Introducing bubble harmonics, a new guitar technique inspired by EVH and Alan Gogoll, pioneered by Atlanta guitarist Donn Aaron

The guitar teaching industrial complex looks to have pretty much everything covered, from the rudiments for the beginner to frontier techniques for the expert, and so it can feel like the matter of guitar technique is settled.

But every now and then someone comes along and finds a new angle on the guitar, reminding us that our journey with this instrument is far from done; like Donn Aaron, a guitarist out of Atlanta, Georgia, and long-time reader of Guitar World.

He has invented a new technique he calls bubble harmonics. As to how it sounds, the clue is in the name. When Aaron demonstrates bubble harmonics in his solo instrumental, Star Castle, it sounds like there’s delay – his electric guitar almost synthetic, aquatic and ethereal. But there it is not. There is no delay. It’s all manual labor.  

The sound had been in his head since ’83. Initially inspired by Eddie Van Halen, and specifically Eddie’s contribution to the all-star technique compendium Ten, which was published in 1983 by G.I.T., Aaron takes the idea of tapped harmonics and runs with it. 

“Each guitarist wrote a chapter for the book based on material of their choosing,” says Aaron. “This book was significant in that it was the first time that Edward Van Halen had explained several of his techniques in detail. 

“Because of that book, I was able to learn the harmonic techniques that he used on songs like Spanish Fly, Mean Street, Women in Love as examples. His ‘tap’ harmonics were kind of a shortcut in getting harmonics quickly without using a classical ‘pluck’ technique.”

Steve Howe from Yes was another who planted the seed. Aaron caught Yes in ’76 – the year he picked up guitar, aged nine – and watch Howe pop a harmonic using his thumb as classical guitar players did. 

While Van Halen’s Mean Street jimmied open Pandora’s Box as far as harmonics were concerned, showing how artificial harmonics can be used in different positions, Aaron’s mind soon turned towards their musical potential. 

Could this knowledge be used to play arpeggios a la Itzhak Perlman on violin, or like Yngwie Malmsteen? The answer came via another pioneer in harmonics, the Australian composer and classical guitar player Alan Gogoll.

“I came across Alan’s ‘bell harmonics’ technique and it blew my mind,” says Aaron. “I thought that the technique he had developed was incredible and it opened my mind back up to the possibilities of harmonics. I started trying to figure out what he was actually doing but I found it near impossible!”

Aaron is a southpaw playing guitar right-handed. This, he says, places him at a disadvantage when it comes to fingerstyle techniques, the likes of which are needed for Mean Street and Gogoll’s bell harmonic techniques. So he did what any of us would do – he hit the wall.

“Learning his technique got me so frustrated and after just 10 minutes of practice, I would have to put it down,” he says. “It made me nervous! It was like trying to train my brain and hands to do the opposite of what they had done for many years. The positions felt too weird and the plucking harmonics with one hand like Alan does felt damned near impossible at first.”

In almost the same way that EVH found a faster, easier way for him to do harmonics in a tapping style, I started developing a spin-off way that was easier for me with similar results

The breakthrough came as it so often does through accident and happenstance. That’s when we find a workaround, or in this instance something new to explore. Aaron kept at it. 

“I started to find other ways and avenues to go down,” he says. “In almost the same way that EVH found a faster, easier way for him to do harmonics in a tapping style, I started developing a spin-off way that was easier for me with similar results with other possibilities on their own.”

This became bubble harmonics. Aaron credits Eddie Van Halen, Alan Gogoll, Yngwie Malmsteen and Itzhak Perlman for showing him the path. But also Craig Goldy of Dio, whose over-handed techniques in his 1986 Starlicks lessons helped Aaron workshop some “unrelated hand-jive.” All these skills were brought to bear on bubble harmonics.

As to how you play it? Well, it doesn’t look easy. Aaron says the harmonics come a little easier on acoustic but he chose to focus on the electric.

The guitar he is playing in the video is a Hentor Sportscaster built by Alex Lifeson’s luthier, Freddy Gabrsek, in Ontario, Canada, and a replica of Lifeson’s Limelight-era Fender Stratocaster. He is playing through a Fender Vibrolux amp, UAD Arrow interface and UAD Luna recording platform, and used an EMT250 plate reverb in post production.

Guitar World readers of a certain vintage might recognize the name Donn Aaron. He is an alumni of Mike Varney’s Spotlight and Hometown Heroes columns, featured in the February 1988 issue, and later in ’94. You can follow Aaron on YouTube to see where he takes bubble harmonics next. Chances are it will be on bass guitar. “The technique is a monster on bass,” he says.

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Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.