Bending is the art of stretching a string to raise the pitch. Bends create a moaning or wailing sound associated with the blues, but can bring expressiveness and style to pretty much any type of music. A few well-place bends can turn “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into “Mary Had a Little Lamborghini.”
Don’t know a bent string from a bent nail? Here’s how to get started:
1. Grab the neck of your guitar like a baseball bat, with your thumb draped over the top.
2. Line up your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers on the 2nd string, so that your 1st finger’s on the 6th fret, your 2nd finger’s on the 7th fret, and your 3rd finger’s on the 8th fret.
3. Pick the 2nd string.
4. Push the string up toward the ceiling with all three fingers, while sustaining pressure against the fretboard with your 3rd finger (so that the note continues to ring).
5. Disinfect and bandage wound.
And here are some general guidelines for bending:
1. Unless your name starts with Popeye and ends with The Sailor Man, you’re going to have trouble bending notes on an acoustic guitar if it has typical (medium-gauge) strings. You can certainly try 1/2-step bends on the first or second strings, but anything else is going to make you wish you ate more spinach.
2. Even on an electric guitar with lightish strings (first string gauge .08-.10), bending requires some serious force, so for most bends, line up your first, second, and third fingers on the same string. The third finger is the one fretting the note, but all three fingers push the string.
3. Scientists have proven that having a pained expression makes bends sound better. Which shouldn’t be a problem—unless you’ve got calluses of Kevlar, your fingertips will provide plenty of inspiration.
4. You’ll notice that other strings tend to get in the way when you bend a string up. Try not to let them slip under your fingertips, or over the back of the nail. In both cases, those strings will make noise when you release the bend. Instead, the strings should pile up against your fingertips.
5. Usually, you’re going to want to bend a note up to to a specific pitch—either a half-step (one note) or a whole-step (two notes) higher. This means you need to train your ear to recognize the proper pitch you’re bending to. To do this, first play the target note, and then try to reach the same pitch when bending. For example, if you’re bending a note on the 3rd string, 5th fret up a whole step, first listen to the note on the 3rd string, 7th fret.
If you’d like to learn more about bending, or see proper hand position, check out this good lesson on YouTube.
Enjoy the music,
I already have the unintentional pained look mastered so maybe I’ll be a natural at bending. I’ve tried it but I don’t currently play any songs that utilize it. Thanks for the newsletters, Rob. They are rad!
Scientists have proven that having a pained expression makes bends sound better.
Do you have a reference for that? Thanks in advance.
Here it is, tig. Sorry about the sloppy scholarship.
King, B.B.; Clapton, E.; Gilmour, D.; Vaughn, S.R.: Maxillary Contractions During Radial Pitch-Shifting. New Orleans Journal of Bad Medicine 1979: 273-284
I can bend the notes, but the strings I bend get out of tune real quick.
That is probably caused by one of three things:
1) Your strings are new and are still stretching out. You can speed this process by wiggling them vigorously at the 12th fret after you restring.
2) Your nut is sticking, so that the string doesn’t equalize tension on either side of the nut after you bend.
3. The increased tension on the string is causing your tuning peg to slip. This can be prevented by always tuning up to the correct pitch by starting at a lower pitch, which locks the gears in the tuning machine.
Lemme know if this helps.
For some reason, I’ve had trouble bending the top 2 strings (E and B) anytime I’m above the 10th fret.
I *used* to be able to do this just fine. I don’t think I’ve lost strength in my pinkie finger, but…
There’s also a slight angle to my guitar neck (it has separated from the body by a few millimeters), but a guitar tech told me it wasn’t bad enough affect playability.
Any ideas what the real culprit might be?
What happens when you try to bend up there?
As I am a rookie, suppose you could cover hammer ons and off.
Just starting trying to impovise with the minor and major pentatonics and the blues scale over the 12 bar blues. My teacher told me just to play the notes for now and worry about bending and hammering later. When I try a bend, it feels a little unatural… After really learning the scales, does this become more natural feeling?
