Unlike many other stringed instruments, including the violin, viola, cello and bass viola, the guitar has frets. This not only ensures precise intonation—it also allows for robust string bending.
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons once said that you can separate the real blues cat from the dilettantes by the accuracy of their bends: when it comes to intonation, poseurs tend to underachieve. Only a handful of notables have proven to be masters of the controlled multi-step bend.
Albert King based virtually his entire style around heroic string bending and had a secret tuning that is still up for debate. Nonetheless, his top three strings appear to have been relative to standard tuning, as shown in FIGURE 1. King played left-handed and upside down, and to bend he pulled down instead of pushing up, so you’ll need to work hard to reach two whole steps when bending in the conventional manner. It takes a keen ear to nail the three descending steps in measure 1. In measure 2, you might want to use your middle and ring fingers for the whomping double-string two-step bend.
Buddy Guy was profoundly influenced early in his career by B.B. King. But by 1979’s Stone Crazy, Guy had become considerably wilder than King. This is especially evident in his string-bending. In measure 1 of FIGURE 2, push the 4th (D) up to the cool 6th (F#) with your 4th finger, backed by your 3rd, 2nd and 1st fingers. Then shift your hand position down the neck and, on beat 4, use your 3rd finger to bend the b7th (G) to the root (A).
Roy Buchanan occasionally pre-bent a string and then lowered it in seven incremental steps. He could wrestle the strings of his Tele like nobody’s business. FIGURE 3 features the long, languorous bends that Buchanan often favored. Crossing the bar line, as the second bend does, is a great effect for creating tension.
Johnny Winter raised the bar for string-punishing electric blues when he exploded on the scene in 1968. FIGURE 4 contains a couple of his snappy licks from the “B.B. King box,” punctuated with spiky bends of the 5th (E) to the b7th (G). Be careful not to break your B string in measure 2 when you hoist it up two and a half steps, from the root (D) to the 4th (G).
Stevie Ray Vaughan was Albert King’s protégé, and he regularly acknowledged his mentor when spilling his guts in a slow blues. The SRV lick in FIGURE 5 engenders delicious musical tension by gradually bending from the b3rd (C) to the b5th (Eb)—sounding the major 3rd (C#) and the 4th (D) along the way—which is resolved to the root (A).