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I'm getting better at playing that legendary Enter Sandman solo by Kirk Hammett, and I'm getting the speed part almost covered. What I'm struggling with is hitting the target note when bending that last high D note all the way up to E. My fingers are close to bleeding.

I have a few questions (first post in MP&P, please be gentle if I am out of line!)

  • Are there specific strings that are easier to bend? (I'm a complete newbie with string types)
  • Do you know which strings Kirk Hammett used when recording that song? Should I try them?
  • Any other techniques to get better at bending? Just muscle power and getting the skin "hardened"?
  • It's not supposed to hurt much, right?
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    I can recommend Justin Sandercoe's courses, and specifically this one about bending : justinguitar.com/en/IM-144-StringBending.php – Manur Oct 15 '14 at 15:55
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    Never copy someone's gear because they play it (your 2nd question). Play with what you feel is the best, most comfortable! – Valentin Grégoire Oct 16 '14 at 9:01
  • Funfact not sure if you have seen them yet, you can now buy rock tips a small bottle with an apllicator hardens your finger tips for those high and repeated bends and vibrato. Especially if you are using 11s or 12s top E String – user30185 Jun 8 '16 at 4:28
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    If you want to bend notes like Kirk Hammett, it's important that you don't hit exactly the right note. ;) – Henry Aug 21 '16 at 22:39

10 Answers 10

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Yes, you can use thinner gauged strings to reduce tension and make the strings easier to bend. For electric guitar strings, the standard is usually around .009 or .010 inches for the high-E string (Sets are usually labelled by the gauge of the high-E string. The gauges of the rest of the set mostly depend on how thick the high-E is, but there are also variations- see Skinny Top/Heavy Bottom below). A lot of metal players like heavier strings because they sound fatter and also respond well to detuning (you can keep the same tension but with lower tunings). But it's always a tradeoff between playability and tone. Most people say you get "more" tone out of thicker gauges, so you usually want to use the thickest strings you can physically handle. It will take some experimentation to see what works best for you. As a beginner you should probably be using .009" sets, but .010" isn't too much harder to play, and in my opinion sounds noticeably better. For metal or hard rock the Skinny Top/Heavy Bottom strings are a good compromise, because you get fatter lower strings and thicker tone for the power chords combined with thinner higher strings that result in easier playability and bending on those strings.

The bending technique itself is also important- you want to be using more of a twisting motion in the wrist/forearm when bending strings rather than using the muscles in your fingers. Also you can use two or three fingers together to hit the really high bends. There are a ton of good instructional videos on YouTube to learn this, and it's much easier to watch and learn the proper technique than reading about it here.

Your fingers are going to hurt when you are learning guitar basically no matter what you do. Bending a lot will make them hurt more/faster, so don't overdo it until your callouses build up. My advice for anything concerning guitar: just keep practicing. As long as your technique is solid, you will get it eventually. You probably want to take a break when the fingers start bleeding though.. and it's best in the future if you space out (or shorten) your practicing sessions until your callouses and endurance improves.

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    One more thing: I really like coated strings, and in my experience they are considerably easier on the fingers (especially the wound strings). This doesn't help as much with bending, but it might help your fingers tolerate a little more playing before it becomes too uncomfortable. – Charles Oct 15 '14 at 5:38
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    I second that calluses are the essential natural protection for your fingers. They are indispensable. – Kuba Ober Oct 15 '14 at 16:24
  • "Most people say you get "more" tone out of thicker gauges" but Tony Iommi and Ty Tabor use very light strings, for instance. I think the tone issue is more relevant with less distorted blues or classic rock tones than with metal-ish styles. I'd say go for the light gauges for comfort, and wonder about the tone in a couple of weeks/months. – Pif Oct 17 '14 at 10:01
  • @Pif I tend to agree and only use 10s myself. I used 12s at one point on a semi-hollow I played for jazzy stuff, but never noticed much difference between 9 and 10. And you are right, for beginners 9s are definitely the way to go. – Charles Oct 17 '14 at 11:56
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In general, smaller-gauged strings will come up to the same pitch at a lower tension. They're easier to bend. They'll also have less "oomph" as a consequence, but amplification can mitigate some loss of volume.

As for technique, you want all three of your big fingers all pushing or pulling together. Don't worry about bending with a single finger alone until your fingers are much stronger. With three fingers you can get more mechanical advantage from the hand and wrist, and put even less stress on the fingers themselves. Practice 1/2-step and full-step bends at every string+fret combination.

If it hurts, stop and rest. Once callouses form, it will push the nerves deeper into the tissue, and the same pressure will hurt much less.

I'm assuming you've got an electric guitar with 22-frets, and that somewhat leaves you "searching" for the E note hanging off the fretboard. So, if that bend is difficult, I'm guessing that you have 10-s or 11-s on the guitar, so I'd recommend you try a set of 9-s. (<-- But this is a lot of guesswork! I'm guessing that if you had 9-s or 8-s on there already, you wouldn't be asking this because the bends would be easier). You should take your guitar with you when you buy new strings so you can ask them what gauge you have, and then try the next lighter gauge.

