A few days ago while playing some blues at a downtown venue, I started experimenting with the string bend. I created long slow, angular bends that moved up the scale, vibrato laid upon the bend, and placement of a second finger on the string to create instant pitch change in the middle of the bend. Clearly, string bending is an important aspect of expressive lead guitar. Properly applied, the bend can add a little sparkle to a lead, and for the improviser, it provides a rest so you can do some planning for the next few measures. Improperly applied though and these bends can lead to a weary listener. What follows are some things that matter when creating the ideal bend.
Hand configuration: The position of your hand delivers or sometimes limits control while string bending. I do not usually place my thumb on the back of the neck, rather I place my thumb on the side or wrapped over the neck almost touching the frets. This seems to provide more stability for my long slow string bends. However, your hands are not my hands. I strongly recommend that you choose the hand configuration that works best for you to avoid anything that brings pain or discomfort.
Pulling the string: Use one’s wrist to move the string. Using the wrist and applying a consistent configuration of fingers will lead to excellent control, will allow the application of vibrato on top of the bend, and will allow for the placement of a second finger on the string to cause a rather dramatic instant half step or whole step increase in pitch as the pitch glides to its destination.
The goal: A string bend, is essentially pushing or pulling the note, you are currently playing to a higher pitched note. On the other hand, you can start, with the string bent at the higher pitch and then relax to a lower pitch. The note that you’re moving or bending towards is usually a note in the scale and often the next note in the melodic flow you are creating. Be careful to bring the bent note into alignment with your scale.
The point of this missive is to discuss the notion of expression. Some nights I do not bend much. Instead, I focus on the movement from one tightly coupled riff to the next, adding new variants, passing tones, and phrasing to keep it fresh. I use muting, staccato execution, parallel octave tones moved in unison, slides (two note chords) using 3rds, 4ths or 5ths. I sometimes play out of rhythm to exaggerate phrasing. Why the variations? Expression. Why bend? Expression. This thing called expression is the art of playing music to communicate. The components of expression include dynamic indications, differing qualities of touch and articulation, color, intensity, energy and the injection of excitement into the pursuit of tone all add to the expression of the moment. I chose the movement and tone to generate emotions such as sympathy, tension, aggression, calmness or otherwise to adjust to the audience’s physical and emotional responses.
When I am in the zone, you are hearing my deepest thoughts — you are hearing my soul express the unspeakable.