Baby’s Got the Bends: 4 Techniques to Make Your Guitar Wail
Bending the strings is one of the primary tools in a guitar players’ tool kit, as well as a staple sound in rock, blues - well, pretty much all genres of popular music. Without bending, you wouldn’t have the epic solo from Hotel California, the intro to Purple Haze - a key element would be missing from the history of guitardom!
What is it about bending that is so intoxicating to the listener? It’s hard to say, but my sense is that bending is what makes the guitar “sing”. As humans, we have a deep and natural connection to the human voice, our primary method of communication, which is why singing evokes an emotional response from the listener. Bending strings sounds like singing, emotional singing sounds like wailing, so turn up the guitar amp - we're gonna make your fretboard cry.
Let’s get started by taking a look at a few different types of bends that are commonly heard:
1 - The Standard Bend
This is the most common type of bend you’ll come across. It’s simple: use the 3rd finger on your left hand to bend a string up as you pick the string. If you bend a little – you’ll get a semitone, if you bend a lot – you’ll get a whole tone, and if you bend to the max – you’ll get a minor third!
Try placing your 1st and 2nd fingers on the same string, just behind your 3rd finger. This allows you to use all three fingers to generate more force when bending, allowing for larger bends and more control. You will typically see players use this bend on the G, B and high E strings. Though it is totally acceptable to apply it to the A and D strings as well.
2 - The Downward Bend
This bend will get you the exact same results as the standard bend, but the technique is a little different. Get your fingers in place for a standard bend, with your 3rd finger leading the way, and your 2nd and 1st fingers behind for support. Then, bend the string down instead of up. You’ll notice that the resulting pitch change is exactly the same. So why use this one? Well, since you’re bending down, and not fighting gravity by bending up, it can be a little easier!
You’ll often see players use this bend on the three lower strings, which are thicker and harder to bend, and you can’t actually bend the low E string up, so you have to bend it down.
3 - The Reverse Bend
While there are many examples of this bend being used in the canon of guitar music, my personal favorite is the exquisite use of reverse bends in the Eagles’ Hotel California solo. You can hear a handful of them in the section from 4:34 – 4:45, but they are featured prominently throughout the solo in its entirety. What is the reverse bend all about? It’s a great technique that gives you that perfect wail. A wail of longing and pain so deep that your listeners will pine for more of your sweet sweet reverse bends.
Start by placing your fingers in the exact same position as before (3rd finger has the lead, 1st and 2nd in support). Now, without actually picking the note, bend the string up. Then pick the note with the bend already in place, and slowly return the bended note to its original position. What you achieve here is a slide from a higher note to a lower note. It’s tricky to perfect, and takes some work, but it’s an incredibly handy tool to have in your arsenal.
4 - The Double Stop Bend
You really needn’t look further than Hotel California for any examples of bending. I have it playing in the background as I’m typing this, the strings of Don Felder and Joe Walsh’s guitars are bending like they're in a hot yoga class. Give it a listen for many great examples of double stop bends.
A double stop bend is the motion of bending a note, and using your available fingers to play other notes at the same time, or directly following the bended note. Try this:
- Use your 3rd finger to bend fret 14 on the G string
- Then use your pinky to play fret 15 on the B string, while you continue to hold your bend
Now try this:
- Use your 3rd finger to bend fret 14 on the G string
- Now free up your index finger to play fret 12 on the B string, while you continue to hold your bend
You’re bending it like Beckham! What if you tried both strings at the same time? Play both strings together, but only bend using your 3rd finger, while your index (or pinky) stays stagnant. Keep trying different iterations here, there is so much to explore!
When talking about bends, it’s important to discuss tuning. By exploring the world of bending, you forego the wonderful safety net that is your frets. Try downloading a free chromatic tuner on your smart phone (like the one we’re building into the Jamstack Amp App), and bend while watching the tuner. If you bend fret 8 on the B string (which is a G note), can you bend to a G# (or Ab) directly, and land with good tuning? How about bending even higher, to an A? And what about one step further, all the way to a Bb (or A#)? The tuning of the note is now fully in your hands, as if you were a violin player, or a singer.
After you play a song full of sweet bends, you will likely need to re-tune your whole guitar before the next track! It can throw you out of tune ever so slightly, so practice tuning vigilance here.
Give all the bends above a go, and see if you can come up with even more techniques using this awesome skill to develop your abilities. Follow the links below to listen to some tracks that feature some wicked and tasteful string bends.
And don't miss these bendy gems from:
Dan Rougeau is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and performer based in Montreal. Check out what he does here.
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