It’s tempting to jump straight to the how of bending.
The proper thumb position, which finger to use, and so on.
But I think it makes more sense to start with the what and the why.
When we bend a note, we’re raising its pitch *by a specific amount.*
Bends aren’t random. We bend from one note to another note.
Maybe this is obvious. But when I listen to the average guitarist play, I’m not so sure it is.
When you see this:
…it’s telling you:
In this silly example, I’m:
- playing the 14th fret of the 2nd string (to get its sound in my ear),
- then I’m bending the 12th fret up until it matches that pitch.
How did I know how many frets to go up?
The number above a bend shows you how many “steps” up the target pitch is.
- 1/2 = half step = 1 fret
- 1 = whole step = 2 frets
- 1 1/2 = one and a half steps = 3 frets
If you have really strong hands and low string tension, you might be able to do two-step bends—raising the pitch to match the note four frets up.
But in practice, you mostly only ever see half, whole, and step-and-a-half bends.
(And of those, you’ll do ten times as many whole step bends as anything else.)
You’ve probably heard me invoke the “universal rule of music”: If it sounds good, it is good.
Music theory isn’t a set of rules. It’s just descriptions of things that sound good.
One thing that consistently sounds good to us is playing “chord tones.”
If the band is playing an A chord, then any melody/lick/solo that lands on the three notes of the A chord will sound good.
Confining ourselves to just three notes gets boring real fast. But we can play literally any other note and make it sound good by “resolving” back to those chord tones.
It’s the crux of western music: tension and release.
- Step 1: Create tension with the “other” notes, then…
- Step 2: …release it by playing a chord tone.
What’s this got to do with bends?
Most of the time, we bend into chord tones.
Take a note that’s below a chord tone -> bend it up -> now it’s a chord tone!
“Bending into chord tones” is why certain notes get bent 1000x more often than others.
If this is starting to sound suspiciously like rules you’ll have to remember while playing, don’t worry. It’s not.
I only mention it because it’s helpful to know that:
- we’re bending to a specific pitch…
- …and that specific pitch is probably a part of the chord we’re playing over.
Ok, now we can take a look at how.
Let’s start with two important disclaimers:
- Everyone’s hands are different. There is no universal “right” way to bend. There is only the right way for you.
- Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If it hurts, stop. Don’t practice until you’re injured. Consistently do a little each day. That’s the way.
Because everyone’s hands are different, I can’t give you a recipe for perfect bending. But I can show you where to start looking.
- Is your guitar ready?
- A properly setup guitar makes bending easy.
- Bad fretwork makes bending incredibly frustrating.
- Step-and-a-half bends are unrealistic on a acoustic guitar.
- Which finger(s) are you using?
- You should default to your ring finger.
- If you want or need to use your pinky, use your other fingers behind it for assistance.
- Where are you fretting?
- The closer you can get to the fretwire (without being directly on top of it), the easier it’ll be to make the bend (and keep it ringing out).
- How vertical is your fretting finger?
- If it’s laying down too much, it’s going to require more force, and/or the string is going to start slipping out from under your fingertip.
- Are you bending towards the ceiling or towards the floor?
- Most people default to “towards the ceiling.”
- But that’s really a function of which strings we bend most—strings 1-3.
- If you’re bending 4, 5, or 6 you probably gotta bend towards the floor.
- Where is your thumb?
- If you have big Jimi Hendrix hands, you’ll probably wrap your thumb over the top.
- Tomo Fujita keeps his thumb squarely behind the neck, almost like a classical player.
- I’m somewhere in between, with my thumb resting right at the border between neck & fretboard.
- Are you keeping your palm off the neck?
- So many techniques (bending, hammer ons, pull offs, slides, barre chords, stretching more than a few frets, etc) depend on getting your palm off the neck.
The Many Different Types Of Bends
You hit a note & bend it up to a new pitch. Through some combination of pick hand muting and fret hand damping, we don’t hear it come back down.
Bend & Release:
You hit a note, bend it up a new pitch, and—while it’s still ringing—release the bend back down.
You bend the note *before* you play it.
Pre Bend & Release:
Bend the note, then play it, then bring it back down.
Bend & Hold:
You play the note, bend it up, then keep it up there (usually while playing other notes, like in this example).
Bend & hold & release:
Play the note, bend it up, keep it there, maybe play some other notes, then bring the bend back down.
That one brought the bend back down without re-articulating the note, but it’s just as common to pick it again when you go to release it:
Double Stop Bends:
You play & bend two notes at once.
Usually this happens on strings 2 & 3. Weirdly, bending the two strings the same distance results in a whole-step bend on the 3rd string, and a half-step bend on the 2nd string:
Let’s move on to real-world examples.
You don’t have to “master” any of these before moving on to the next. Just look for something you think will be fun to play, and have a good time.
Don’t practice these too long—bending is hard on the hands and I don’t want you to injure yourself.
Gravity (intro) – John Mayer
- Here’s a great place to start:
- not too fast,
- and just repetitive enough to let you concentrate on the mechanics of bending.
- I highly recommend clicking “View full version” to open the full player in a new window—that’ll let you loop each two-measure phrase and/or slow it down.
- With all of these, you want to get each little piece memorized enough that you can take your attention off the transcription. Then you can spend that bandwidth absorbing & imitating the subtleties of the sound.
Tuesday’s Gone – Lynyrd Skynyrd
- Here’s another one that’s slower and just repetitive enough.
- Lots of bend and release (and bend again and release again) licks, as well as an opportunity to bend one note against another & try to get it to ring out in tune.
- Watch out for the different bending rhythm in measure 8 (compared to the rhythm in measures 4 & 6):
- “View full version” to loop two measures at a time
- (and/or slow it down)
Smells Like Teen Spirit (solo) – Nirvana
- This one moves a little faster, but it’s more repetitive.
