Vibrato and bends add an extra dimension to your guitar playing. If a melody is like a beautiful photograph, adding these techniques will turn it into a movie.

Vibrato and bends are indispensable tools for every guitarist, they:

  • Make your playing sound more expressive and emotional
  • Let you access notes between the frets
  • Will make your playing sound more human and alive

In this article, you’ll learn about different approaches to vibrato and bending techniques. We’ll have videos and exercises to guide you through:

  • Half and whole-step bends
  • Vibrato and its “dimmer switch”
  • Using a whammy bar to create vibrato
  • Playing pedal-steel bends

What’s the difference between vibrato and bends?

The two are closely related because both involve bending one or more strings.

  • By bending strings, you’re increasing string tension and raising the pitch.
  • It’s the same concept that applies when you tune your guitar and change the string tension.

If you play multiple bends in fast succession, you’ll end up with vibrato.

String bending technique explained

Blues guitarist Seth Rosenbloom will go over hand positioning and how to bend a string in the video below.

Here are the main takeaways from the video:

  • Your thumb will hook onto the guitar neck to provide a strong anchor point.
  • Play the first note and then bend the string to manipulate the pitch.
  • Move the string by rotating your forearm and wrist while holding on to the string.
  • You can bend with any finger on any string.

Note: With this type of bending/vibrato, you can only go up in pitch. This is because we can only increase string tension with a bend.

Exercises to practice guitar string bending

Bends take a while to get right and there are a lot of nuances that you’ll discover over time.

When we bend strings, we’re able to access the microtonal pitches in between frets.

However, without proper practice and technique, we can sound unpleasantly off-pitch. It’s important to work on your intonation accuracy to gain precise control of the bend.

Here are two exercises to get you started.

Exercise 1.  G string down

Play whole-step bends from the 3rd finger while bending the string toward the floor.

  • Play the target note.
  • Try to match that note with a bend.
  • Rinse and repeat until your bended note sounds identical to the target note.

The key here is to engage your ear and listen closely to the pitch – did you bend flat, sharp, or just right?

You can use this exercise

  • Anywhere on the fretboard
  • With any finger
  • Playing half-step or whole-step bends

The more you practice, the more your muscle memory will kick in and provide you with accurate pitches.

Exercise 2. G string up

Same exercise, but this time, bend the string up toward the ceiling.

Guitar vibrato in action

How people play vibrato and bends is a quite personal matter. The general technique is the same for everyone but each player adds their own flair.

  • When you’re learning about bending strings on guitar and adding vibrato, it’s fine to pick a player you really like and copy their style.
  • As you get more comfortable, you’ll be able to develop your own unique tone and vibe.

Playing examples of soulful vibrato and whammy bar technique

Below is a video of Nicklas Myhre playing his piece Juniper. There are some great examples of vibrato in his performance:

Watch the entire video here:

(If you want to learn how to play this track, Pickup Music members have access to the step by step lesson for this SongSquad tune by Nicklas himself.)

Below are the variables to keep in mind when you practice vibrato. Try out your “dimmer switch” and see if you can produce different vibrato versions.

Bending strings with a whammy bar

A whammy bar creates a vibrato effect by loosening or tightening all six strings on a guitar at the same time.

  • Pushing down on a whammy bar decreases the string tension and causes a lower pitch
  • Pulling up tightens the strings and causes a higher pitch

There are many different ways to use the whammy bar – let’s look at a few examples.

Subtle vibrato with whammy

Melanie Faye loves using the whammy bar.

  • She wraps her pinky and ring finger around the bar.
  • She gently pulls the bar up (away from the guitar body), releases, pulls up, and releases.
  • This hand position keeps the rest of her fingers close to the strings.
  • It makes it easy to quickly switch between fingerpicking or strumming a chord and using the whammy bar.

Hip-hop stutter effect

In this case, Melanie pushes the bar down towards the body of the guitar with her flat hand.

How to play pedal-steel bends

So far, we’ve focused on blues and neo-soul but country music is equally invested in the sound of string bending.

Pedal-steel bends in particular go hand-in-hand with country music – they invoke that classic pedal-steel guitar sound. Daniel Donato opens his short solo with one in this video:

Try out the pedal-steel bends in the key of G below.

  • Bar the top two strings with your pinky
  • Bend the G string using either ring or middle finger – you can use both together for added strength.
  • The best way to pick through this exercise is using hybrid picking.

Here’s a lick so you can get a feel for how pedal-steel bends can be used in a musical context:

If you’d like to see some more playing examples of bends, check out this video on the Marshall Amp website.

Advanced string bending licks for guitar

If you’re feeling confident and want to push your technique to its limits, check out some of these tricky but beautiful phrases.

John Mayer: I Guess I Just Feel Like

John Mayer’s sound is heavily influenced by classic blues guitar. This lick combines a typical blues line with two techniques – bending and tapping.

Jimi Hendrix: Cascading Bends

Here is a Hendrix-inspired benda-palooza courtesy of Jamey Arent.

Combine bending with vibrato

We’ll leave you with a challenge…

Can you figure out the first six seconds of Arianna Powell’s gorgeous solo by ear?

Give it a shot and let us know how you did in the comments section.

What’s next?

Dive deeper into a genre you love and see how you can apply these techniques in that context – it should open up a world of new ideas!

Want a scoop of what Pickup Music has to offer? There are so many flavors to choose from 🍦

You can use our 14-day free trial to check out some of our genre-specific pathways. If you like the sound of bending and vibrato we recommend the Neo-soul, Blues, or Country Learning Pathway.

These are three-month programs that will break down fundamental techniques with daily practice exercises, straightforward lessons, and performance pieces – so you can apply what you learned right away.

Author: Julia Mahncke