String Bending 101

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Guitar String Bending 101

Listen to MP3.

Bending strings is a guitar technique primarily used in playing single note riffs and in lead guitar situations. Effective use of string bends can emote a "vocal" quality from the guitar. Although it's a technique used mostly by lead guitar players, even three chord folk guitarists will probably be required to use string bends from time to time. Be aware, however, that bending strings on acoustic guitar is a much more challenging undertaking than it is on electric.

Basic Bending Technique

Our goal for this basic bend is to play the note on the 10th fret (the note A) of the second string, bend the note up a half-step so it sounds like the note on the 11th fret (the note Bb), and then return the string to it's unbent position (A). To prepare your ear for what this should sound like, play the 10th fret of the second string, and then slide your finger up to the 11th fret, and play that. The note on the 11th fret is your "target pitch" - the proper pitch of the note you're aiming for in your bend.

Start by fretting the note on the 10th fret of the second string using your third finger. Although they aren't responsible for playing any notes, your second finger should rest behind your third finger on the ninth fret, and your first finger on the eighth fret. Bending the strings far enough to get the pitch to change takes a good deal of effort - you'll want all three fingers to aid in bending.

Now that your fingers are in proper position, play the second string, and exert force in an upwards motion (towards the sky), while still keeping enough pressure on the string to keep it in contact with the frets. Make a conscious effort to use all three fingers in your bend, not just the third finger. When you've bent the string enough to reach the desired pitch, return the string to it's original position.

Chances are, when you first attempt this, you won't get the pitch to change much. This will be especially true if you try bending on an acoustic guitar - they are much harder to bend strings on. Be extremely patient... chances are you haven't used these muscles before, and they will take time to strengthen. Keep practicing, and you'll get the hang of it soon.

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A Slightly Harder String Bending Technique

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This exercise is exactly the same as the previous one, except this time, we'll attempt to bend the note up two frets (a "tone", or a "full step"). Start by playing the tenth fret, then the 12th fret, to hear the pitch you're trying to bend the note to. Now, while fretting the note on the tenth fret of the second string with your third finger, pick the note, and try to bend it up to the 12th fret, then return it to it's original pitch. Remember: use all three fingers to help bend the note, or you'll never be able to push the note far enough.

Things to Remember:

  • If the note is 'dying' before you've completed the bend, you've probably stopped exerting enough pressure against the fretboard to keep the note sounding. You need to use all three fingers
  • Make sure you're pushing the strings in the direction of the sky, not the ground. Bends are almost always done on the top three strings, as they are lighter, and are easier to bend. It's easier to bend strings on the higher frets on the guitar. Down near the headstock, it gets very hard to bend
  • It will take time to master this technique, so be patient.
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Different String Bending Techniques

Listen to MP3 of the above string techniques.

The tab above illustrates three variations of a very simple guitar riff used often by B.B. King. We'll use this riff to illustrate some of the ways string bending gets used in lead guitar playing. The first bending technique above, the bend and release, we already learned in lesson eight - bend the note up a tone, and bring it back to "regular" pitch. Rather straightforward.

The second technique is generally just referred to as a string bend. It differs from the first bending technique in that rather than bending the pitch and then bringing it back to it's beginning pitch, we mute the string while it is still bent, so you don't hear the string returning to it's "normal" unbent pitch. You accomplish this by hitting the string with a down-pick, bending the note up a tone, then touching the underside of the still bent string with your pick to cause it to stop ringing. You can then release the bent string back to it's original position.

The third technique above is called a pre-bend. The pre-bend differs in that you actually bend the string BEFORE you play it. Bend the tenth fret of the second string up to the 12th fret, then hit the string with your pick. Now, release the bend, so the pitch returns to normal. This can be tricky, since you have to estimate how far to bend the note, without being able to hear it. Concentrate on trying to get the bend in tune.

If you're interested in this style of guitar playing, I'll encourage you to read the learn to play like B.B. King feature. Most of that lesson isn't any harder to play than the material presented above.