- “View full version” to slow and/or loop it.
Are You Gonna Go My Way – Lenny Kravitz
- Faster still, but even more repetitive.
- The lower part (shown on top) can be hard to play—full step bends that close to the nut require a lot of hand strength.
- If it’s giving you any trouble, focus on the upper part that starts at bar 5.
- The solo is fun too:
- “View full version” to open it in a new window, then loop & slow down sections.
- There’s some fun 1 1/2 step bends in here too.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to “master” anything before moving on—you’re just looking for something that you’ll enjoy practicing.
And another reminder: don’t injure yourself! You can make huge progress with a consistent five minutes each day.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (solo) – The Beatles
- Here’s another fun opportunity to play step-and-a-half bends.
- Take it phrase by phrase.
- (“View full version” to loop sections)
- Get it off the page and into your hands.
Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
- One of the most iconic solos of all time, but pretty approachable.
- Watch for those 1/2 step bends—they’re easy to overbend into the wrong pitch.
- There’s also a few 1/4 step bends, which we talk about some more down below.
The second solo is longer and more involved:
- Even if you don’t tackle the whole thing, it’s a great place to steal ideas from.
- David Gilmour does a thing here where he uses his index to barre a few strings at the 7th fret, then bends them slightly toward the floor:
- We’ll look at these “1/4 step bends” in greater detail in a minute.
Stellar – Incubus
- Super cool riff that uses double-stop bend & release.
- Sounds to me like both pitches go up a whole step.
Santeria (solo) – Sublime
- The double stop bends in this one are like the theoretical example I gave before:
- This sounds absurdly difficult to do, but in practice it just sort of works itself out.
- Elsewhere, pay attention to whole step vs half step bends—it makes a big difference here.
Farmhouse (solo) – Phish
- This one has a bunch of pre-bend and releases, and is full of cool little ideas to steal.
- Trey Anastasio is kind of like a hippie Jeff Beck—almost every note has a subtle approach, ornamentation, or tasty vibrato.
Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong (solo) – Spin Doctors
- This moves at a pretty good clip, but if you slow it down there’s quite a few fun little moves to explore.
- (“View full version” to loop & slow it down)
- Again: don’t feel like you have to have any of these down before moving on. Focus on having fun.
No One Like You (intro) – Scorpions
- Anytime we have a two-guitar transcription it gets pretty cramped in the miniplayer.
- Hit “View full version” for a less claustrophobic look.
- (The speed & loop controls will come in handy too.)
- Don’t let the tricky bits scare you off—the first nine bars are fairly manageable.
- And we get to try a 2 step bend!
Special Case: 1/4 Step Bends
You’ll often see blues players do this kind of bend:
But wait: if a half step is one fret, and we bend into specific pitches… what’s a 1/4 step bend?
Isn’t that just like bending at random?
It’s a special case, and we have to back up a bit to explain it all.
The third of a chord is what makes it major or minor.
- major third -> major chord
- minor (or “flat”) third -> minor chord
If we go the other direction and play minor third -> major third, it implies the chord.
In fact, it implies it so strongly that we hear it in our minds—even when no one else is playing.
Here’s me noodling over a drumbeat:
Even though there’s no bass, keys, or other guitar, you can totally hear the implied chords simply because I played minor-to-major-third for each one.
(If you’re struggling to hear it, there’s “b3” and “3” written each time it happens.)
It’s not just outlining chords with minor to major thirds. The blues also gets a lot of mileage out the ambiguity between major and minor.
It’s why in bluesy settings it sounds fine to play these together:
Which is pretty weird. In most other cases, hanging out on the note one fret away from a chord tone sounds unpleasant.
(I mean, we play adjacent notes all the time and it sounds awesome—*if* you resolve them to the chord tone. It’s that whole tension-and-release thing. But sustaining a “wrong” note never sounds as good as it does in the blues.)
Why is this?
Eh, pretty much any answer to this is going to be bullshit—the truth is we just don’t know.
Humans in every culture everywhere in the world seem to enjoy the sound of the pentatonic scale. It’s like it’s hardwired into our brains.
If you’re a piano player, you’re stuck with the pitches the piano keys give you. But if you play violin or guitar or you sing, you get access to a whole bunch of in-between notes.
And when you listen to instruments with access to these in-between notes play the pentatonic scale, the third is usually *in between* minor and major!
That’s exactly how we usually use 1/4 step bends—to get to that sound in between minor and major.
We’re bending towards the major third, but not quite arriving.
A music theorist would say something like “it represents the nature of human longing—we’re reaching for something just outside our grasp.”
That, of course, is bullshit.
For some unknown reason, the rub between the minor third and the major third sounds good to us.
And because it sounds good, it is good.
Here’s the masterful Adam Levy taking a beautifully subtle solo full of 1/4 step bends and other fun goodies:
Give Me One Reason – Tracy Chapman
- We bend with specificity, from one note to another.
- Most of the time, it’s from a non-chord tone to a chord tone.
- We can engage in music theory talk to explain it, but the reason is the same as always: because it sounds good.
- The only real exception to this is the 1/4 step bend.
- The most common use of this is to get to those bluesy sounds in between the minor 3 and major 3.
- Everyone’s hands are different, but the general guidelines for good bending:
- Get a full professional setup done to your guitar—it’s some of the best money you can spend.
- Default to bending with your ring finger.
- Thumb position is dictated by hand size.
- You shouldn’t have much of your palm touching the neck.
- Your fingertip should be as close to the fretwire as possible…
- …and that first knuckle should be fairly vertical-ish.
- Go slow to avoid injury.
- 5 minutes/day of bending practice is plenty