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I always find difficult to bend correctly with the high e string at the higher frets. For example, when I bend a full step or more from fret 15, I always can't reach the correct pitch. There are songs even sound better if it's a bend and release (e.g. Mary had a little lamb) and I can't reach that easily. How can this be improved? I have tried different string gauge and have been bending the string for some time and hope the tension can be released a bit. Are there some techniques or guitar setup that would help doing this better? Thanks!

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What guitar, which strings?

It will make a big difference when the string tension - a combination of scale length, string gauge and tuning - is good for you. Consider using lighter strings, or, if you only have trouble with top E, just change that one.

It makes sense to use more than one finger when doing bigger bends. The finger that's doing the fretting gets supported by others behind it. It doesn't matter which fret the supporting fingers are on, as they won't be producing the right pitch.

Opposite to the existing answer, I'm going to suggest moving your whole hand out, so fingers and thumb are in front of the fretboard. That way, you can push upwards with your whole hand, and keeping maybe even three fingers together, round fret 15, there has to be a lot more stregth and leverage available. With your thumb at the back, you'll have to rely on finger strength alone.

We're talking top string here, as you asked. It can only be bent upwards, otherwise it falls off the fingerboard. Other strings (usually 2nd and 3rd) can bend either way. I suggest you try the same approach with them, too.

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  • Having very light action i.e. low string height also helps. Lowering the action has a similar effect as changing to a lighter string gauge, IMO. But then we might encounter things like fret buzz, and how good and well adjusted everything is. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Dec 18 '20 at 9:22
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica - yes, the lower the action the better, for me at least. It won't change the tension much, but may make it easier to push that string under another. But if that string's also low..? I'm happy with .008s, have been for years. – Tim Dec 18 '20 at 9:42
  • It’s a standard strat. Just always feel it very tight. I have small hands, I do mean small hands, not like those people I saw on YT claiming they have small hands. I can’t keep my thumb in front when I bend. Otherwise I will have no enough room to move my fingers to bend. – Kwun Yeung Dec 18 '20 at 12:45
  • I will try lowering the action. Thanks! – Kwun Yeung Dec 18 '20 at 12:49
  • You could try tuning down a semitone or even a tone. That makes the strings looser, thus easier to bend up. My thumb points straight ahead, just under the neck. The 3 fingers are almost straight at their top joints, bent at the next ones down. – Tim Dec 18 '20 at 13:07
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I do a lot of 3, 4 and even 5 semitone bends, and although I've been playing for 35 years or so, I use 3 fingers for all of them, and I can only do a 5 semitone bend on my guitars that have .009 gauge strings.

Most of my gigging guitars have .010s as they give the right sound and sustain for the music my current band plays, and a couple of songs have 4 semitone bends which are just manageable. I typically avoid letting the thumb come round the bass side of the neck for these as it reduces my control and strength - popping it to the back of the neck helps, although I don't move to a classical guitar position.

To play a 5 semitone bend - which really only works above about the 14th fret - I have an Ibanez JS set up with a really light action on .009s and I do place my thumb firmly in the back of the next and use 3 fingers on adjacent frets to bend. And I just push hard, letting the weight of the guitar help to push against.

Just tried with my thumb round the neck - I can't get higher than 4 semitones:

enter image description here

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  • Any occasion that you need to bend with index finger? Using 3 fingers to push is easier (although I still find it hard some time and have fewer fingers to mute other strings). When there is a full or 3 half step bend, I sometimes feel the string is going to break... – Kwun Yeung Dec 18 '20 at 12:34
  • Of course - there are good reasons to bend with any finger. You may be playing a chord and want to then bend one note up a semitone to make another chord, or sometimes it's ust easier – Doktor Mayhem Dec 18 '20 at 14:55
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My reading of the question is that you can't make it to the note you want, not that your bend goes over and sounds out of tune. Some thoughts:

  • If you're playing a guitar with a vibrato system, it is working against you, with the tension you add with the bend being met by the springs. Play an open string, do a bend on another string, and you'll hear how far the tuning can drop.

  • Similar hardware problem: I have EB Slinky 9s on my Tele, and after doing a few high-E bends, I found myself flat of D#. Nut is loose a bit and trees are graphtech, so that's stretching or something. More reason for me to finally move up to locking tuners.

  • You mention going through string gauges, but I'll go into detail for sake of completeness. The elements in question are scale length, string gauge and tuning. Shorter scales require less tension for the same note. Thinner strings require less tension for the same note. Lower notes require less tension. So, shorter Gibson scale will help. Billy Gibbons-endorsed skinny strings like 8s or 7s will help. Down-tuning to Eb will help.

