Contemporary guitar styles are nothing without bent notes, but what is string bending?
The guitar has a lot going for it when compared to other instruments. I mean, is there another instrument that makes its player look so good? Plus, which instruments allow the player to strut around throwing shapes, whilst singing? I think not…
Aside from the advantages it offers in terms of aesthetics and performance, however, the way it is designed provides musical possibilities and techniques that other instruments can’t match, either.
One such technique is bending strings. Consider a piano. The player hits the keys and then hammers hit the strings to play the notes. Notes can be played louder by hitting keys harder, or quieter by pressing them more softly- but aside from using pedals to change attack or decay, that’s the limit of what can be done with a standard piano in terms of its notes.
On a guitar, however, whilst the frets allow the player to accurately play in pitch, the fact that the strings are free to be moved from side to side on the fret-board means that the pitch can be gradually changed between full semi-tones, even after a note is played. This is string bending, and it adds another level of expression to guitar performances…
So much tension…
Put simply, bending a string increases the tension and increases the pitch accordingly. Though it is possible to do huge string bends of several tones in pitch, most commonly they are used for semi-tone or full tone bends. The effect is of one-note sliding into another smoothly. The real beauty is that they can be performed quickly (as Chuck Berry often did) or slowly (like Dave Gilmour).
Here are some tips to get you started!
1. Initially, until you’ve mastered it, push the string upwards (towards you ) when bending – don’t pull it away
2. When learning, it’s important to practice bending to pitch. A tuner is helpful here, as it will indicate immediately when you’ve arrived at the correct pitch.
Alternatively, you can play the next fret above (for semi-tone bends) or two frets above (for full tone bends), then remember the pitch before bending up to it.
3. You’ll find it easier when learning to use the second or third finger to bend, and supporting this finger with the next one along.
4. When you reach the pitch you’re aiming for hold the note. You may find that (initially) the note chokes, and dies out. This is usually because the string isn’t being held down properly when bent.
5. Keep practising…
Within tablature, string bends are usually notated as below.
Once mastered, string bending provides a whole palette of new sounds to experiment with. It can also be used in reverse- pre-bending the string before playing it, to slide down to the fretted note.
Practice, as ever, is key, but devices such as the Planet Waves Varigrip hand exerciser can help to build finger strength.
Here’s Tom Quayle to show you how it’s done!
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.