Unless you're exclusively a jazz guitarist, odds are there's going to come a time in your journey when you'll need to learn string bending techniques.
Even if you're a complete beginner, you've probably heard lots of examples of string bending in the music you love: the intro to Chuck Berry's “Johnny B. Goode”, the solo to Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven (there are some pretty massive bends on that song), the guitar solo on Pink Floyd's “Another Brick In The Wall”, and so on.
All the legends tend to do quite a bit of string bending: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Slash, Eddie Van Halen, and many others.
But there's no denying that string bending can be a little tricky. For one thing, most string bending is done on electric guitar. The lighter the gauge of strings, the easier it is to perform bending techniques. Sometimes, bends are also performed on acoustic guitar, but they tend to be less extreme.
Another aspect that's a little challenging is keeping your bends “in tune.” Bending around randomly isn't going to sound very good. You have to use your ears to ensure you're staying on pitch. The pros know how to make their bends sound good in context.
Here are a few simple string bending exercises to get you started.
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String Bending Exercises: The Semitone Or Half Step Bend
A semitone on guitar can be explained this way: it's the distance between one fret and the one immediately above or below it.
The seventh fret on the third string, as seen in the above example, is a D note. Immediately above the D is a D# note. Immediately below it is a C#.
But with string bending, we can only bend up, so the C# is more or less irrelevant. With a semitone bend, our goal is to bend that D to make it a D#.
Also note: it doesn't really matter which direction you bend that string in. You can go up or down, and you will still be raising the pitch. But do keep in mind that bending your sixth string (thickest) up can result in the string coming off the fretboard, and likewise, if you bend the first string (thinnest) down, you'll get a similar outcome. If you happen to do this, your string won't break – typically (and if you do something wrong, you can always replace them) – but you'll get an odd buzzing noise.
But let's get back to that D note. What I want you to do first is play the D# immediately above it and listen. Get a sense of how that note is supposed to sound.
Then, go back to the D on the seventh fret of the third string, and bend up with your index finger. Don't push too hard or too fast, or you'll miss the D# note entirely. Listen for when you “hit” the D# note and hold your bend.
Congratulations, you've performed your first bend!
The Whole Step Bend, Another String Bending Exercise
Not surprisingly, a whole step bend requires a little more force than a semitone bend. If you were bending the same D note as before, the goal would be to reach the E note two frets above.
We did the last bend with our index finger. It's probably better to try this one with your ring finger so you can put a little more strength behind it.
The whole step bend appears in a lot of guitar solos and is and old standby. But this isn't to suggest that it's easy, especially if you're just learning to bend strings.
You're probably familiar with the fact that you need to apply a certain amount of pressure to a string to get a clean sound out of it. When you're string bending, there's no need to apply any more pressure than you normally would. But you do need to press the string up (or down as the case may be). This force should come primarily from your second finger joint (where your finger bends – not directly below your fingernail, but above where your finger connects to the palm of your hand).
Like before, play the E note two frets above the D note, and listen. Then, try to bend up to it. This may prove a little trickier than before. If you're having trouble, don't worry, I'll be sharing a technique that can make whole step bends (and beyond) a lot easier.
String Bending Exercises
First, let's go back and review the semitone bend and use it within the context of an exercise.
The following exercise is based on the blues scale. But instead of fretting the flatted fifth (the note that makes the scale the blues scale and not just the pentatonic scale), we're only going to bend into it.
This example isn't necessarily hard, but you should avoid rushing it. Focus on playing it slowly and accurately.
Now let's try a few Chuck Berry style whole step bends. These days, the lick shown in this example is considered pretty cliché, but you have to start somewhere, right?
Now here's a little trick on how to play whole step bends. When you're playing a whole step bend, you have to push up (or down) with a little more force than you would with a half step bend. But getting that extra “oomph” is harder than it seems. So here's what you do. Place your middle finger in behind your ring finger on the preceding fret and use both fingers simultaneously to push up (yes, in this case up). You'll find it much easier to “go the distance” using both fingers together.
In this exercise, we're going to start on that same D note from before, push up with our middle and ring fingers, and keep our index finger on the fifth fret of the second string, remembering to play that note (an E) in between our bends.
String bending gets a lot easier with time, but you can't expect everything to go perfectly when you're first getting started. Don't get frustrated if your bending doesn't sound smooth and polished out of the gate.
Also remember what I said earlier about keeping your bends in tune. I've known extremely talented guitarists that never quite mastered the staying on pitch part, despite the fact that they had the potential to become world-class guitarists. To my knowledge, they never did. It really is the small things that make a difference!
Do everything you can to gain perspective. Record yourself and listen back if you have to.