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Learning how to play bends (for beginners)

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This tutorial teaches a technique called bending, that is difficult to master for beginners. Let's go over the basics of this effect in order to help you practise it properly.

Basics required for this lesson : Introduction to guitar effects,
Practice this lesson : None

Today, let's learn how to play bends. This is an effect that is very interesting, but it is also very difficult, especially for a beginner as it requires both strength from the left hand and a good ear. So let's start by explaining exactly what a bend is, then let's learn the technique required to play them and let's end up with some exercises to practise this.

The anatomy of a bend

What is a bend?

The idea of a bend is quite simple to understand: it is just about playing a note, any note, and then pushing the string so that the note gets higher and higher, until it reaches the next note. The more you push the string, the more it will get tight, and as you tighten a guitar string, the note being played becomes increasingly high.

Let's immediately get rid of a misconception: this is not about just pushing the string in any way. In 99% of cases, you are aiming for a specific note, and unfortunately, this is something beginners often forget (or didn't learn) about. It is absolutely essential to understand that when you play bends, you play a sequence of notes and you are not just playing random sounds.

 

The notes that you play have a specific pitch, but they also have a time frame that will allow you to play the bends within a precise beat. This is also an element you should pay attention to.
If you don't reach the right pitch, the bend will not sound right. If you do not respect the correct note length, the bend will be flawed.

You must always keep in mind the melody that you want to play/should be playing and try to reproduce it correctly, both in terms of rhythm and pitch. The bend just serves as another transition between notes, and makes such transition more fluid. All this will be detailed in the third part.

What's in a bend

A bend is made up of 4 elements :

  • The initial note (the one you strum when beginning the bend)
  • The rise (when you push the string)
  • The final note (the note you are trying to reach)
  • The descent (when you let go off the string to return to the initial note)

It is imperative to understand that, even if it seems odd, all of these elements are independent, separable and flexible in order to create a wide variety of bends.
Here are some examples of possible combinations:

  • you can begin with the initial note, then create a rise, reach the final note, but not play the descent
  • you may directly start with the final note, then play the descent to reach the starting note

Let me clarify right away that the initial note is almost always strummed and that the final note is very rarely strummed. However, after a descent, when you're back on the initial note, you can either strum the starting note or not, it depends on the situation. There is a specific notation in both cases but this will be explained in the following lesson on the different types of bends.
You are probably beginning to understand that there are tons of possibilities with the bends with plenty of combinations and possibilities to play any note that you want or so. Therefore, in today’s lesson, let's focus on the basic bends, on the technique to play them and let's practice accuracy. All potential types of bends will be detailed in a future lesson.

The technique that will get you there

For the time being, let’s forget about accuracy and let’s focus only on the left-hand movement, in order to build a bit of muscle there.

Choose the right guitar

Make sure you have a guitar that allows you to play bends. There is no need to buy a new guitar just to playbends, any guitar can do the trick provided you follow these few items:

  • Use an electric guitar. On an acoustic guitar, the strings are too hard to play bends correctly so keep that for later, once you've become a pro at playing bends!
  • Your strings must be suitable for bends. If the strings are too rusty, they will lose flexibility. Even with new strings, there are different types of strings, meaning some are more flexible than others. With strings that are too hard, you might not manage to play them all that well.
  • Make sure that your guitar is tuned and adjusted. A poorly adjusted guitar can prevent you from playing bends due to buzz sounds and a guitar that is not tuned will distort your ear, which will quickly result in something terrible when practising bends.

If your guitar does not match these few requirements, bring it to your favorite music store and ask the representative to help you out by setting you up with light strings, or even extra-light ones (which are more flexible than average).

Use your fingers!

The first thing, which is very important to highlight when playing bends, is that you must use as many fingers as possible.

In order to do so, say you want to play a bend from fret 10 on B-string for example: place your finger on fret 10 but also place your middle finger and index on the same string, just before the ring finger. And you will use these three fingers to push the string. In some instances, all fingers will not be available, in which case it is generally ok to use the middle finger-ring or index- middle finger. You will almost never play a bend with one single finger.

