Acoustic bluesmen Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson began experimenting with string bending as early as the late Twenties and early Thirties. But it wasn’t until the invention of the electric guitar—with its long sustain—in the late Thirties and early Forties that bending started to become a playing staple of many early guitarists.
With these two important innovations, the guitar’s status was elevated from its primary role as a rhythm instrument to that of a lead instrument. And it wasn’t long before the guitar supplanted the piano as the main solo instrument in many blues combos.
Through the years, legends like B.B. King, Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan helped advance string bending into the major role it now plays in guitar-based music, so much so that it has become the defining sound of the electric guitar. Let’s take a look at some of the more common bending techniques guitarists use to make their instrument sing.
The most popular types of string bends are the quarter-, half- and whole-step bends. In this lesson, we’ll discuss these in the context of the A blues scale (A C D Eb E G).
There are five bends commonly used in conjunction with the blues scale, all shown in FIGURE 1:
• the b3rd to the 4th
• the b7th to the root
• the b3rd up a quarter step
• the 4th up a half step to the b5th
• the 4th up a whole step to the 5th
Because some of these bends take a bit of finger strength, try using your non-fretting fingers to reinforce the finger doing the bending. For example, if you’re bending with your third finger, use your first and second fingers to help push up on the string to make the bend easier. (Bends performed this way are called reinforced bends.)
Once you’ve got the bending part down, try releasing the note. A bend and release simply involves bending a note to the desired pitch and then, without reattacking the string, returning it to its original pitch. FIGURE 2 is a two-measure lick using this technique.
Another method used in string bending is the pre-bend. This time, the string is silently bent to the desired pitch before the note is sounded. Then you can choose to do one of the following: release the note, apply vibrato, or bend the note further (FIGURE 3).
Some of the more unconventional bends utilized to great effect in the blues are 1-1/2- and two-step bends. These are not used as often as other bends but they can be very effective when added to your improvisational licks and phrases. Play through the lick in FIGURE 4 to hear how it sounds when combined with conventional bends.
Finally, let’s talk about a few bends that involve more than one string. These include unison, double-string and oblique bends.
The unison bend is achieved by bending a string a whole step—and sometimes a half step—to match the pitch of a fretted note on a higher adjacent string. (FIGURE 5A). A double-string bend will take quite a bit of finger strength to perform, as it involves bending two strings at the same time (FIGURE 5B), just as the name suggests. An oblique bend is the combination of a fretted note and a bent note—usually a half or whole step (FIGURE 5C). Oblique bends are popular in the pedal-steel-style licks found in country music.