Bending strings is one of the most unique and awesome things about playing guitar.
Other instrumentalists may try, but guitar players are legit note-benders. We can bend a note a little or a lot or anywhere in between!
However, with great musical power comes great responsibility, so we six-stringers are responsible for making our bends as excellent as possible.
The only problem is, bending strings is hard work. And many players simply never learn the guitar technique to get ‘er done the right way.
If you’ve been frustrated with bends that are weak, shaky and out of tune, then this lesson is just what the guitar doctor ordered!
Armed with three main technique principles – I call ’em The Golden Rules of Bending – you can be confident that your bends will be strong, controlled and accurate.
Golden Rule #1 – Wrap Your Thumb
String bending technique is comprised of two things that are seemingly at odds with one another: it’s an aggressive move and a highly controlled move at the same time.
Without the proper leverage, however, it’s hard to make either of these happen.
Whether you choose to wrap your thumb over the neck or just keep it riding high is up to you. It’s a feel thing, so you’ll know what position feels right at any given time. But you must have your thumb in a position to give you strength and leverage for your bend.
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Watch any great rock, blues or country player – David Gilmour in the picture above, for instance – and you’ll see their thumb riding high on the neck, if not completely hooked. They know that strong bending technique requires leverage and strength. It starts with the thumb.
Golden Rule #2 – Use a Helping Finger
You need strength for your bend but you also need maximum motor control.
You get both of these things when you use a helping finger or two.
For a standard 3rd-finger bend, practice helping the bend with finger 2 and also finger 1. Simply place those fingers directly behind finger 3 and push with both digits.
For common bends that are followed by a 1st-finger note (the famous Chuck Berry bending riff, for example), helping with finger 2 is usually all that you can do. But for a bigger bend – one that’s held for a beat or more, or has some added vibrato – adding finger 1 into the mix is a virtual requirement.
The helping fingers will give you stability and fine motor control. Pro players use them all the time. You should too.
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Golden Rule #3 – Bend In Tune
Although bending in tune is important, you first have to learn how to control the bend with your thumb and fingers.
When your mechanics are solid, then it’s time to focus on tuning your bends. This is done by syncing your ear with your fingers.
[Quick Theory Meets Fretboard Note: Learning to tune your bends is a fairly simple process if you understand the concept of whole steps versus half-steps. A whole step is the distance of two frets on the guitar. A half-step is the smallest distance possible – one fret.]
If you want to bend a whole step, simply play the note two frets higher than the bending note and remember that sound. Then bend the note so that it peaks at that memorized pitch.
If you want to bend a half-step, then play the note one fret higher than the bending note and complete the same process.
Tuning bends takes a little practice, but the good news is it’s certainly easier than mastering the mechanics of bending. It just requires that you pay attention by engaging your brain and ear.
[Tweet “Tuning our string bends requires syncing our ear with our fingers”]
1 – TECHNIQUE DRILL: Pick a note on string 3 and practice bending it using Golden Rules #1 (Wrap Your Thumb) and #2 (Use a Helping Finger). Repeat this bend a number of times, making sure to use consistent technique. Don’t worry about the tuning of the bend at this point.
2 – APPLY TO OTHER STRINGS: Repeat this process on strings 2 and 1. You will likely find that bending on string 1 requires a bit more strength due to the string tension.
3 – TUNING DRILL: When you are satisfied with your application of Golden Rules #1 and #2, practice Rule #3 (Bend in Tune) by using the method outlined above. First, tune your whole step bends, then repeat the process for half-step bends.
4 – PLAY IT IN CONTEXT: Using a basic pentatonic scale pattern as your guide, target a note for bending on string 3, 2 or 1. Start from a note of your choosing below the bending note and ascend through the scale, bending the target note when you arrive. Repeat this exercise by descending through the scale. Make sure to apply The Golden Rules consistently.
For a much more comprehensive lesson on bending strings, please check out The Definitive Lesson: Bending Strings. I cover these Golden Rule concepts in more detail there, as well as the natural arc of a bend, various ways of releasing a bend, and adding vibrato – with VIDEO!
QUESTION: What do you find most difficult about bending? Are there any other things you do to strengthen and control your bends? Leave me a comment below!