How to Use Bends in Your Guitar Solo
Bending strings is probably the most important of all the articulation techniques available to a rock guitarist. More expressive than hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides, a bend (the action of stretching the sounding string across the fretboard with a left-hand finger, raising its pitch) can turn your soloing technique from merely adequate and accurate to soulful and expressive.
Because the pitch changes in a truly continuous fashion in a bend (rather than in the discrete, fretted intervals that hammers, pulls, and slides are relegated to), you can really access those “in-between” notes available to horns, vocalists, and bowed stringed instruments. What’s more, you can control the rhythm, or travel, of a bend — something you can’t do with a hammer-on or pull-off.
For example, you can take an entire whole note’s time to bend gradually up a half step; or you can wait three and a half beats and then bend up quickly during the last eighth note’s time; or you can do any of the infinitely variable ways in between. How you bend is all a matter of taste — and your personal expressive approach.
To play a bend, pick a fretted note and push (toward the 6th, lowest, string) or pull (toward the 1st, highest, string) the string with your left-hand fretting finger so that the string stretches, raising the pitch. This shows two types of typical bends in 5th position, on the 3rd string, 7th fret.
If you find it difficult to bend with one finger, try “backing up” the bending finger with another finger behind (toward the nut) it. For example, if you use your 3rd finger to bend (as you would when in 5th position and bending the 3rd string, 7th fret), you can use your 2nd, 1st, or even both your 2nd and 1st fingers help push the string.
To bend successfully and without pain, your strings must be of a light enough gauge that they will stretch easily as you push your fretting finger sideways. Electric guitars take gauges light enough to do this, whereas acoustic guitars usually don’t. Also, the sustain factor in electric guitars allows the note to ring longer as the bend is applied, yielding a more dramatic effect.
You also must practice bending in tune, where your bends go up exactly the interval the notation dictates (a quarter step, a half step, a whole step, and so on). In the notation, the distance of the bend is indicated by pitches in the music staff connected by angled (not curved) slurs, whereas tab uses numerals and curved arrows.
This shows a passage mixing two types of bends: an immediate, or instantaneous, bend and a bend in rhythm.
Bend and release
In addition to the standard bend, where you push or pull a string to raise its pitch, you can play other bends to create different effects, such as a continuous up-and-down pitch movement through a bend and release.
Here is a bend and release, which consists of a picked note, a bend up, and then a release of that bend, which produces three distinct notes, but where only the first one is picked. Note the rhythm of the bent notes and that the notes change in sync with the chord changes.
Another variation of the standard bend produces a “downward bend” effect through a pre-bend and release, where the pitch appears to drop. A pre-bend is where you bend the note and hold it in its bent position before picking it. This allows you to then release the note after it’s picked, creating the illusion that you’re bending downward.
This is sometimes called a “reverse bend,” although that’s technically a misnomer. You can only bend in one direction, with regards to pitch: up. By letting the listener hear the pre-bent note first, however, and then executing the release, you give the impression that you’re bending (especially if you do it slowly) downward.
Because pre-bends are a little trickier to set up, they are not as common as normal, ascending bends. But they are extremely powerful expressive devices and should be employed wherever you desire to create a “falling-pitch” effect.
Here is a good example of how to use a pre-bend and release to fall into a note from above. Again, the note choice is dictated by the chord progression going on above it.
The hardest part about performing a pre-bend is not technical but musical: You must bend up to the starting note — and it must be in tune — without your being able to hear it first.
Because you can perform bends on a variety of different strings, on many different frets, and to different intervals (for example half-steps, whole steps, minor 3rds, and major 3rds), the pre-bend distances are all different. Still, through practice, you can learn to “feel your way” to an in-tune pre-bend and achieve remarkably consistent results.