Bending is one of those small chapters that you see in every “Learn Guitar,” book that we all have thumbed through in our lives. It’s a very important aspect of playing. There are a lot of uses beside the first sweeping note in “Stairway to Heaven.” Since we’ve all done it for years, we must be good at it, right? The answer to that is, “well… maybe.” The biggest enemy of technique is complacency. Here with these next few paragraphs I hope to recreate the same inward-looking experience that one would feel at their therapists. Yes, I want to be your guitar therapist. Sit down on the couch and let’s begin.
Bending can really define your sound, especially if you do it right, or slightly not right. Just check out some old-school hot country licks and listen to the sharp telecaster snaps when they throw the strings laterally on the fretboard, then listen to the sweeping, two steps high bends you’ll see with an Eric Johnson type fellow.
The plethora of stylistic issues are brushed under the carpet of contentedness that we established in that first year when we checked the “yep, I can bend a string,” box. What I offer here is just something to think about that might have you sitting in your computer chair for the next couple hours trying to figure out which bend is the most, “you.”
Let’s break this article down into two sections, shall we? We’ll cover the basic, “how to bend,” for the brand new axe-slingers doing me the favor of reading this article, and then move on to the meat and potatoes of putting a new spin on that old brown leather couch in the corner that no-one thinks about called, “String Bending.”
Alright, first things first. To bend a guitar string is to actively, ‘push,’ the string across the fretboard in order to increase pitch. You continue to fret the string while moving in the perpendicular direction of the fretboard. This will increase tension on the string, achieving the desired effect of a higher note. It’s important to note that the notes you’ll hear are not measured and perfect, as when you normally play one while fretting. They’re prone to movement, and can be in between pitches as you move it up and down the fret.
This is not a bad thing, it can be used to your favor, but it’s important to become consistent with finding yourself at the proper tone at the end of a bend. As with everything, mastering this just takes practice, practice, practice. There are many, many online guides on how to bend. I won’t spend much more time on it here, as this article is really about what I’m going to cover next.
Now, when discussing bends I use terms akin to that of geometry. You’ll hear me talk about the angle, curve, or shape of a bend; here’s why. When I was first being introduced to this theory it was accompanied by a chart that helped me visualize the words and sort of brought everything together. Unfortunately, that was years ago and I’m completely unable to find that lesson again. I recreated the chart crudely with my kindergarten-level MS paint skills for you all to see. I didn’t even have to worry about coloring inside the lines!
Now, as everyone knows, bends have characteristics depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. When I discuss these characteristics refer back to this chart to get a grasp of what I’m putting down.
A flat bend as shown in the chart above has a steep angle to it. It’s usually rather snappy, and quickly gets to the half step, or whole step that most bends are used to achieve. A great example of a quick, flat bend is the guitar solo to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” You’ll see a lot of these in country music.
A sweeping bend is one that graduates in pitch on a ‘curve,’ as show in the picture. It has a point in the bend where it seems to slow to accentuate the bend. This is used very often in most blues and modern pentonic rock. A great example of a long sweep bend is the beginning bend to Joe Walsh’s “Funk 49.” Something to keep in mind with this chart is that these types of bends don’t have any sort of time constraint. Just because the bend is sweeping doesn’t mean it has to be long. Just because the bend is flat doesn’t mean it has to be short. They’re just visualizations of the terms I’m throwing up on the chalkboard.
Now that we have a common-ground for all the terms I’m going to throw out, let’s get into the thick of this jungle if ideas (a machete helps). You’ll need to think objectively about your own playing here, so keep an open mind, have your guitar in hand, and let the therapy continue.
Each bend has its place. Some folks out there are thinking, “Well, what’s the point of a flat bend, it doesn’t sounds like that classic bend.” I thought that at the very beginning as well, actually. It’s no secret that 90% of those of us here on UG listen to Rock, and about 90% of that crew are metal heads. In that style your fretboard work usually doesn’t consist of a lot of bending, but when you do, you really make it count. Each bend needs to be really accentuated and brought to the forefront of what you’re trying to accomplish with your solo. What does this mean?: Sweep that sucker as long as much as you possibly can!
