Learning to bend strings is essential to our progression as guitarists. Along with hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides, these types of slurs will give your playing nuance and a more legato, professional sound.
Bent notes lend a “vocal” sound to your playing, adding bluesy, “in-between” sounds to your riffs and solos. Although jazz and classical players do not typically use the technique, string bending is a critical part of the vocabulary for pop, rock, blues and country guitarists.
Bends can make your lines sound groovy, but they require an enormous amount of fine motor control to sound confident and in tune. This translates to a lot of practice! But if you roll the JB way, you’ll be bending strings like a pro in no time.
In The Definitive Lesson: Bending Strings, we’re going to learn proper bending techniques that will immediately add a bluesy, legato character to our single-note lines. Let’s rock!
Another Type of Slur
Along with hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides, string bending is a technique in the slur category. If you remember, slurs are those techniques in which we generate two or more notes with only one pluck of the string. The additional notes are products of the left hand only. A bend is really the ultimate slur, in that it requires more finger strength and fine motor control than any of the other types, and delivers the truest legato.
The following video will demonstrate all of the techniques and exercises explained in this Definitive Lesson. Rather than embed multiple short clips, I combined all of the CLIPS into one video, so you will need to pause the video periodically to read the corresponding text.
String bending is a technique in which you pluck a fretted note (the bend’s “origin” note) and push the string sideways with your fretting finger to make the pitch rise. The pitch rises because you are effectively tightening the string by bending it.
At its most basic, a bend should have a natural arc; you should hear the original note for a split second before the pitch rises to its peak. CLIP 1 However, bends can occur at any speed. Faster bends move aggressively to their peak, while slow bends take extra time reaching the destination pitch (this is often used for special effect).
Bending strings well is a very challenging endeavor that requires determination and patience, but you can ease the difficulty by following what I call The Golden Rules of Bending. If any of these essential elements are missing from your technique, your string bending will likely become a hot mess in no time flat.
THE GOLDEN RULES OF BENDING
1 – Wrap your thumb.
2 – Use a helping finger.
3 – Bend in tune.
Golden Rule #1: Wrap Your Thumb
The “wrapped thumb” position is absolutely critical to good bending technique. Simply bend your first knuckle and place the crease of the thumb at the edge of the fretboard. This way you’re only getting the top portion of the thumb over the fingerboard, which is all you need.
A wrapped thumb gives you leverage and stability, which is paramount for the fine motor control required for bending strings in tune and with some style. When students are learning to bend, I remind them to “wrap your thumb” more than anything else.
And with your thumb wrapped, you can use “bend the string to meet the thumb” as a nice visual/tactile cue to help the process along.
Golden Rule #2: Use a Helping Finger
When you bend a string, you are actually pushing the string sideways with your fretting finger. Do NOT underestimate the finger strength it takes to move that string!
Remember, your guitar strings are under tension, and that tension is working mightily against your string bending efforts. Because the tension is so great, we almost always use a helping finger to get the string moving. If you’re bending with your 3rd finger, for example, you would plant your 2nd finger (and possibly your 1st finger as well) on the same string and behind your bending finger and push with both. CLIP 2 Don’t worry about placing the helping fingers exactly; since you can’t actually hear them, their exact position is irrelevant. However, the closer to your bending finger the better.
The most common bending finger is finger 3, helped by finger 2. The next most common is finger 2, helped by finger 1. CLIP 3 Finger 1 can be used to bend by itself, but that is an extremely strenuous movement that requires impeccable leverage; please leave this type of bend for later on, when you’ve already mastered bends with fingers 3 and 2.
Some folks like to bend with the pinky, and help out with fingers 3 and 2. CLIP 4 While this is certainly fine to do, most of your bending virtuosos – Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Slash, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, etc. – do it the “old school” way, which is to say they reach with the 3rd finger to grab any note they would be inclined to bend with finger 4. CLIP 5 The 3rd finger just feels more “in control” of the bend – which is extremely important – but go ahead and work on your pinky bending if you wish – it’s all good.
Golden Rule #3: Bend in Tune
This rule is third because it is initially less important than the first two. As a beginning string bender, we need to learn how to move the string efficiently; whether or not we can bend in tune is a battle to be fought another day.
Once you’ve got some mastery over the mechanics of bending, though, it’s time to starting tuning up our bends. Let’s be clear about the concept first: we fret a note and then bend it, so that it rises in pitch and “becomes” another note (which we’ll call our “destination” note).
