I don’t often get technical here when I’m talking guitars, so apologies if this article causes a little bit of head-scratching. However, I will try and explain some of the simple musical terms I use and there are some good sites on the net that you can consult if you want more comprehensive information.
As a young kid I was interested in the guitar quite early on and when the Shadows came on the scene I wouldn’t say that I immediately wanted a guitar, but it certainly started me becoming more curious about actually playing one.
I eventually got a guitar when I was about 10 which was frankly a guitar-shaped piece of crap, along with Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in a Day’ (a bold and frankly ludicrous title!), and I didn’t progress at all – it was all Greek to me.
However, I got a better guitar – a reasonable classical guitar – when I was 13 and got properly started on playing by a friend who showed me the basics.
One day, I asked him what the strange noise was that I’d heard on a Rolling Stones record (‘It’s All Over Now’, if I recall correctly) and he told me it was produced by bending a guitar string.
This was quite simply my guitar epiphany.
Once he showed me how to do it – not easy on a nylon-strung classical guitar – I was up and running and bending strings like a string-bending motherfucker.
Bending strings is one of the main techniques in blues, and hence rock (birthed as it is in the blues), guitar.
Generally speaking, like playing barre chords, it’s one of those major hurdles in learning to play that you think you’re never going to get over. As always, perseverance is the real key and so you just have to keep on plugging at it.
String bending is usually, but not always, used on the unwound strings because it’s easier and also being higher in pitch the notes tend to stand out more when bent. The most elementary way of bending a string is by gripping the neck much as you would a baseball bat and then simultaneously pushing down through the fretboard and across the fretboard (usually upwards) with a finger. I find myself using the third finger most often and backed up with the first two fingers to make it easier. When you’ve developed fretting hand strength then bending becomes easier and you should be able to bend with different fingers in various different ways, depending on what you’re actually playing.
The lighter (smaller diameter) the string, the easier it is to bend and the less tense the string, the easier it is, too. Some guitarists detune a semi-tone or a tone which helps facilitate bending and most players who string bend and want wide bends will also favour a lighter string. The trade off is in tone when, in my experience, lighter and slacker strings give you a less full-bodied sound, although it really is horses for courses here. There are no rules!
I use D’Addario 10 gauge strings in standard tuning and with a pretty high action set up on the guitar (usually my US Tele) which some people find makes bending difficult, but really isn’t at all extreme. This combination, however, suits me just fine as it gives me easy bends with maximum tone for my style of playing.
Where bending first came from no-one really knows, but it’s been suggested that the sound emulates slide guitar which is one of the blues guitar styles first documented. WC Handy writes that he saw a guy using a bone as a guitar slide sometime around 1910 or so.
In blues there are a couple of really common bends that give the music much of its unique ‘flavour’.
The first is a bend raising the 4th note in the scale a semitone above to the flattened fifth. This note can be heard in context with the root note by singing the first three notes of ‘Mars’ from Holst’s ‘Planets Suite’. The first note is the root, the second the fifth and the third the flattened fifth. The flattened fifth isn’t a note you want to hang on to for too long as it actually clashes with other notes you might use in a blues, but if you move to it and away from it during the course of a blues melody or solo then it gives you a ‘bluesy’ sound.
The second note often bent is the minor third to the major third and also, interestingly, microtonal notes between the two. This only works in a major key blues and sounds wrong in a minor key blues. The ambivalence of this third note – the one that determines whether you’re in a major or a minor key – also gives you that ‘bluesy’ vibe.
Almost every blues (or rock) guitarist you can name bends notes. Some bend more than others, but very few don’t bend at all. There are many ways of bending notes and not just the two notes I’ve described above.
There are unison bends, double and triple bends and even pre-bends where you bend a string up to a desired pitch before plucking and then pluck release the bend.
As for how far you can bend a string, the only limitations are those set by the actual physical conditions – set up, string gauge, fretting hand strength, etc. It’s perfectly possible to bend an unwound third string up a fourth on a standard tuned guitar if you play in the middle of the string length where it’s at its slackest.
I said above that guitarists usually bend notes up towards them and this is generally true as the unwound strings – especially the first and second – are close to the edge of the fretboard and you can push the strings off the neck. However, this isn’t a rule and you can push down – especially easy with an unwound third string – if you want and it may be necessary for certain licks. This downwards bending gives a slightly different sound – remarkably hard to define and best appreciated by listening to a player who habitually bends downwards – and it’s also a bit easier to bend the string – meaning that you can bend it to a higher pitch.
One of the best-known players to bend downwards and achieve these very wide bends was the late Albert King who played this way because he used a standard right handed guitar but played left handed. This meant that everything was ‘upside down’ and the more commonly-bent strings were nearest him. To bend a string he would push down and achieve his distinctive licks with overbends on such tracks as ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ and ‘Oh Pretty Woman’.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his unusual method of playing:
King was a left-handed "upside-down/backwards" guitarist. He was left-handed, but usually played right-handed guitars flipped over upside-down so the low E string was on the bottom. In later years he played a custom-made guitar that was basically left-handed, but had the strings reversed (as he was used to playing). He also used very unorthodox tunings (i.e., tuning as low as C to allow him to make sweeping string bends). Some believe that he was using open E minor tuning (C-B-E-G-B-E) or open F tuning (C-F-C-F-A-D). A "less is more" type blues player, he was known for his expressive "bending" of notes, a technique characteristic of blues guitarists.
All of this stuff about bending and upside down guitars leads me to conclude this article with a recommendation of a musician some people might not have heard of, but of whom I’m starting to get very fond indeed.
Like Albert King, Doyle Bramhall II plays guitar ‘upside down’. However, although his music is blues-based, Doyle’s original compositions operate within a much wider format. It’s bluesy, yes, but there’s also soul, rock and acoustic melodicism in there that produces a really fine brew. There aren’t very many wailing guitar histrionics and fast work outs at all, but there are plenty of intense and thoughtful songs, punctuated by some of the most original and soulful blues-based guitar stylings I’ve heard in quite a few years.
Although he’s probably been seen by more people as a sidesman (to Eric Clapton, no less, to name the most famous he’s played with) he grew up in Texas and played around the region, eventually achieving a degree of fame with the Arc Angels – recently reformed – and a reputation as a killer player. However, it’s his solo releases that have me really excited, with 1999’s ‘Jellycream’ getting most play lately. What I particularly love are the intricate yet direct songs the guy writes and it’s a real treat to hear some original chord progressions for a change. His guitar playing is best described as ‘sinuous’ – muscular yet supple with enough twists and turns to hold the interest and also avoid the usual ‘I come from Texas and I play a Strat’ cliches. This guy is certainly no SRV clone!
Without wishing to blow my own trumpet (!) I think I have a pretty good ear and can usually pick up what I hear quite easily and emulate it on guitar. Doyle’s playing doesn’t seem to give up its secrets at all easily and I really like that in a player’s style and technique. If I hear a piece of guitar playing I really, really like then I usually get a guitar out and try and play it. In a strange way this often strips away some of the mystique the music may have had, but I then end up appreciating it on a different, more technical level. So far, Doyle’s preserved his mystique and I reckon his playing is going to intrigue me for the foreseeable future. Simply put, it’s unique.
So, please check Doyle out, but make sure you don’t confuse him with his father – Doyle Bramhall (no II!). The elder Bramhall is a fine drummer who’s released some good blues-based albums of his own, but they’re far more mainstream than his son’s releases.
Remember, you need the Doyle Bramhall with the ‘II’.
And happy bending!