Great lesson on youtube too!
i am having some sort of problem here..i used to put my thumb on the neck, but after reading ur begginer’s lesson now i try to place it at it’s back every time i play a chord;
with this new style i am not able to shift chords fast enough..
is there anything i can do to switch my fingers fast?
Thanks for another great post. So, where do you stand on bending up vs. down. Does it break in the middle? or maybe the top 2 strings?
Rob certainly pays attention to details. I began teaching gutiar in 1988, so I’m a LITTLE bit qualified to make an evaluation here. (Notice I didn’t say I’ve been TEACHING SINCE 1988-there’s a difference.) Anyway, from what I know, Rob knows what he’s talking about. I rarely come across teachers who have taken the time to really understand ALL the little details that go into playing (what more advanced players believe are) really simple techniques.
That’s what (IMHO) sets the true teacher apart from the player who gets paid to sit with a student for a half hour or more and MAYBE something effective will happen. If all a teacher does is teach songs, in light of all the songs out there available on tablature, isn’t that just taking the student’s money?
Keep up the good work, Rob.
Rob, sorry I didn’t see your reply sooner!
I talked to a local guitar tech, and he said its definitely the neck causing the problem.
Even though the mis-alignment isn’t huge, the *angle* at which the neck is tilted throws everything off. The farther up the fretboard, the worse the effect b/c the neck is titling up/away from the body of the guitar.
I’m having the same problem as beth. Since my last adjustment , when I bend the high e string above the 10 the fret, it slips away on me.I never had that trouble before. Is the neck too staight now?
Hey Steve and Beth,
Changing the action of your guitar (the distance from the strings to the fretboard) can have two main effects on your string bending.
One is that, on a guitar with high action, it’s easier to keep the string from slipping under your fingers. Let’s say you’re bending the first string. That string stays under your fingertips as you bend, but the second and third strings pile up AGAINST your fingertips, not pinned between the fingertips and the fretboard. But with really low action, all the strings slip under your fingers, and all that force can shove the first string out from under your fingers (and make it difficult to release the bend without lots of cacophonous twangs).
The other effect is that the lower the action, the more likely your bends with “fret out”, which means the string touches frets higher up the fretboard, causing the note to buzz or be muted all together.
So in conclusion, it’s easier to bend on a guitar with high action, but of course, it’s harder to play lots of other things. You need to find the proper balance by trying your guitar right when the tech hands it to you, and not being afraid to ask him/her to adjust it according to your preferences.
Hope this helps,
Actually talked with my guitar guy and after discussing all the possible reasons for this, he did disclose his notorious low action set ups… so I ended up realeaing the truss rod a quarter of a turn and raised the bridge just a c hair…and now I am totally back in buisiness. Its funny how I know so many guitarists that go with a very low action and they use 9’s or even 8’s …they cant play as fast as I do and there attack is so week. I can’t keep my hands on there necks and they cant play anything on my guitar…my action is slightly higher than medium and I use 10 to 46 nothing to heavy.
HI I just built a kit from grizzly copy of a tele
it came out pretty good except the first & second strings are kind of dead the volume is low and they don’t ring like the rest of the strings do.
got any suggestions
I know very little about guitar building/repair, and nothing about electronics, but it could be the nut slots. The nut slot for the first string of my tele isn’t angled correctly—or maybe it’s too wide—but it sounds dead.
A guitar tech will know more.
I just bought an electric guitar and that too in a hurry. When I bend the strings, the upper string goes over my nail and even if it doesn’t, ultimately when i come back, the upper strings (atmost 2) gets vibrated almost all the time, resulting in a terrible cacophony.
Can anyone tell me what the problem is. Could my bending style be incorrect, or is it that i need to lower the action of the guitar???
It’s a common problem—the trick is to get the “upper strings” (actually lower—guitarists talk in terms of pitch, not altitude) to pile up against your fingertips, below the nail but above the spot where your fingers meet the fretboard. Easier said than done.
I’ve tried to do that but i’m not being able to do so. Should i decrease the action, because it seems impossible to get the lower strings below the nail without making all the fingers flat on the fretboard, or is this something that everyone faces and will get better with time?