Also make sure that your strings are in-tune, and not just with each other. When I was a beginner, I had a tendency to just tune the guitar strings to each other. But later, I discovered I was always over-tightening and tuning sharp. This made the tension higher, and bends were more difficult than they needed to be.

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    For a beginner even on 9's a whole-step bend can be a challenge, especially with the weaker fingers. – Charles Oct 15 '14 at 5:33
  • Good point. I've replaced that part. – luser droog Oct 15 '14 at 5:36
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    Thank you! yes I have 22 frets, is it easier to get that last note bent on a guitar with more frets? (I would believe it does, but not sure if it's worth buying a new guitar just for that :)) – Eran Medan Oct 15 '14 at 6:04
  • I think it's psychologically easier with 24 frets, so you can fret the note and hear it and it's easier for your ear to know that the bend is right. But physically, it should not make much difference. – luser droog Oct 15 '14 at 6:18
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    The number of frets by itself doesn't matter in terms of physically bending.. but the scale length does. Shorter scale guitars have less tension in the strings for a given gauge so they are easier to bend. Sometimes shorter scale guitars have less frets, so it's worth consideration. – Charles Oct 15 '14 at 6:27
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The lighter the gauge the easier it is to bend but that does not mean it is automatically better. I do find some of the finer dynamics of vibrato and bending are lost in the lighter string tensions. Sure you can bend higher easier but subtle vibratos become harder as a consequence.

Also the loss of tension in regards to bending does make it harder to bend accurately. So if you like bending a half step up then if the strings give in too easily it does become harder to do it accurate. It all depends on what type of effects you want to use most often.

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    Harder to bend accurately, and easier to bend by accident! – slim Oct 15 '14 at 15:53
  • You very soon learn to compensate, and not bend too much. Using one's ear is always best (I don't mean instead of fingers! – Tim Nov 24 '16 at 16:38
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A few ideas...

Pitch:

Play the correct pitch with a non-bent 'reference' note and then compare your bent note to that. Do this over and over attempting to match the pitch as closely as possible. For the high E bend in the Sandman solo, if you have a 22 fret guitar you might need to hit a harmonic over the point where a 24th fret would be to get your reference note.

Use three fingers:

You should be using your first three fingers for the bend you are talking about. The work of bending the string should be shared by all three fingers, not just the 3rd finger.

This has two advantages: 1. You have three times as much grip on the string, therefore you can hold the string more lightly and still get the traction you need against the string, but with much less friction between your fingers at the frets/fretboard and your string against the frets/fretboard. This will also reduce wear on your frets.

Clean your guitar:

If your guitar neck is covered in sweat, dust or other smeggy residue you should use a guitar cleaner. Its easier to move your fingers against a clean lightly oiled fretboard.

Clean or change your strings:

Dirty/rusty strings will rip your fingers to shreds. Make sure you can slide your fingers up and down the strings with maximum smoothness.

Suck your fingers:

Your calluses should be nice and thick, but they should not be hard. In order to play comfortably all day your calluses should be pliable. So they bend around the string instead of cracking/cutting. I find that if I get hard calluses, sucking on them for a bit softens them up. You might find moisturiser works, but I prefer to have dry clean hands when I play.

Practice with four fingers as well:

(This is something I'll have to admit to being very slack on). But often you want to bend at the end of a passage that ends on your pinky finger. In this case it's advantageous to be comfortable bending on your pinky.

Ultimately you should be able to learn to bend any gauge of string (within reason) easily with practice. Then you can base your string choice on tone and durability factors.

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For those wanting easier bending, try Roto strings (Pink if you use .09s) These strings are comparatively more elastic than any others Im aware of, presumably due to lower density alloy. They are also very bright for the same reason. But the downside is that they detune at different rates when whammying, so I don't recommend Roto Pink for serious whammy players. Specifically, there is a HUGE difference in amount of detune between strings at the same whammy level. (high E detunes 2 semitones, B = 4 semitones, G = 8, D= 5, A= 10, and Low E is infinite (totally slack!) I love these for bending notes, and reccomend for hardtails, but don't even consider for use with even subtle whammy use like chord vibrato!

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Some very good tips, but one thing that I couldn't see mentioned is scale length and the relationship between string gauge and minimum action. There is no set scale length for guitars, but the most common ones are strat length at 25.5" and les paul at 24.75". On a longer scale guitar 9 gauge strings will be as tense as 10 are on a shorter scale.

Another thing to consider is that with slacker strings you will need a higher action to avoid fret buzz. Whilst tension is a bigger factor in how easy it is to bend a string, action height is also a factor.

