Bend Me Scrape Me
a photo guide to guitar string bending tricks
Why, when there are six strings on a guitar, do we only ever think of bending one at a time?
Country players breached this mental block long ago, cottoning on that you could bend at least two strings at once, by the same amount, or to different degrees. Used inside three string chords, these spiralling rises and falls in pitch seem to wrap around each other sometimes audacious, sometimes mournful. Then again, they did have pedal steel guitar to keep up with.
Still, a technique is just a tool. It doesn't bind you to its use in one sort of guitar music. Once you've mastered the knack, no knowing where these bendy bits can turn up. It would place the world's ink supply in danger if we attempted to describe some of these secrets, so we imported the fingers of patently-fine-chap Adrian Legg for a morning, that he might sit in front of a camera and show us a few tricks.
But first, some words on skin.
Most bends within chords use the 2nd and 3rd fingers, leaving the 1st and 4th (or pinkie) to work around them applying barres and decorations. If you're a rock player you'll be used to bending a single string with the 2nd or the 3rd or both clamped together. It's unlikely you'll be familiar with pushing, say, the G with your 2nd finger AND the B with your third, either by the same amount so they both climb by a tone, or separate degrees — one a tone, the other a semitone.
It will demand extra muscle and tougher fingertips. Even if you normally play a lot, don't be surprised if your fingertips complain for the first few practices. As an introductory exercise, try the workout pictured nearby. Push the G string up a tone, hold it (A); push the B string up a semitone, hold it (B); let the B down (still supporting the G) (C), then finally release the G. Pluck the strings for both the up and down movements. (Knowing when and where to stop a bend so the string hits the right note comes only with practice and familiarity. Improve your aim by pushing without sounding the string, hold it when you think you've got it right, then pluck to check... target practice. You'll need this degree of accuracy if you want to include descending lines in your portfolio — twanging the string from a 'pushed' position and letting the note fall within a chord.)
In these first exercises, you should find that the 2nd and 3rd fingers assist each other. The 2nd acts as a brake, telling the 3rd its reached the full, safe and correct extent of its travel and the 3rd (while it's there, backed up behind its mate), lends some support to the 2nd which is by now groaning and turning white at the knuckle from having kept the G string on stilts for so long.
No such luck with the second, more advanced exercise, this time using the 1st and 2nd fingers to do the work. Push the G string towards you with the 2nd finger, hold it; now pull the B string downwards with the 1st finger hold that; release as the previous exercise and place left hand in ice box. All sorts of reasons for this variation. Certain chord configurations might not permit the 2nd and 3rd trick, and certain positions on the fretboard will make it impossible to push the B string upwards far enough to hit the desired note. The G string and your other finger could be in the way. Further complications in this technique mean physical problems for your nails, a convenient moment to consider what you can do to help reduce the suffering in your digits.
To toughen the tips of your fingers, there's the old wives' remedy of surgical spirit massaged into the skin (not simply dunked all over it). No need to apply it to the rest of your hand, just the fingertips. You can usually buy a 500ml bottle from the chemist for about £1.00/£1.20. (Ballerinas use the same lotion to toughen their toes, if that's any encouragement.)
If you're using surgical spirit regularly, you'll need to oil your nails or they could dry out along with the skin, leading to splits and chips. Try white oil, again from the chemist; massage it in then clean off the excess, you don't want it all over the fingerboard. In fact, try to keep the strings and your hand dry when playing — you'll improve your grip, and if you turn up sweaty-handed to a gig without your talcum powder, try the sly Adrian Legg last-ditch-emergency-solution... feel along the tops of picture frames for the fine dust which escapes the attention of Mrs Cleaning Operative. It will do in a pinch.
If your nails are too soft, the local pharmacist might also stock white iodine — another massage job. My mum used to tell me that eating jelly made your nails grow, but I think she'd just bought a bargain 100cwts-worth from a man in a funny lorry.
If you thrash your fingers too heavily callouses may begin to build up (not necessarily disastrous) which could split (in with a better chance of being disastrous). File the skin smooth with an emery board, but if the splits are too deep, fill the crack with something like antiseptic Savlon which should be thick enough to stay in the split and help it heal, without spraying onto the rest of your fingertip and inhibiting your playing.