Try wrapping your thumb slightly around the neck when you bend. This gives the best angle on the other four fingers on the guitar (Not the correct technique on other instruments such as the mandolin) If the strings still get stuck under your nails, your guitar most likely has the action set too high. Standard height is 4/64″ (0.062″) above 12th fret on the 1st string (measure fret to bottom of string).
Hi i have an Epiphone Fat…(a cheap guitar) I had strong finger and I dont have problem to bend E to B strings(but the low E cause problem). I play with 08-38 and i wanna know if I buy bigger string like 11-56 or 10-46 will it helps me or will it sounds better?(my problem is that my B string and sounds weird when i bend it…)
sometimes when i bend the string the string from above goes under my nail and provents me from bending it anymore because it hurts. any tips?
Nicholas, this is a common problem. You’ve got to experiment to find the right angle for your fingers. Arch them way too much, and the strings slip over your nail. Arch them a little too much, and they go right under the nail (only slightly more enjoyable than bamboo slivers). Find the perfect angle, and the strings pile up against your fingertips below the nail. Arch them too little, and they get caught under your finger, which is also bad.
The action of your strings has a big effect on all of this. I hate playing blues on guitars with super-low action because the strings always get caught under my fingers when I bend.
Ive just been practacing the solo to On of these nights by the eagles and the first two notes are bends on the 20th Fret of the high E, However when i play these anything past about a quarter tone bend mutes and there is no sustain, my inotations all correct but my action is as low as my tech could get it, is this likely to be the cause of the lack of sustain??
It sounds like you’re fretting out–your string is touching frets higher up on the neck. I believe this is a more common problem on Fender guitars than Gibsons because the neck’s radius is more dramatic (there’s a curve to the fretboard). And low action exacerbates this problem.
See if raising the action helps. I know, you’re probably enjoying your low action…but think of it as a character-building experience. 🙂
Ive gotten use to practacing on an accoustic ecently anyway and im planning on moving from 9’s to 10’s on my 24 inch scale guitars (i play ibanez by the way and have been told the radius is quite dramatic) so it will make quite a fun experience trying to adjust lol
Thanks for the help ill get my tech to look it over.
Hi, i’ve a new gibson les paul that was loaded with 10’s (10-46) (D# G# C# F# A# D#). I moved from 0.10 to 0.95 (0.95-0.44) because it was very dificult to me to bend. But now my b string when bended at higher frets, buzzs and mutes… i’ve already raised the action.. do i need to loose the truss?
Hard to say without looking at it Jorge–and then I still probably wouldn’t know. Better take it to a tech.
Wow lots of string probs out there. I have a callous problem. I think. I have talked with other guitarists and seen the callous on their fingers and they seem to be kind of smooth. mine are rock hard and makes scratchy sounds on my strings. bends are ok but rough on release due to catching on the newest groove I cut through the callous, during one of the slides. no pain but too much noise. I am gifted with fingers that can bend a B string till it breaks but this isnt helping my playing none. Tell me something i can do with the callous. anything you may know of that others have tried would be great. i’m down to using Bag Balm to try to soften them up. and have 80 grit sandpaper in my string and pick kit. Signed: Old String-Bender
Some rock climbers put Vaseline on their fingertips every night to keep their skin pliable. I used to have callouses that thickened and peeled a lot, but for some reason they’ve gone away in recent years.
Hope this helps,
I have a squier stat by fender (this was my first guitar) and a schecter black hawk. (both electric) it is alot easier to do bends on the squire than the black hawk and i dont know why. they have about the same action and the same brand of strings and i dont know why the black hawk is so much harder.
You’re absolutely right, when i started playing guitar, i had thick gauge guitar strings, so it was very hard to bend them, but when you train yourself with the thick gauge, bending strings will be a piece of cake, great blog.
I seem to be struggling with bending the strings. For example, when I bend on the high E string my three fingers tend to dive underneath the 2nd and 3rd. As a result, I lose the sound and or can’t apply vibrato. Is my action too high? What am I doing wrong?
Great article! I have laughed a lot. I will take your advices in a couples of days, when i will play the guitar, because now my nails are literally off my fingers due to improper bending 😐