Why? Simply because having more fingers gives you more power and having more power allows you more control on being accurate.

For all exercises listed in this lesson, start practicing with three fingers and once you become comfortable with that, try using two fingers only.

Finger movement

As it is often the case when describing a movement, I strongly advise you to watch the video to fully understand everything. It is in the second part, starting at 2:05. (video only in French at the moment)

We'll start to break off from our usual position and for this, we raise the thumb above the neck. It will give us a better grip on the neck and it will allow us to develop a lot of strength without flinching.

Suddenly, our fingers will no longer be in the same position as usual, they are no longer parallel to the frets and they will not be quite as rounded but this is normal. Usually, with the bends, we only play one or two notes simultaneously so it does not matter if you touch the other strings with your fingers, it will almost never bother you.

Once you are in the right position, you "just" have to push the string upwards. Force yourself to push well with three fingers! Do not push them as high as possible as you may break your strings and we have no interest in doing this for the time being, as we will see up next just how far we have to push them.

You may notice right away that if you perform your bends with enough "width", you will also need to push the other strings. This is normal and it makes the task exponentially difficult: the more you push your string, the more it is stretched and it therefore requires the strength to push it, on top of the other strings that also become increasingly stretched. So basically, the harder you push, the more strength it takes to push even more. It will remind you of your first bowel movement.

Pay attention to pressure

There is one issue that will have to face: being focused on pushing our strings upwards means that we tend to forget to push the frets. If we want the note sounds correctly, we must continue to apply pressure to the frets, otherwise the note will be stifled.

To do this, it is no secret that we have to stay focused on the fact that we need to properly fret the string, even when we are pushing upwards.

Work everywhere !

We will now move on to the third part to work on regarding the accuracy of the bends but before that, one last tip: we will have to work the bends all over the neck. Following the string and the fret that you play, the force required for the bend will be different. In the first frets, the strings are more stretched and will require much more force than frets 12-15. Therefore, practice everywhere so you get used to it all!

And the bass strings ?

And suddenly, if we try to play a bend on a bass string (the A-string, for example) and we push the string upwards, we risk moving off of the neck. In this case, we will therefore pull the string downwards. The principle is the same, the hand is kept in the same position except that instead of pushing, we bend the fingers so it pulls the string. We'll talk in more detail about this in another course.

How to work them

Preamble

In this third part, we will discuss a key aspect: how to work on the accuracy of the bends. Beware that this will be really hard for beginners but it is essential to work at all of this regularly if we want to correctly play the bends. It will take you a few days or weeks before you really manage to play the bends and it will take a few months more of training to make it happen naturally and be able to integrate them properly into solos. This will not come in 10 minutes.

The notes

The issue of this part is not in the technical aspects or the necessary strength of the left hand, but in the ear. We will develop the accuracy of our ear to see if our bends are right or not. And whether our bends are right or wrong, we must take a look at the notes which compose them. For that, let’s look at how the bends are written in tabs.

The writing on a tab

We can find tabs with basic notes written, followed by an upward arrow:

Bend demi-ton

We will notice in this example that we start from fret 10 B-string, so the second string and this will be our starting note for the bend. And above the arrow, you can find a small "half", "full" or sometimes "1" that will be written. This means that by beginning from the starting note, we will go up by a semitone (1/2) or a full tone (full or 1) to achieve a new note.

For this, we must know that on the neck of the guitar, a fret corresponds to a semitone. So if we start from fret 10 and want to play a bend from a semitone, we want to get the same note as in fret 10 +1 = 11. But obviously, we do not move our fret 10 as the goal is to push the string until you get the same pitch.

The same concept applies if you want to play a bend in a tone except that this time, we have to target the note located two frets higher, so it is fret 12 when we start off from fret 10.

It is also possible to find bends that are a tone and a half or more, but these become much more difficult so we did not discuss these today.

And on the Internet ?

In the case of tabs found on the Internet, in text format, it is not possible to draw arrows so there are different ways to represent the bend, for example by indicating:

Bend sur une tablature internet

Here we see a "10b12", the 10 representing the starting note, the "b" indicating that we need to make a bend and "12" representing the target note.