Finally if you get a lateral split (along the tramlines of your fingerprint) this can be mucho bad news as a string can catch underneath and rip off a painful chunk of skin. Lay off and let it rest.
If you have problems around the other side of the digit, such as your fingernail lifting from its bed, get thee to the doctor for advice because oiling, massaging and filing are not going to help.
Which brings us to our downward bending activities in the previous section, and the question of nails and their length (left hand). There is a case for leaving as much nail on your finger as you can get away with, mainly because it supports the skin behind it and allows you to bring extra pressure to bear. But for some of these bending tricks you might have to cut your nails shorter than usual. In the downwards example, the edge of a long nail would come into contact with the fretboard and lift your finger away from the string, making it harder to grip.
But even that will depend very much on the way your guitar is set up. Tall frets leave more space to get a healthy lump of skin around the string and hold on hard. Low frets, where the string is consequently nearer the wood of the fingerboard, won't let you dig in so far.
The height (or bead) of the frets will affect how light you need the strings to be to practice these double bends. (Don't be afraid to come down in gauge to get started.) As a rough guide Adrian, who has been playing this way for a few days, uses 10s on his deep beaded Strat, 8s on his low level Adamas, and a compromise of 9s for the Ovation in between.
The next pattern above makes use of the limiting action of the 2nd finger as mentioned in earlier prose. As shown in the pic, push the D on the G string to an E, and in the same movement, the F# on the B string to a G (D). Now add a twist by slipping your 2nd finger forwards, towards the headstock of the guitar. If you're keeping the pressure on with the 3rd finger, then with this barrier removed, it should slide into the gap previously occupied by the 2nd and take the B string from a G to a G# (E). The trick is in not allowing the G string to slip out of tune while you're sliding your 3rd finger. If you can't manage it to begin with, practice the different positions by coming back to rest (all strings straightened) between unslipped and slipped varieties.
Now we need to build up 'unsupported' strength in the fingers. In the first picture you've pushed the E to F# on the G and the G to A on the B, but the 3rd finger is being shouldered into place by the... er... pinkie. If you remove the 4th finger to put in a sweet D on the 1st string, it certainly enriches the sound, but your 3rd finger has to stand on its own. The hand is no longer in one compact block and it will take some time to master.
While these sorts of bends on their own are effective within chord passages, or thrown into the middles of solos, they come into their creative home ground when spun together as a complete passage where the same shapes can be bent up, down, together, individually, or however the mood strikes. We begin, and to keep matters clear we'll keep all 1st, 2nd, 3rd references for the strings on which you're playing. Take your guide for the fingers to be used from the photos above. Twang each string as you bend it down to the position shown in the pix.
F# to E on the 1st, D to G on the 2nd followed by a first finger barre on D and A across the top two strings; then C to B on the 2nd, A to G on the 3rd, dropping off to an unbent A on the 2nd, F# on the 3rd; find the same A and F# notes, but this time as bent strings two frets down, being released to reach their natural G and E, then a barre to give an F# and D on the 2nd and 3rd; finally, shifting backwards, we produce an F to E on the 3rd and C to B on the 4th concluded by a barred D and A on the 3rd and 4th.
A swine, wasn't it, but pretty? Presuming you've practised and perfected the last one in a shorter time than it takes for magazine paper to disintegrate with age, we'll leave you with one last progression. The bends should be obvious by now, so we'll just name the chords — D/Dmaj 7th (aka A6th)/D flattened 7th (aka A minor 6th)/D augmented 9th/G augmented ninth/A '7th-on-the-bottom-6th-on-the-top'/A7th/D. Each shape should start with the strings at rest (straightened) and be twanged as they're bent to the positions illustrated. And for variation try swapping the strings on which you make those semitone downward slides — say on the 5th instead of the 4th, as shown in the pics.
If you want to hear how these pictures sound, might we recommend Adrian Legg's very own and extremely fine album "Fretmelt" available from Spindrift Records, and cop a particular listen to tracks "Norah Handley's Waltz" and "Kathleen Hardley". You might recognise something...
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!