The Bluesy Beauty of Bent Unisons

October 24, 2011

Who is the best? Clapton? Page? Beck? Hendrix? That question dominated discussions between fledgling guitarists in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Bands like Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, and the Jeff Beck Group took the traditional blues form popularized by B.B., Albert, and Freddie King (as well as Buddy Guy, T. Bone Walker, and others), and played a louder, more riff-driven version of it. Not long after, lots of guitarists were jumping on the blues-rock bandwagon, including Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Rick Derringer, Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman, and the force of nature known as Stevie Ray Vaughan.

One thing that all these players have in common is their ability to work soulful bends into their playing. String bending is an integral part of the blues-rock style, so I’d like to focus on one aspect of bending that will potentially open up new doors for your melodic and rhythmic phrasing: “bent unisons.”

The idea behind bent unisons is to bend a note on one string so that it sounds like the same fretted pitch on the string above it. For instance, bend the D on the seventh fret of the G string up to an E and then play E on the fifth fret of the B string (see Ex. 1). Even though both pitches are the same, they sound different due to the fact that they are probably slightly out of tune and because the two strings sound different as well. This technique allows us to repeat the same pitch in a much more expressive way.

The following examples are exercises derived from licks used by Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Johnny Winter. The last two examples are blues-rock licks that demonstrate how to use the technique in a more musical way.

Ex. 2 is based on the opening phrase to Page’s solo from “Good Times, Bad Times.” Notice that the sixteenth-notes are in groups of three.

For the ending riff of “Be Careful with a Fool” in Ex. 3, Winter uses a kind of opposite rhythmic treatment by playing sixteenth-note triplets in groups of four.

Jimi Hendrix uses groups of three eighth-notes to start his solo on “Come On” from Electric Ladyland, similar to the lick in Ex. 4. The fingerings and picking instructions are just suggestions. I chose options that felt the best to me, but I urge you to experiment.


Ex. 5 is also based on a Hendrix lick. Hopefully, the groups of quintuplets will open up a whole Pandora’s box of ideas for you.


Ex. 6 is a lick I came up with over a standard V-IV-I blues turnaround.

And finally, Ex. 7 uses a couple of different bent unisons to create some nice melodic syncopation.

Remember: the most important thing about any riff you play is that it has to feel good and be used in just the right place. The best way to learn how to do that in this style is to listen to tons of music from the great masters of blues-rock guitar. Learn and transcribe their solos and really concentrate on understanding and capturing the nuance in the phrases.
For close to 30 years, Dean Brown has been an integral part of the global fusion and electric jazz scene, recording and/or touring the world with his own projects as well as with Marcus Miller, the Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, David Sanborn, Joe Zawinul, and many others. Keep up with him at
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