Work on developing your ears and muscles to execute accurate bends for a vocal style of playing

This month I’d like to take a look at some ways to make your bends stronger and more in tune. Bending is one of the techniques that I hear misused by players. I feel bending is an essential element to getting your musical ideas across to the listener. We use it to convey our emotions. This is what blues music is, emotions.

Example 1 is an ear training exercise to develop the ears and muscles of the fingers using a first position A minor pentatonic scale. Play the second note of the scale, C (b3rd), and while this note rings, hum along to get the pitch in your ears. Then go back to A, while still humming the C, and bend the A up a minor third to match the C. Next, play D, the fourth of the scale, then go back to C (3rd) and bend it up to D, the whole time humming the D so that you know when you’ve bent the C high enough to match the pitch with your voice. Keep moving up the scale this same way. Speed doesn’t matter, so take your time and remember to hum or sing the note you're bending to. This will develop the necessary skills needed to bend. I’ve labeled the fingers you should try to use to play this exercise. You need to enlist multiple fingers to get the strength needed to keep the notes in tune. For example, as you bend the A to C, I suggest using your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers together on the sixth string. Download Example Audio...

Example 2 is the same kind of exercise, only with an A major scale, to practice half step bends as well as whole step bends. Again, I encourage you to either hum or sing along with the notes you're bending. I also want you to pay attention to the fingers you are using to bend. If you’re having trouble bending a note in tune, make sure you’re using more than just one finger to bend with. This exercise starts on the second note of the scale, B. Hum or sing the note to get it in your head, then play A with your 3rd finger. Use the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers to pull this A down until it matches the note you are humming. Download Example Audio...

Albert King was one of the masters at bending. He was a left-handed player who would play right-handed guitars upside down. This gave him an advantage because he had gravity to help him pull the strings down, which gave him the ability to make the wide interval bends he’s so famous for. The best advice I can give is for the wound E, A, and D strings, pull down using gravity just like Albert did. For the thinner unwound G, B, and E you will most likely have to push up because there isn’t a lot of room on the fretboard to pull down. Also, be careful of the half-step bend. The tendency for players new to bending is to over-bend these half steps.

I’ve taken a short little melody using the A minor pentatonic scale for Example 3. Play the melody twice, the first time without bending. The second time, bend the G up to A. This gives the line a different flavor. Playing melodies with and without bends is a great way to develop your ears for bending. Remember, though, bending adds a vocal aspect to your playing. The more vocal your playing is, the more pleasing it will be to listen to. Download Example Audio...

Example 4 is a pre-bend lick. This is a very vocal technique. I associate this kind of bending with Jimi Hendrix. When you first learn to pre-bend notes, it’s important to check yourself. Make double sure that the pre-bend is in tune. This is a muscle memory technique. You’ll have to do this over and over again until your fingers know exactly what it feels like to get that note in tune. Practicing both Examples 1 and 2 will develop this muscle memory. Download Example Audio...

Example 5 is a cool bend and release lick. The strength that you’ll develop in the previous examples will help, as you will need some strong fingers in order for the bend to release in a musical way. You don’t want to release it too fast. Again, I suggest using your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers to both bend this note and release it. Download Example Audio...

Example 6 is a lick that utilizes a ¼ step bend. This is a bend I usually associate with Stevie Ray Vaughan or Robben Ford. It adds a little attitude to a note, but it's not a physically demanding bend--just a little twist of the wrist and you’re there. There isn’t any note to judge this one against. Just get it started and then move on, but be careful not to over-bend it. Download Example Audio...

These last two articles have focused on techniques that I feel are critical to blues playing. I hope they’ve helped you out. A lot of blues players, myself included, take them for granted and assume they can do them. I find when I do come back to work on them, I end up looking at them differently and find something new each time. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bending are crucial to the vocal style of playing we all strive for. Take your time and revisit these techniques every once in a while.

‘Til next time enjoy, and have fun! Thanks for reading.

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