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The "Rules" of String Bending on Guitar

Question by Tom Sims
(Ontario, Canada)

Typically, in a blues solo, when using a pentatonic minor(or blues) scale, the most common notes to bend are the b3, 4 and b7 of the tonic or key scale.

What about the major pentatonic or mixolydian scale? Does a similar convention exist as in the case of minor pentatonic? In the case of major pentatonic, do I just bend to notes that are a whole step away, as with minor? What about mixolydian? All of the notes are a full or half-step away!

When Bending, Think Target Notes


Tom, this is a great question and you're absolutely right that the most common bend tones in minor pentatonic are....

b3 bend to 4

4 bend to 5

b7 bend to 1

But while these are whole step bends, and they sound great, there isn't necessarily a "rule" about where you start your bends.

A strong target note can be bent to from any note, even notes outside the scale.

Take a look at my video on chromatic embellishment for examples of how we can bend to a target note from a half step below, even if that note happens to be outside the scale...



So it's best to think of bending in terms of the destination note of the bend, the note you really want to emphasize, rather than which notes you bend from.

That way, you can expand your options as far as where you can bend from. Bends can span more than a whole step, for example, but as long as the peak of the bend rests or touches on a note you want, it'll sound good.

So no matter what scale you're playing, you're listening for those strong destination notes within the scale, which you can try bending to from half, whole and more steps.

Here's a simple exercise to help you work out your bends...

Step 1 - Assuming you have a backing track to play to (if you're specifically into blues, I recommend Pete Morale's Blues Jam Session), familiarize yourself with the key and the chords being played in the backing music. This will tell you which scale to play.

Step 2 - As the track plays, choose and hold single notes from the scale and listen out for the strongest notes for each chord. These will become your target notes for your bends. Trust your ears as to what sounds good.

Step 3 - Choose one target note for each chord and try bending to them from half and whole whole steps below. You'll notice it's the destination note that grabs the ear, so don't place too much emphasis on that starting note.

Step 4 - Try building phrases from the scale around these bends. The more you can merge the bends seamlessly with your scale movements, the better they will sound.

Step 5 - Repeat with different target notes. Experimentation and repetition is the key.

By thinking more about target notes and less about the starting note for your bend, you'll create sounds that otherwise wouldn't have been available when locked into a scale.

Those "outside" notes, that you'll touch on at the start of the bend, will give your lead a fresh sound.

As long as the bend happens smoothly and relatively quickly, that starting note will blend into the overall musical statement.

So there's some homework for you! Have fun with it and listen to every move you make attentively.

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Re: Rules of String Bending
By: Tom Sims

I took the advice about bending to the best sounding note, and to me at least, bending to the chord tones sounds the best. Also, building a phrase around the bend is a useful technique I'd never really thought of. Thanks.

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