Most of the time we’ll want to bend a note to make a destination note that is a whole step or a half step higher than the original note. You can certainly bend notes higher still – 1-1/2 steps or even two whole steps is not entirely uncommon. But the vast majority of bends is in the half- to whole-step region, so we’ll focus on that.
How do you know if you’re bending your note in tune? How do you know whether the note is going up a whole step or a half step? These questions are answered by using our ear and our knowledge of the fretboard.
If we want to bend a note a half step, then first we should check out what “a half step higher” actually sounds like. To do that, simply play the note one fret – or one half step – higher than your original. For example, if the note you’re bending is on string 2/fret 8, then play the note on string 2/fret 9 to hear how the bent note should ultimately sound. Now bend the original note, and keeping in mind how the destination note sounded, use your ear to match the pitch of the bend to the destination note as best you can. CLIP 6
This might take a few tries and it will require that you remember the sound of the destination pitch. But keep playing the destination note and then bending the original note until you hear it match. When you hear it match, hold the bent string in place steadily and let the note ring.
If we want to bend a note a whole step, then we use the same process with the note two frets higher than our original. CLIP 7 Of course, a whole step rise in pitch requires a greater bend, so don’t be surprised if the tension is fighting you! It will take a good amount of energy on your part to push that string a whole step and hold it.
Releasing the Bend
So what happens after we bend the note up? Since, as they say, what goes up must come down, you would think that the bent note would have to lower in pitch, right?
Sort of. But not exactly. How’s that for an answer?
Releasing a bend is a technique whereby you hear the lowering of the pitch from its peak to its origin. This requires that you hold the bend firmly on the way down, so that the note is still ringing as it descends in pitch. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of this move; try it a few times and you’ll catch my drift.
Many times, however, bends are played without hearing a release. Think of it as a bend which arcs upward and cuts off. This means that we must silently release the bend after it reaches its peak by releasing the pressure on the string. If you thought releasing a bend properly was tricky, get a load of this move! CLIP 8
Just like left hand muting, I will admit that teaching someone to release bends silently is an extremely challenging task, because often the teacher (that would be ME) doesn’t really know exactly how he does it! It’s kind of a “feel” thing, although I realize that’s not great information. Basically, you bend the string and you practice letting go of the pressure on the string without letting the string straighten out. Then…you straighten the string quickly and silently as possible. Try it a few hundred times and it’ll start to happen.
This is a very important movement to conquer, however, because there are tons of musical examples in which you will bend up and immediately move to a note on a higher string without releasing the bend. Chuck Berry created his signature intro lick with this very concept. CLIP 9
Please Release Me
Having said all of that about releasing bends silently, there are a number of different bend and release variations in which we want to hear the note descend in pitch. It will be important for you to know how to execute each one of them properly, as they are all pretty commonly used.
BEND AND RELEASE
The first is the most basic: Bend the note up and, holding firmly, allow the bend to release back to its origin. You should hear the note smoothly descend. CLIP 10
BEND AND ARTICULATED RELEASE
This variation requires that you bend the note up, and while the note is at its peak, pluck it again to start the release. You can also think of this as a “grace note release”. The release can be slow or fast, your choice. CLIP 11
This variation is a little advanced, but very cool. A pre-bend requires that you bend the string up silently (kind of tricky) before you pluck the note at its peak and ONLY hear the release. This will really test your sense of touch and call on your bending experience, since you have to imagine the pressure necessary to make the bend without actually hearing the note rise…and get it in tune at the top (very tricky). CLIP 12
You practice tuning pre-bends the same way you practice tuning any bends: hit the target note a half step or whole step up the string, then bend silently and, at the top of the bend, pluck the note to see if you’ve tuned it correctly by feel alone.
This variation is just like the basic bend and release, except that you immediately bend again. It should sound like one smooth movement going up, then down, then back up. CLIP 13 It’s easy for the energy to die out on this one, so it’s usually performed fairly quickly.
Vibrato for a Pro Sound
Adding vibrato to a note is really just a matter of applying a series of short bends and releases – controlled pulses, if you will – to add energy to a sustained note.
When we vibrato a note, we bend the note slightly sharp and then release it to its origin, repeatedly. CLIP 14 This adds energy to a sustained sound. Without vibrato, held notes sound a bit bland and uninteresting. Vocalists and horn players also use vibrato to energize sustained notes.
Applying vibrato to a bend is a much more advanced technique which requires a ton of fine motor control. In this case, we bend the note to its destination pitch and then use a series of controlled pulses to flatten the note slightly and return it to the destination pitch. CLIP 15
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