To me, there’s no guitar technique that’s more satisfying to the ear than bends, which explains why I gravitate to guitar players like David Gilmour, Slash, and Warren Haynes. The subtle nuances of a player’s bending technique capture more emotion and feeling than any other technique by far. In this lesson, we’re going to take a look at some bending exercises for guitar that will help you get your technique up to par.
Types of Bends on Guitar
Before we start looking at the exercises, it’s important to understand that all bends are not created equal. There are many different types of bends, but the following are most common.
Bend and Hold
A bend and hold is when you pick a note and it up to a specific pitch and hold it. It’s commonly followed by a bend and release.
Bend and Release
A bend and release is a type of bend in which pick a note and bend the note up to a specific pitch and release back down to the original note. In some variations you may see a partial release and bend back up to the target pitch or, in some cases, bending up to an even higher pitch.
Pre-bends work a bit differently than the standard bend and bend and release. With a pre-bend, you bend the note up to the target pitch before picking it. This type of bend is a bit more challenging because you have to rely on your ability to know how much to bend a note to get it to the correct pitch instead of relying on your ear to tell you once the note is picked.
Pre-Bend and Release
The pre-bend and release is similar to the bend and release, except once again you’re pre-bending the string prior to picking it and then releasing it back down.
How to Practice Bending on Guitar
String bending is one of the few techniques I really like to isolate with exercises simply because of the precision it takes to hit the target note. It’s really easy to miss a note and bend either too much or too little, so spending time solely focused on hitting the right note can really be beneficial.
The exercises in this lesson include both isolated string bending as well as contextual bends using actual guitar licks.
String Bending Tips
Before moving on to the exercises, let’s go over some tips to help with your technique.
Tip 1: Proper Action
Make sure you have the proper action for your strings. Having strings that are too high can cause your fingers to slip underneath adjacent strings when bending. Strings that are too low can cause adjacent strings to slide underneath your bending fingers. Adjacent strings should be “pushed” out of the way when bending so as not to inadvertently sound those notes.
Tip 2: Bend Strings 1, 2 and 3 in the Upward Direction; Strings 4, 5, and 6 in the Downward Direction
Generally speaking, you’ll want to bend up toward the thicker strings when bending strings 1, 2 and 3 and bend down toward the thinner strings when bending strings 4, 5, and 6. This isn’t a hard rule, but I think you’ll find this works best in most cases.
Tip 3: Bend with the Tips of Your Fingers
This one probably goes without saying, but I’m putting it here anyway. You should bend the strings with the tips of your fingers. The string should hit right in the middle of the tip of your finger. If the string slips down even a small bit onto the pad of your finger, the difficulty of the bend increases tremendously. Similarly, if it slides up toward the fingernail it gets harder to control. Aside from exceptions like a 2-string bend with the same finger (which you’ll see in the exercises), always practice clean technique using the tips of your fingers.
Tip 4: Use Non-bending Fingers to Assist
For bends using the middle, ring, and pinky fingers, utilize the non-bending fingers to assist with the bend and give you more precision and control over the bend. Trying to bend using any finger in isolation can be good for building bending strength, but when actually applying bends to your playing it can be quite difficult to get the control you need when bending with a single finger.
Tip 5: Mute Strings with Non-bending Fingers and Picking Hand
In order to keep your bends clean and only sounding the notes intended, use your non-bending fingers to help mute adjacent strings. In most cases you’ll probably find the finger that works best is the index finger. You can also use the palm of the picking hand to keep the upper strings from sounding. The technique would be similar to palm muting.
String Bending Exercises
The bending exercises in this section include both isolated technique building exercises as well as applied exercises where the bends will be incorporated into actual guitar licks. We’ll go through a series of step bends (1/2 step through 2 steps) for each of the various bending styles mentioned above (bend, bend and release, pre-bend, pre-bend and release).
Exercise 1: Standard Bend
In these exercises you’re just performing a standard bend in which you’ll bend the note up the specified number of steps to hit the target note. Prior to each bend, play the target note as shown in the tab to get the pitch in your ear. Each bend should be practiced with each finger (index, middle, ring, and pinky).
1A: 1/2-Step Bend
1B: Full Bend (1 whole step)
1C: 1 1/2-Step Bend
1D: 2-Step Bend
Exercise 2: Bend and Release
In these exercises you’ll be practicing a bend and release. After the note has been bent to the target note, you’ll release back down to the original note. It’s important to keep in mind the release is just as important as the initial bend itself. You’ll want to pay special attention to the release to make sure it has the feel you’re going for.
