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Lethal Guitar: Bending Basics

String bending is one of the most fundamental tools any guitarist should have in their quiver.

String bending is one of the most fundamental tools any guitarist should have in their quiver. Often it’s associated with blues guitar playing, but is mandated in just about any style of music. String bending gives a voice-like quality to melodies, and can be achieved by pushing or pulling on a string or strings. There are three standard forms of string bending:

1. Immediate bend: picking and pushing or pulling the note to a desired pitch.
2. Measured bend (bend and release): bending and releasing the note back to its original pitch.
3. Pre-bend: bending prior to plucking or picking a note.

The distance you bend the note(s) is determined by the pitch you’re attempting to achieve at the peak of the bend. Common bends are a whole-step up and half-step up, but there are bends that reach a minor third up (three frets) and higher. The focus is to target and reach the correct pitch at the peak of the bend. Initially this can be the most difficult aspect as it requires an accurate sense of pitch. That being the case, it can also be used as an effective ear-training tool. Common mistakes are over-bending and under-bending.

The technical challenges of bending a string are in the fretting hand and fingers. It’s very difficult to bend and maintain control (especially larger intervals) with a single finger. A standard approach is to backup the bending finger with the remaining fingers of the fretting hand. For example, if you bend with finger three, backup that finger with one and two. This allows for the physical strength to achieve the interval (distance), and control as you approach the peak of the bend. Placing the thumb over the top of the neck can add stability in the fretting hand in some cases.

I’ll use excerpts from the milestone guitar solo in “Hotel California” to illustrate effective approaches to developing a solid string bending skill.

Example 1
One of many minor third bends (three half-steps) in the “Hotel California” solo. This one requires a bit more strength to reach the peak from (B) up to (D). Download Example Audio...

Example 2
Combining a whole-step and a subsequent half-step bend provides ornamentation to this voice-like melody. Download Example Audio...

Example 3
Next a whole-step bend, followed by a bend-and-release, illustrating an effective use of multiple bending techniques in a single phrase. Download Example Audio...

Example 4
Placing a common bend into a not-so-common blues lick builds tension and seamlessly blends the two. Download Example Audio...

Example 5
Bending into a unison pitch is an excellent ear-training tool and creates a deceptive intro to this melody that resolves to the dominant chord (F#7) underneath. Download Example Audio...