From crying pedal-steel sounds to aggressive, bluesy squeals, bending a string is all about feeling.
• Learn to emulate the sound of the pedal steel guitar.
• Understand how to create chords using bends.
• Develop licks in the style of Roy Nichols and James Burton.
Generally speaking, bending a string is about the bluesiest thing you can do on guitar. It’s all over the place now, but guys like T-Bone Walker were among the pioneers who really developed it into an expressive device. Even great old-school country guys like Grady Martin and Owen Bradley would likely credit their usage of bending to the older blues cats.
There are many styles of bending—every player does it differently. It’s the closest way to emulate the human voice with a guitar. Having said that, each bend truly has a unique nature of its own. But there are some conventional bends and patterns that you will find used across the board. One of those is demonstrated in Ex. 1. Licks like this are staples of country guitar. They’re absolutely essential.
Roy Nichols and James Burton were among the first generation of country pickers to regularly include bending in their style. People did little half-step bends here and there, but not too many players went for that real in-your-face aggression. Bending the 3rd string was not really done all that much in country music before the Louisiana-born James Burton. A Burton-style bend would sound something like Ex. 2. The lick basically outlines a C7 chord.
In Ex. 3 you can see an example of a Roy Nichols-style bend. Nichols was all about playing with notes “outside” the norm and wasn’t afraid to twist up the rhythm a bit, either. He was an essential part of the West Coast “Bakersfield” sound and one of my favorite players. The influence Burton and Nichols had on country guitar is immeasurable, but their use of bending is a good place to start listening.
The crying sound of the pedal steel is synonymous with country music. Guitarists have been attempting to emulate the sound of a pedal steel for decades. In Ex. 4, you can see a very basic approach to copping the sound. Basically think of creating a triad and approaching a chord tone with a bend. After that, the possibilities are endless. Here, you’re creating a D major triad but pre-bending the E up to an F# (the major 3). Use your 4th finger to hold down the root (D) and 5 (A) on the 1st and 2nd strings, respectively.
You can also emulate a steel guitar by bending single notes the way steelers do. In Ex. 5, we finger a series of second-inversion triads and then bend up to the top note from a whole-step below. This works great for ballads. But if you stray from the road less travelled, you can start to maybe sound like a steel. Or Jeff Beck!
Ex. 6 is a lick that can be used on either a I or V chord. Here, you’re bending the 3rd string up a whole-step, bending the 2nd string up a half-step, and pre-bending the same interval to bring things back down. If you use your bridge pickup and pick between the neck pickup and the neck, you can get a very steel-like tone that’s similar to Don Helms or Kayton Roberts.
The next lick (Ex. 7) works great for kicking off a tune in D. You’re pre-bending the major 7 up to the root in a relatively speedy manner. The bend needs to imitate a pedal moving a string up to a pre-determined note. It really shouldn’t be buttery smooth and full of vibrato like most bends played by guitarists we all know and love.
I love bends—use them all the time. Players like Roy Buchanan, Jerry Garcia, Mike Bloomfield, and Clarence White all had unique ideas when it came to stretching strings. That’s what I try to take from them most. Emmylou Harris once said, “Style is only a product of your limitations.” An elegant and articulate style is the most important aspect of playing for me.
Clarence White’s influence comes out in Ex. 8. White’s use of the B-bender built into his Tele was an essential part of his electric playing. You would always hear him bend the 4 up to the 5 on the 2nd string while letting the top string ring out. To this day, it’s bad to the bone.
The final lick (Ex. 9) is more of an aggressive Mike Bloomfield-type of deal. Very angry, but it still works with some smooth vibrato. The first half-step bend up to the 5 (E) is something I first heard from Roy Nichols, but I then discovered that Grady Martin and Hank Garland had used it as well. The half-step bend to the root on the 2nd string comes straight from Garcia. That’s simply his thing. The rest of the lick includes concepts I’ve concocted over the years. I’m a huge fan of finding bends that are head turning, but most importantly, musical.
I hope you’ve learned a thing or two and have found some inspiration from this! Bending is what gives us a huge part of our musical voice as guitar players. I can’t over-emphasize how important it is to go back and listen to how great players approached bending. But most importantly, keep listening to how you’re doing it. The key here is to cultivate and nurture your own style.