Why Your Bends Are Out of Tune and How to Fix It

In this article I offer you some pointers as to how to play bends in tune.

Ultimate Guitar
Bends constitute one of the most expressive and most necessary additions to a player's trickbag. Similar to vibrato, a good bend will embellish a melody, while a poorly executed bend might end up ruining an otherwise adequate performance. Again, similar to vibrato, bends are not really a beginner technique, but in fact an intermediate/advanced one, mainly due to the fact that it's quite difficult to master them.

Today I'd like to discuss why bends are so hard to master and how you (and I, as my bends are still far from perfect) can go about getting bent notes to sound as good as possible. 

1. The guitar and its setup

It's no secret that the guitar and how it's been set up have a clear impact on a player's performance. Either the action of the strings is too high, or the string gauge is the wrong one for the player, all these seemingly insignificant factors contribute to make the bending of strings unnecessarily troublesome. String tension is yet another variable to consider. In general, your playing is highly dependent on the instrument you're playing. A guitar that's been poorly set up will prove difficult to play and to excel on. 

I believe bends to be one of those techniques that, unlike fast playing, are best done by the player on a guitar he's well acquainted with. Take one great guitar player, used to play a few of his favourite guitars (even guys with 10's of guitars in their collections only play less than five regularly, see Steve Vai) and give him a guitar with a thicker/thinner string gauge and neck, a different string tension, and he might need some time to adjust his hands to the new instrument. His performance will most likely be far from what he achieves on the guitar(s) he is familiar with. His first bends will most likely sound out of tune.

2. 99.9 percent of bends are out of tune either way

Now that's a bold statement, especially due to that number I'm throwing out there, which is admittedly an arbitrary one, but I want you to consider the following facts:

1. A guitar is hardly ever in tune: those acquainted with true temperament necks will know that it's hard to have a guitar sound perfectly in tune. Nonetheless, it's well worth it to tune your guitar as accurately as possible so as not only to train your fingers to bend onto the right notes, but to train your ear as well. 

2. If you're jamming alone to a record where all instruments have been tuned to A 439 or A 438 Hz, and your guitar is tuned to A 440 Hz, your bends will obviously sound out of tune (not compatible with that on the recording), even if they are in fact in tune, giving you the wrong impression about your technique. Even when playing alone, if you fret the B on the 12th fret of the second string, and then bend A on the 10th fret to make it sound like that B, there will still be a clear difference to those with a finely tuned ear i. E. With perfect pitch. Strictly speaking, the bend is not in tune, yet that imperfection is what gives the bent note a certain character, just like the vibrato, where you are actually lowering/increasing the frequency of one note. 

So how to go about practicing bends?

Practice slow and fast bending

Slow bending is surely a good way to approach the right note and can at times have lots of expressive value, but it tends to sound "lazy" and unsecure most of the time, since you're progressively getting close to the target note, but not really getting there. On the other hand, fast bending is clearly more challenging, but lends itself to more technical and expressive ends.

Practice bends in musical ways

I don't know you, but practicing bends by taking random notes on the guitar and bending onto others gets boring after a while. It's challenging, yet not in a positive way.

What is better though? Ever since I saw Guthrie Govan talk bends, and playing scales solely using bends, I started doing the same, to great effect. This is what you can do during your practice sessions:
  • Practice bending scales, both diatonic and chromatic ones. Upwards and downwards.
  • Practice on all strings, while being well-aware of the differences between the strings.
  • Come up with a melody. Play it then using only bends.
By doing this, you will not only train your fingers to bend properly, but your ear will also learn to identify out-of-tune bends.

4 comments sorted by best / new / date

    David Gilmore, now there's a guy that mastered the bend.
    Yeah, if anyone wants to learn to bend, Start learning the solo to Shine on You Crazy Diamond Parts I-V, it's not particularly fast so it should be approachable for most, but those bends are nuts.
    Great tips! I can do a acceptables bends and I feel that I'm improving (Yeah!). My way to practice is playing repeatedly the "nivels" of semitones in the bend. Then when you will do a bend, you are already accustomed, and will be easier to hit the right tone.