2A: 1/2-Step Bend and Release
2B: Full Bend and Release
2C: 1 1/2-Step Bend and Release
2D: 2-Step Bend and Release
Exercise 3: Pre-Bends
In this section we’re working on pre-bends. These bends can take some time to get down because you don’t have the auditory feedback of the bent note while you’re bending the string. You have to nail the proper bend prior to picking the note, so take your time and make sure each note is at the proper pitch.
3A: 1/2-Step Pre-Bend
3B: 1-Step Pre-Bend
3C: 1 1/2-Step Pre-Bend
3D: 2-Step Pre-Bend
Exercise 4: Pre-Bend and Release
In these exercises you’re going to practice step bends using pre-bend and release bends. Again, you’ll pick the target note and then the pre-bend making sure the bended note is the same pitch as the target prior to releasing the bend.
4A: 1/2-Step Pre-Bend and Release
4B: 1-Step Pre-Bend and Release
4C: 1 1/2-Step Pre-Bend and Release
4D: 2-Step Pre-Bend and Release
Exercise 5: Double Stops
The exercises in this section utilize double stops and bending the lower note up to match the pitch of the higher note. These bends provide great feedback because when performed correctly the bent note will match the non-bent note.
5A: Double Stop, Single Note Bend
5B: Double Stop, Single Note Bend w/Position Shift
This exercise gets you moving around the fretboard a bit with a couple of position shifts. Take your time and play it slowly at first. Once you have the shift down you can speed it up to make it more challenging.
Exercise 6: Single Note Bend
These bending exercises are similar to the double stop bends in exercise 5, but without the feedback of the higher note being played at the same time. You’ll have to rely on your own ear and bending accuracy to bend to the correct note.
5C: Single Note Bend
5D: Single Note Bend w/Position Shift
Exercise 7: Double Stop Bends
The next two exercises revisit double stops, but are a bit more challenging. These double stops should be played with both the middle and ring fingers as well as ring and pinky fingers.
7A: Double Stop Single Note Bend
Note that in this exercise you’re only bending the lower note.
7B: Double Stop Double Note Bend
Note that in this exercise you’re bending both notes at the same time.
Exercise 8: Applied Bends
In this group of exercises we’re going to apply bends to more real life music scenarios by including them in actual guitar licks.
In this first exercise, you’re combing a double stop bend with a pull-off utilizing the major pentatonic scale.
This double stop bend is a bit more challenging in that it requires you to bend both strings with the ring finger. To perform this one you’ll need to flatten your ring finger to cover both strings.
This lick is a common blues/rock lick utilizing the minor pentatonic scale.
Similar to 8C, this lick utilizes the minor pentatonic with an extra full step bend thrown in.
This lick starts off with a pre-bend and release and utilizes two index finger bends.
This is a major pentatonic lick that puts a full-step bend and release on the tail of a full-step bend.
Building Strength for Guitar Bends
For a lot of beginners, bending strings can be difficult at first. Bending strength is something that will develop over time, but there are a couple of things you can do to help it along.
Use a Lower Gauge String
While this won’t directly help build your strength, it will allow you to practice the technique with a bit more precision until your strength develops. I would only go this route if you absolutely can’t bend the strings to the full degree required to hit the target notes.
Use a Higher Gauge String
Counter to the above advice, if you’re able to sufficiently bend the strings but are looking to make it a bit easier, you can try moving up a string gauge. This will cause the muscles in your fingers to work harder to complete the bends, so when you move back to your regular gauge the strings will be easier to manipulate.
Isolate Your Fingers
Another option I’ve used over the years is to perform isolated exercises for each finger so it bears the full load of the string bend. You can start on the high E string and perform 10 bends per finger. Once that becomes easy, move to the B string and so on. You can also change the position on the neck where you bend to vary the difficulty. Bending closer to the bridge/nut will be more difficult than bending in the middle of the neck.
String bending is one of the most expressive techniques you can utilize on the guitar. However, it can be one of the most challenging techniques to master as it requires a lot of precision. The bending exercises in this lesson will help you develop your feel and improve your bending technique. From there you can work on the many nuances that go into bending that make the technique unique to each player to develop a style that’s all your own.
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