In the first section of this bending tutorial, we discussed the physiological and technical aspects of bending. Now we will dive into its artistic applications. When bending a pitch, we aim to raise it a specific interval, i.e., a whole or half step. This presents a problem on guitar, as each string has a different diameter and therefore requires a different amount of force to bend. Likewise, notes fretted further from the nut require the string to be bent a greater distance and different guitar constructions will require more or less force than others. Thus the performer is required to trust in their ear to hear when they have reached a desired pitch rather than their hand.
How to Master Bending
We can perform an exercise to help us learn to bend specific intervals by ear. Start by setting a timer for one minute, programmed to repeat upon completion if possible. Pick any fret on your guitar at random. Play it and sing the pitch it creates. Now play the next highest fret and sing the its pitch. This distance is called a half-step. You should repeat playing and singing each note a few times to master the difference. Once you feel you have the interval in your ear, use the first finger of your left hand to play the original pitch while singing it, then sing the pitch a half-step above from memory and attempt to bend to it. If you are able to bend to the intended pitch, continue to do so until the timer runs out. If you over- or undershoot the desired pitch, play and sing both pitches again, and then repeat the process of bending attempting to bend from memory for the rest of the minute.
Once the timer sounds, shift to the second finger and repeat the process, shifting to the next finger after every minute. Once you have used all four digits, repeat the process at the same fret using a whole step (two-fret) distance. To fully master bending on the guitar, it is best to begin this exercise at the lowest (first through fifth) frets on the sixth string, then jump up four to five frets at a time, until you have covered the entirety of the string’s range. From here, progress to next highest string, continuing until you have covered all six. If you repeat this process daily for a month or two, you should have very solid control of your bending.
The Different Types of Bends
While this already may seem like a lot of work, we are not yet done. Not only can bends be applied to varying distances, but also to and from from various ending and starting points in order to create different expressions. Each has its own emotive quality, and as you attempt each one, take note of the feeling it creates.
Bend and Release– We execute this technique by attacking a pitch, bending it up to a desired pitch, and them releasing it back to the original pitch (or one in between the bent and the original). To me, the rise and fall of this technique sounds like a lustful moan.
Pre-bend– Here we begin with the string already bent up to the desired pitch before attacking it. This requires an excellent intuitive knowledge of the guitar, as we are not able to judge the distance of a given bend while employing it since we cannot listen to it prior to the attack.
Pre-bend and Release– This approach combines the previous two as we begin with string bent prior to attack and release it to the fretted pitch (or one lower than the bend). Here, in my opinion, the release of the bend creates a crying effect that connotes sadness.
Unison Bend– We are not limited to single notes when bending. This method requires fretting two different pitches (most commonly a whole-step apart) on adjacent strings and bending the lower one up to the higher. I find this creates a feeling of tension as we bend the two pitches to a unison.
Bending to an Interval– This functions similar to a unison bend, but instead of bending a lower pitch up to higher pitch, we bend the lower pitch up to create a new, smaller interval with the higher one. One common approach entails bending the lower note of a perfect fourth up to create a minor third. This also create sense of tension, but less so than the unison bend.
This list is by no means exhaustive and the possibilities are extensive, which increases our artistic palette and our burden to mastery. It’s best to work at few techniques at a time for a week or two until we either have established decent facility in each or have exhausted our patience. Set a timer for two to five minutes and practice one kind of bend at various places on the fretboard. Once the timer ends, rest for one or two minutes and then practice another type of bend for the next two to five minutes. If you do this with three to four types of bends per day, within a month you should be pretty good at them. Once the above techniques are mastered, we can even combine them for even more expressions. For instance, once could start by pre-bending to an interval and releasing to another. We can also bend at various speeds, slower or faster for effect. This should only be attempted, however, when the basics are mastered.
Assimilate Bending by Learning From The Masters
Up until now, we have been studying bending in isolation, but incorporating it into our playing is another story. How do we learn to deploy each technique smoothly in an improvised line? When are we to bend and how far? Since bending is so idiosyncratic, much of this is dependent on the player. As such, it is best to study our influences directly by transcribing and learning the solos of the bending virtuosos. No musical style relies more heavily on bending than the blues. In this style, the soloists use bends to mimic the vocal traditions of African-American spirituals. I recommend beginning with the solo to The Thrill Is Gone by B.B. King. It is technically simple enough allow most intermediate players to focus on the bends. Attempt to imitate King’s style as best you can. Sing along with the solo to get it in your ear first. Once you begin learning the solo, play along with the recording and make sure the distance you are bending matches the recording. After you have learned the complete solo, break it down into your three favorite licks (there are only four in this solo) and practice them in each key around the circle of fifths. This is called “building vocabulary.” Then practice playing each lick over a few jam tracks in a variety of keys. From here I recommend learning solos by the other Kings of blues, Freddy King and Albert King. After learning blues bends, other styles will be easier to pursue. In country, I recommend checking out Brent Mason and Brad Paisley, and in rock music, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page have a lot to teach.
If you are feeling daunted by the effort required to master bending, take heed: bending is life-long and highly personal endeavor. You should not expect to be perfect in your bending immediately. On the contrary, it is often a player’s imperfections that makes their playing both interesting and identifiable. Some styles, such as blues and rock, tend to deliberately bend out of tune to sound more vocal, while others, like country and jazz, aim to bend with perfect intonation to sound like other instruments. How, where and when you decide to bend is eminently dependent on your stylistic and aesthetic preferences. As it is intended to simulate a human function (vocal melisma), bending should be very emotional. Take time and exhibit patience it developing your bending style in the same manner you would work on yourself personally: small adjustments over time will heed the best results.
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