an elemental part of his eloquent vocabulary, as heard on “Loaded”: