Guitar String Bending Lesson One: The Three Movements
As a stringed instrument, the guitar allows the player an immense amount of expressive and tonal control, as the means of sonic production is literally in their hands. One of the most enticing of these expressions, especially to the uninitiated listener, is the ability to subtly alter the pitch of a fretted note by “bending” the string. The resulting effect mimics a vocal melisma reminiscent of a singer altering the pitch of a syllable. Therefore we can manipulate bends to ape human affectations, such as anger, sadness or lust. Just as our subjective feelings are especially intuitive and illusory, string bending can also be immensely personal and idiosyncratic pursuit. Yet in the same way singing requires years of study, bending is also a highly technical endeavor which is aided by an understanding of the underlying mechanisms.
Should you bend down or up?
When many guitarists begin bending, they are confused as to whether they should do it by manipulating the string up towards the ceiling or down towards the floor. By bending up towards the ceiling, we are able to incorporate more muscle groups and therefore utilize more control, so this is the recommended technique. The exception is the sixth string (and for very large bends the fifth), where bending towards the ceiling will push the string off the fretboard. Here, bending by pulling towards the floor is necessary. In all other cases, you will have more control by bending the string upwards. I realize that a minority of renowned artists use the opposite technique (B.B. King, for instance). Let’s be clear: if you are reading this article, you are probably not on that level. Once you have won a couple Grammys, you have my permission to bend by pulling down. Until then, you should bend by pushing up.
The Three Bending Movements
Movement 1: Rotating The Forearm
The technique of bending is comprised of three physiological mechanisms, which all must be combined to create adequate force. The first and largest of these movements is the supination of the left forearm or, more simply, the turning of the wrist. This provides the greatest degree of force available and thus should be exercised first. You can observe and practice this motion by placing your ring finger on any fret, plucking the string, and twisting your forearm like you are trying to turn a doorknob counter-clockwise. Use the cue “TURN THE KNOB” to remind yourself of the desired pattern as you rehearse this movement. One weakness in this approach is that the intervallic distance of the bend (AKA how far we raise the pitch) depends on the finger used. Since the index finger is closer to the axis of rotation, it will not travel as far as the ring or pinky fingers when the wrist is supinated. Consequently, is it necessary to utilize other physiological strategies to bend the string a desired interval.
Movement 2: Squeezing The Hand
The second mechanism is our “crush” or “cylindrical” grip, which affords the maximum amount of compressive force deliverable by the hand. This is done by squeezing your hand around the neck like you are trying to crush a can. You can experience this by laying your hand flat on a table, then balling it into a fist. Feel the top of your forearm and the bulging muscle between your thumb and palm and notice how they clench. This is the method with which one might grab a barbell or a hammer. In order to apply this to a bend, we’ll need to slip our thumb over the top of the fretboard so we can squeeze the neck. With your thumb draped over the top of the neck, fret a note, attack it, and pretend you are trying to squeeze a tennis ball. Think “SQUEEZE THE BALL.” This should be effective regardless of which digit you use (though the digits closer to the thumb are strongest). Once this movement is comfortable, combine it with the wrist turn. The limitation of this movement is that it forces the fingers to curl inwards, which takes away from the distance the string moves. Thus we must tackle one more movement in our bending chain.
Movement 3: Extending The Finger
The final and smallest movement we use when bending is the extension of the fretting finger. This is done by starting with the joints of the fretting finger flexed over the string and then extending them as we bend. When we are playing an unbent note, we should be touching the string with the tip of our finger so that the DIP joint (the knuckle closest to the fingertip) is above the string (if you are not doing this already, you should begin working on it immediately). This places the finger in the best position to manipulate the string and gives the player the most tonal control. To bend, push the string upwards by extending the finger like you are trying to slide a playing card across a table.
Now that we understand the physiological mechanisms of bending, we can discuss the guitar specific technique. It is important to apply all three of the physical motions when executing a bend. Yet even using all available muscle groups, often using one finger is not strong enough to achieve the desired bend. It is best to reinforce the fretting finger by placing the closest finger on the fret behind it. Try bending at the eighth fret on the third string with the ring finger by itself. Then add the middle finger on the seventh fret of the same string and bend while extending both fingers. Notice how the latter is easier? Obviously, we can’t reinforce the index finger this way, but it should be strong enough to bend on its own if we use adequate cylindrical grip strength.
Additionally, when bending with the ring or pinky finger, it helps to use the index finger as a fulcrum point by placing it on the next highest string. Try executing the same bend at the eighth fret of the third string with the ring and middle fingers, but while holding the index finger at the fifth fret of the second string (see image). Notice how this gives the hand a point around which to rotate and the bending fingers something to push against. Of course, we can’t do this when bending with the ring or middle fingers, but they are capable of delivering enough strength without a fulcrum point.
The reason it is vital to understand all of these motions is that depending on which digit we are using to bend, we will only be able employ each motion to a certain degree. For instance, we can bend a string further using forearm when fretting with the pinky than with the index finger because the former travels further when our hand rotates. Conversely, because of the relative proximity to the thumb, we get more force from our cylindrical grip when bending with the index finger as opposed to the pinky. And when we extend a finger to bend a string, we diminish its use in grip strength. So how do we know which muscles to use, when, and how much? This is where intuition and practicality comes into play; our chief consideration when bending should be how far we want to bend and the emotion we wish to communicate, not the precise physiological mechanisms. We will cover all this in part two of this guide.