  • If the above isn't at issue, then the problem, like the tone, is in your hands, and it can only be either hand strength or leverage. As an exercise, play the note you're going for, then bend up to that note. Maybe do scale exercises where you bend each note up to the next, both on one string and across the neck. It'll strengthen your hand and give you a sense of what you need for the note. This is as much training your ear as your fingers. Other answers suggest multi-finger bends, and yes, do that. I don't think I regularly bend on the high E without some support, because what else are the other fingers gonna do? So, try bends supported by other fingers. Try locking your fingers and getting the rest of your arm involved, because it's stronger than just your fingers.

Bends are fun and useful, and I hope you get your high string bends sorted. Good luck!

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    Good catch on the possible floating bridge problem – Todd Wilcox Dec 18 '20 at 15:30
  • Yup the floating bridge would be an issue and so I have locked it tight years ago. Thank you for the answer and I will try out your suggestions. – Kwun Yeung Dec 23 '20 at 18:32
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The usual technique is to use three fingers together: index, middle and ring. For a bend on the 15th fret, ring finger will be on 15, middle on 14, and index on 13.

Depending upon your finger strength and the string tension, it can sometimes be easier to use just two fingers: index and middle. You won't have as much finger strength behind the bend, but the string undergoes less stretching since the pivot is narrower.

It may help to have the thumb over the neck so the motion is less of a push with the fingers and closer to just closing the hand.

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I frequently bend up to a maj 3rd or 4th with gauge 11s.

A lot of players are taught to bend on the G or B string and use the same note on the next string as a guide. If your problem is intonation than all the gauge changes in the world will not help. For bending in tune you need to practice being in tune. I'd make two or there suggestions. The first is sing the note you are trying to hit. If you can't do that then play it, hum or sing until you match it, then try bending into it. You can also use an electronic drone note. Second is take the training wheels off when bending on the G and B string (if you are applying the technique I mentioned). This will help you develop a better ear. Finally, try systematically walking up the major scale on the e string where you play a note then bend into the next note. For example I might play the following, (p = pluck, b = bend), starting on the 3rd fret.

G(p) --> A(p) --> B(b)

then shift to C with first finger.

C(p) --> D(p) --> E(b) --> F(b) --> G(b)

or another variant might be,

G(p) --> A(p) --> B(b)

then shift to C with 3rd finger.

C(p) --> D(b)

then shift to E with first finger.

E(p) --> F(p) --> G(b)

You can make your own variants.

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If you use a standard set with .010 as your high string, note that it's under more tension than the B string and is therefore harder to bend. Try using the same set but replacing the .010 E string with .0095, and it'll feel more like the B string when you bend it.

After a bit more research, I find this is true for other sets too: the E string is often at a higher tension than B (though I never noticed it playing lighter sets.) I see that D'Addario has "Balanced Tension" sets that are more even, though I don't know whether I'd like the lighter A and D strings in these sets.

In any case, as Tim suggests in his accepted answer, try replacing the E with the next smaller string. With many brands, this is a half a thousandth of an inch smaller.

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  • Most string sets are balanced, so there is about the same tension in each string. .010 top is the same tension as .013 B string. I'd go for .009 or even thinner, anyhow. – Tim Dec 22 '20 at 10:28
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    Actually, no: in general, the tension builds from outer strings to inner strings. However, for the 10,13,17 set, the 10 bucks this trend by going higher than the B. Oddly, it's lower than the G but feels higher to me; the G bends more easily. Perhaps that's just because the G is thicker and easier to grab. curtmangan.com/guitar-string-tension-chart – Jeff Learman Dec 22 '20 at 13:37
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I don't know if there's a name for it, but I call it "twisting". You end up making the string zig-zag a bit.

You use the ring finger for the note you want to bend and your index is naturally 2 frets lower. I bend at both frets. Push towards the center with your index which gives you room to bend the ring finger towards the edge. It also distributes the bend across 2 fingers instead of 1, which allows for some fine tuning, variation, wild card results. It can go either way depending on your focus.

You can also try the inverse. But what's above allows you to bend way high with your index and fine tune with the ring finger. The takeaway is that it's 2 fingers making the bend so there's a dynamic to consider/remember/play around with.

This is also where the "turning like a doorknob" phrase comes into play if you've ever read that somewhere. Using the 2 points, you twist them as if you're turning a doorknob.

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