It even translates into the rhythm work. Here’s a hands on exercise for all the kiddies to try to get you in the mindset of choosing the right bend for the right time. There is a really easy-to-play, sludgy tune by a band named The Melvins called “A History of Bad Men.” Here’re the youtube and UG tab links. It’s only Drop D, so don’t worry about winding down your favorite telecaster to some crazy Swedish deathgrindclowncore tunings.
The Melvins: A History of Bad Men.
A History Of Bad Men Tab
Now, that first note fretted on the 3rd is meant to be bent slightly. Take a listen and you’ll find that it meets the same characteristics as the sweeping bend on the chart above. It’s fantastic to create a groovy, in-the-pocket sort of feel. I want you to play along for a few measures, and then try to do the same bend, but instead, make it very direct, flat, and quick.
Sounds much different, right? Kind of takes away from the whole grungy aspect of the song, huh? The writers of this song very specifically set that bend to be drawn out and dynamic because it was what was best for the song. Of course, there’ll be a few of you that will say “I like the other way better!” To each their own, but the point remains, choose what’s right for the song (and quit being a smartass).
The same could be done for another well-known track, “Stairway to Heaven.” We all know that solo, or at least the first phrase. Give that solo a play and try it with all really fast and crisp bends. Most will agree that it takes away from the emotional appeal of the piece.
Let’s take a look at what we have in the other hand. The flat bend can be used strategically to throw the listener off, or get their attention, reach desired notes, create contrasts in dynamic, slice and dice vegetables, and cure the sniffles (side effects may vary). Their uses aren’t restricted to genre, although they’re mostly pigeonholed into certain ones, it doesn’t mean you can use them all over the musical spectrum and make other guitar kids think you’re a revolutionary.
To give an example of what I mean by attention getting, snappy bends, take a listen to the solo for “Money” by Pink Floyd. Dave Gilmour’s famous series of string whips after the saxophone solo really brings the guitar to the front of the mix, and commands attention from the otherwise groovy and laid back song. It takes every element that the breakdown was putting down and changed it into something with a snarly bar-fight attitude.
Speaking of snarly, gritty, stank attitude, these bends are a great way to achieve them (don’t just take my word for it, check out a few Greg Koch videos). Since the flat halves have the ability to really change the mood, they’re a great tool for changing the dynamic mid-song. Have a solo that starts off in a clean section, then the drums build up into a huge halftime groovathon? Start off with your normal niceties and noodlings, and then eventually shorten and flatten the bends right before the big payoff. It’s a fantastic way to build tension and add a new light to your playing dynamic.
One of the biggest uses for this bends is when you’re playing double stops or even more notes simultaneously. Most of us are familiar with bending up on the G, and then hitting one fret higher on the B string. Or maybe a full step on the B string, and then the same note on the high E? These are staples in the pentonic lick library. An example of these can be found on the beginning riff to “Highway Chile,” by Jimi Hendrix.
The whole goal is to achieve a chord or double-stop that would require a huge finger spread normally used by virtuosos to hit notes on the fly. As a result, we aren’t interested in hearing the journey from fretting to full step. We want the note and the harmony. This is a good place for to bend flatly, and quickly so as to eliminate all the unwanted dissonance the in-transit sound would add.
While we’re on the subject of double stops, something that you can incorporate into your playing that comes from a very country-and-blues place is the idea of moving your bend around while playing. A lot of fun can be had starting a fist pumping rock solo with bending the G string up and down while holding that fret higher on B.
I’ve put out a lot of examples and ideas, but the overall theme here is to decide about what sounds right for the song. There are places in your 80’s ballads where you really want to yank out that sweeping tearjerker bend, and other times in your gritty, gravy filled country breakdown where you want to slip and slide all over the place with a snotty demeanor.
The whole point of this is to get you thinking about what your bends are like, and what you want your bends to be like. This lesson(ish) won’t add anything to your repertoire, but hopefully it’ll add one or two new ways to play what’s already in there. As with everything, it all takes practice. If you’re a metal player, pay special attention to all your bends and learn to draw them out. That way when you’re on stage, nervous, and/or rocking, that one face-melting sweep will come naturally and kick-assily. If you’re a country and blues man, such as myself, learn to use the sharps and sweeps to your advantage. They all have their place, and it’s up to you to find out where those are.
Also, as always, practice, practice, practice.