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Finding The Notes Between The Lines - Bending Instruction

Published: Sat January 12, 2008  News Feed

From the blues to synth pop, the art of bending gives players a chance to find the notes between the lines.

By Emile Menasché
In Tune Monthly

A philosopher once said that it’s not the destination that matters, but the road you take to get there. He might have been talking about playing music. Think about it: There are a relatively limited number of notes available for each instrument, and every player with the basics under his or her belt knows the same ones. The great players are the ones who can give the notes some personality and find the music “in between” the notes.

Bending is especially popular in blues and country, both of which influenced rock. Some of the wildest solos are full of bends, which can be smooth or rough and dissonant.

One way to get between the lines is by a technique known as bending. The term is usually associated with fretted instruments like guitar and bass because it describes what happens when you push a string from side to side to alter its pitch. But other instruments, like horns, harmonica and voice, can “bend” notes. And thanks to modern technology, even keyboardists can get a case of the bends.

There are many different types of bends, and the techniques used to achieve them obviously vary from instrument to instrument. But, as the philosopher might have said, every bend has a starting point and an ending point. The journey in between is up to you.

Half-step bend
This technique raises a note’s pitch one semi-tone—for example, from E to F. It’s the easiest bend to achieve.

Full-step bend
Probably the most common bend on guitar, this technique raises the pitch by two semi-tones (from E to F#).

If you have strong fingers and light strings, you can bend beyond a semi-tone. Blues players often bend as much as four or five semi-tones.

Bend to an End
Probably the most basic and common bend is one that starts on one note, moves to another, and stays there. Singers do this all the time, starting a little flat of a long note, they push more air until they hit and (hopefully”) hold the long note.

When you hold such a note, the key is what we like to call a smooth landing: You want the sustained note to have the correct pitch, even if the originating note was a little flat. To practice this, start by holding the sustained note as long as possible at the right pitch. If you’re playing guitar, push the string until you hit the pitch and hold it in place. You can use a tuning reference such as a piano, a tuner, or another string on the guitar or guidance.

Once you have a feel for the “destination” note, release it and, working from a lower note, push back to that place. Each time you bend, focus on accurate pitch.

The round trip
Round trip bends are great because they’re expressive, easy, and they don’t have to be especially accurate. You start with a note, bend up to a new note, and immediately bend back down to your starting position. The key to round trip bending is timing. In essence, you’re playing three notes: the start, the bend, and the return.

Reverse bends
If you play a stringed instrument, you might think that the only way to bend is “up.” And while this is technically true, in musical terms, you can create a downward bend effect by starting with the “bent” note, then releasing it down to the original position. For example, bend G to A before you pick the string; then, as you pick, let the string back down to B. This will create a descending bend. The key here is to be accurate with the bent note, and to let it go back as smoothly as possible.

Unison Bends
One of the coolest things about playing the guitar is the fact that it gives you many different ways to play the same pitch. As a bender, you can take advantage of this by playing unison notes. For example, on the B string, bend the note G (8th fret) up to A. Now, on the E string, finger A (5th fret). Play both strings. Sounds like two guitars.

Multi-string Bends
Want to make a guitar growl? Try bending more than one string at a time. This is easiest with the G and B strings. Use two fingers to push or pull both strings in one fluid motion. In most cases, you’ll be bending the strings by a slightly different amount, which creates an aggressive sound.

Whammy Bars
Back in the early days of the electric guitar, players used heavy strings that were hard to bend. In an effort to make the guitar more expressive, manufacturers came up with “vibrato bars” that could raise or lower the pitch. Originally intended for subtle effects, players like Jimi Hendrix and later Eddie Van Halen used the bar to create extreme effects, making the guitar sound like a dive bomber, race car, or screaming animal. Try this trick: With the guitar going through a distortion effect, play a harmonic on the G string at the 12th fret. While the note sustains, push down on the vibrato bar.

View Bending Basics video

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