This lesson is going to be a little longer than usual, so now is the time to grab a tea/coffee or (insert your favourite beverage here) and switch off the phone, lock the doors and draw the curtains as we’re going to need to do some hardcore guitar practice – I’ll have a white tea, no sugar please! You can buy me a tea here 😉
Earlier in the series we looked at a couple of useful guitar techniques for moving between notes, mainly slides, hammer ons and pull offs. This lesson we will be looking at one of the more difficult techniques to master: string bends.
String bends are one of the most recognisable sounds you’ll hear on a guitar and also one of the characteristics that make the guitar so expressive, as we are literally bending the string in and out of tune using our bare hands to play the notes as we need tem them. It is one of the things that sets the guitar apart from other instruments like the piano where you have fixed notes that are played by pressing a key.
You will hear string bends in all kinds of music that feature a guitar, most definitely in rock and blues styles and their derivatives.
Where are you going..?
As I mentioned way back at the beginning of the series in ‘slides‘, all these techniques are merely a way of traveling from one note to another and bending the string is no different.
I see a lot of beginners randomly bending a note without thinking about whether the note they’re bending to is in the right scale or even in the right key, which can have mixed results… :-/
In the example below, I will be playing the note E and then bending the string up until it reaches the pitch of F#. I start off by playing the note E on the B string (5th fret).
I then bend the string up and along the fret until it sounds as the note F#.
This is essentially the same as playing an E then and F# normally, but the way of traveling from one note to the other is different and of course, the sound is very different.
Note how my thumb is hooked over the top of the neck to give me extra leverage.
I must mention at this point that this is how I perform this technique and that there are plenty of other versions and ways you will see people doing it. We all have different hands so there is not one definitive way to do this correctly (though there are definitely some ways not to do it!). Start by copying mine and go from there.
- Tip – Use more than one finger to push the string. In the video above, I am pushing with my ring finger and also my middle finger. One finger string bends rarely end up well…
- Make sure the string keeps in contact with the fret the whole time.
- Be sure that the energy goes up and along the fret as opposed being pushed into the fretboard. If you are doing it right there should be relatively little resistance, though you might have to push harder than you think.
- The gauge of string you are using will make a big difference to the resistance of the string. A 10 gauge set of strings has a lot more resistance than a set of 9 gauge, because they are thicker and need to be wound tighter to tune them to the same pitch. Most guitars when bought new are strung with 9 gauge in the shops as it makes them feel easier to play, so if you do not know which strings you are using, chances are that you haven’t restrung your guitar (don’t leave it too long!) and it will have 9 gauge strings. I use Rotosound strings almost exclusively.
Keep it in tune
The most important thing when performing a string bend is that the note you are bending to is in tune! Play the note on the fretboard that you are bending to first, so you can hear what it should sound like. For example, to play the bend in the above video:
- play the 5th fret on the B string (which is the note ‘E’)
- play the 7th fret on the B string (which is the note ‘F#’) and try to remember the sound.
- Play the bend and try to get it in tune. Once it’s there, hold it there as long as you can to try to build finger strength and encourage muscle memory
- Repeat until you can’t do it anymore!
Using a tuner
If you have a chromatic tuner, you can practice your bends using the tuner. Just be aware of:
- The guitar must be in tune!
- BOTH of the notes you play must register on the tuner
- Your tuner might only display sharps or flats – if you’re aiming for an F# and it says Gb – it’s the same thing! Why? Read about the chromatic scale
- If your guitar tuner doesn’t display sharps or flats you can still practice by playing notes like D to E (7 on the G to 9 on the G) or A to B (10 on the B to 12 on the B).
Bends written on TAB:
This is the bend we have been doing. A bend is indicated by the note you need to bend along with a curved arrow. Sometimes you will see the word ‘full’ written above, which means to bend it a ‘full tone’ (2 frets as we have seen above). If nothing is written there, take it as a a full tone bend by default.
This indicates that you bend the note as before, but release it back down to it’s original note. You are playing the note E then bending it to F#, then releasing it back to E.
Sometimes you want to start with a note and have the effect going the other way – ie sounding like it’s bending downwards! To do this, you play what is called a ‘pre-bend’, which is bending the note to the desired pitch before you play it and then plucking the string and releasing the bend.
Sounds kind of cool, but it can be hard to master as you need to know that you’ve bent the string to the right pitch before you’ve heard it! To get this, you need to practice the first ‘bend up’ for a while to encourage muscle memory.
A pre bend is written with a straight arrow above the note.
Here are some examples of other bends that you might come across:
Occasionally you may see ‘1/2’ written above, which means you only bend the note ‘half a tone’, or semitone as it’s more commonly known (1 fret). To do this means that you are playing the note E (5 on the B) and bending it up to an F (6 on the B). Try this now and practice it with your tuner.
This is a biggie – you bend the string a whole one and a half steps, which is the equivalent of 3 frets. This is playing the note E (5 on the B string) and bending it up to the note G(8 on the B string). Not for the faint hearted! Listen to the first guitar solo in ‘another brick in the wall’ by Pink Floyd and you will hear David Gilmour throw in one of these to great effect.
I have put together a short piece for you to practice your bends.
It is in the Key of Em and mainly uses the positions of the Em scale and Em pentatonic, though it does occasionally break out of the shape for musicality. Try to learn some of the licks and extra notes added to the shape as it will help you expand your knowledge. Even better, work out what the extra notes are and how they fit into the shape!
The piece contains a mixture of ‘full bends’, ‘bend and release’, ‘pre-bend and release’ and ‘1/2 tone bends’. I left out the ‘tone and a half bend’. I know, you can thank me later…
Please feel free to leave any comments/questions below.
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