How to target the correct note

A little problem you get when you are beginning is that you do not know what all the frets of our guitar sound like. So, if we must play a bend in a tone from fret 10, we do not know where we should stop our bend.

So the first exercise/advice is to learn how to play accurate bends and something to apply in all cases when you are starting out is to always listen to the note you are targeting before you play the bend. If you must play a bend in a tone from fret 10, you must therefore refer to the fret 12. So you will play the fret 12 to listen to it and memorize the note that you are targeting, then try to reproduce it by bending the string in fret 10.

Train yourself

Take two notes separated by a tone or semitone, anywhere on the fretboard. Play the highest note and try to bend from the lowest in order to reproduce this high note. It may take you a while before you can do this quickly and accurately so train often and gradually, it will come.

Work on pace

As I said in the first part, the bends that we play also have a rhythm. To work our bends in rhythm, we'll review a little of that same concept from the previous exercise. Let’s take a look at this tab:

Mélodie pour travailler les bends

In the first step, we play fret 8, then fret 10, then 11 and we finish with fret 10, all on the B-string. This is a fairly simple melody that we will play in a loop (just the first measure for starters). All the notes will be regular and will have the same duration.

In the second measure, we will replace the highest note (fret 11) by a bend from fret 10, which will therefore play a bend from a semitone. The goal is to reproduce the same melody, in terms of height and in pace.

Whether you play the version with bends or without bends, you end up with exactly the same melody. The notes and rhythm must be totally identical. You can watch the video (from 6mn10) to see an example that is in line with the necessary pace as well as an example that is not in line with the pace.

Once you have deciphered this melody with and without the bends, you will then alternate between the two versions. You play once without the bend, once with the bend, once without the bend, once with, etc ... This way, one out of two times, you will hear the melody that you should be playing and one out of two times, you will be trying to reproduce it. This allows your ears to keep up with whether your results are correct or not.

You can apply this same exercise to different places of the neck, with the bends of a semitone or a full tone, or with other melodies. Just make sure to always follow the sound of the notes that are played in the melody.

The "speed" of a bend

Although the goal is to play a note at a given time, the rise and fall of the bend can be faster or slower, more or less gradual, all the while respecting the rhythm (see examples 7mn45 in the video). These variations are rarely written on tabs since they are very subjective. The choice of the interpretation of the bend is often left to the guitarist.

These differences in interpretation will be explored in more detail in a subsequent course. Just remember that the speed of the ascent/descent of a bend is independent of its rhythm.

A little trick

Now, here is a little trick that may or may not be helpful. The idea is to plug yourself into a chromatic tuner, if you have one on hand. If you are connected to a chromatic tuner, it will display the note that you play, regardless of which it is.

If, for example, you play fret 10 B-string, it will tell you that this is an A-string. If you play a bend in a tone, you should then play a B-string, as fret 12 B-string. The tuner, which is very accurate, will allow you to see if your bend is perfectly on point or if falls a little short and whether it is above or below where you are supposed to be.

Be careful though, if you’re always staring at a tuner while you’re working, you will not develop your ear. And lord knows that the ear is very important to a musician. Use this trick sparingly to check your bends as you start out, but never forget to work your ear.

The bend is a guitar effect!

To conclude this short presentation of exercises, remember that the bend is an effect! It does not change the melody that is played and the notes and rhythm remains the same. It is simply there to bring a sound to the sequence of the notes that is a little different but that does not change the melody.

This means that you can take any melody/solo that has bends and remove them, simply by replacing the bend by the real note. Conversely, you can take a melody that does not have bends and replace some notes by a bend.

The advantage is that you can incorporate into your playing at your own pace: you don’t have to work on a solo with all the same bends as the original. You can remove the ones that are toughest for you so that you can focus on just one or two bends and add the others gradually.

The last word

Train yourself extensively on simple bends before trying to attack what follows. Train your ear, your fingers, always pay attention to accuracy and do not skip out on the steps. Gradually include all of this into your playing and you will have no problem. See you soon in other guitar lessons!

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(Leopold Stokowski)