If you are playing metal and want to play along with recordings, drop D and EbAbDbGbBbEb tunings are very common so you might want to factor this into what strings you have, or if you have 2 guitars, have different strings on each. Ultimately, you should experiment with different types of strings to see what you like. If you're reasonably confident about setting up your action and intonation, try different sets or go to a guitar tech and explain what you're looking for.

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IT IS ALL ABOUT SOUND:

  • Lighter-guage (thinner) strings are easier to bend, but generally provide noticeably less sound (less metal to tickle the magnets).
  • It's far easier to bend a string well up the neck (to 12th fret) than near the nut. But it feels you have to move the string farther... Long, slow bends work best up the neck.
  • For chords and open string play: power comes from the big strings, ringing from the unwound ones. For fretting: wound strings break down quicker (so they sound dead).
  • Like that fat sound? Use heavier strings! Listen to SRV and most any jazz player or the older-style blues guys (Sumlin, Muddy, &c.). They all had strong hands, and did bends/hammers/pulls down near the nut.
  • Are you a speed fan (Albert Lee, Malmsteen, Dime)? A tapper? Go with a lighter string, and keep your voicings at the 7th fret and higher.
  • Want sustain? Learn to use vibrato (microtonal string bends) for ALL your fingerings.
  • Finally, if it hurts, it hurts... It goes away.
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From personal experience I would say that the best way to go about it as a beginner would be to start with a light gauge and then gradually move up to a gauge where you're most comfortable. Each gauge offers different play-ability and feels very different. Its best to try them all eventually and then make a decision. I have currently settled on Ernie Ball Skinny Top/Heavy Bottoms .10-.52 but it may change later.

As for your questions specifically find my responses inline in italics,

  • Are there specific strings that are easier to bend? (I'm a complete newbie with string types) the lighter the gauge(thinner strings), the easier it is to bend usually. Try different gauges, light to heavy. You'll find the one best for you.
  • Do you know which strings Kirk Hammett used when recording that song? Should I try them? Currently he uses .11-.48 Ernie Ball Power Slinky sets but I wouldn't think it would be the only one he uses since he has multiple guitars. It won't matter since its a to each their own sort of thing, you could give these a shot. If you're using .12's or .11's then it would definitely be a bit of struggle doing fast bends.
  • Any other techniques to get better at bending? Just muscle power and getting the skin "hardened"? Regular practice will build and keep your calluses intact. As for muscle power, make sure you're using a good technique for your bends. The Justin Sandercoe tutorial for Bending Manur has mentioned above is really great for beginners, as are most of Justin's lessons.
  • It's not supposed to hurt much, right? Well hurt kind of depends on what you get used to eventually. Long durations will hurt no matter what you do. A good technique should prevent you from hurting too quick and too much, and from any injuries. Changing gauges will impact your playing and how the guitar feels so trying different ones will surely help you understand whether the reason for your fingers hurting are related to a bad technique or a really heavy gauge or a badly setup guitar

Additional note, changing the string gauge will affect the tension and the action on your guitar. So move up or down gauges incrementally. You may also need to adjust your neck-bow when changing the string gauges as per your playing needs. If you're new to truss rods, your local luthier is the man for you. Hope this helps and happy guitar-ing to you.

  • How does having callouses help with string bending? Or any guitar playing, for that matter? – Tim Jan 2 '17 at 17:01
  • @Tim Since he asked about the skin being "hardened", which I believe is referring to callouses. Playing guitar for any decent amount of duration will eventually lead to the thinner strings biting into the tips of the fingers. Again speaking from experience, may not apply to everyone. My fingertips hurt after an hour or so if I have lost my callouses due to any breaks I take. – Jha Jan 4 '17 at 9:20
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For me, it's important to finely tune the strings, from top to bottom (meaning: EADGBE open and 12th fret harmonics must match), and setting the action (getting the strings as close to the fret board without buzzing). If you do that, the bending will be easier and the notes will not be flat or sharp. Also, guitar strings are a players preference: some players like a slightly heavier top and lighter bottom. I have recently been using the Ernie Ball cobalt super slinky strings and I am getting hooked. Very bright and clean. Nice.

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I used to use .010-.052 at regular A440 Pitch with a 25 1/2 inch Stat type guitar for years,but it's resulted in arthritic "lumps" on the 2nd Knuckles of all my Right Hand(Left Handed Player),as I thought"heavier better"=more tone,but I regret it now(30 years later) and Love playing like many in Eb tuning with .009 to .042,I get actually a fatter more pleasing -less brittle sound,but after finally finding Left Handed Les Paul type Guitar's(still an Extreme Challenge in Australia!) due to scale being shorter,supposedly easier I'm using Eb tuning with .010's,or .010 high Eb and a mixture.

PS KIrk Hammet has decent pitch,and I got to meet him,very cool guy,it's more the feel of the music,or his own feel at times,especially with the more bendy blues feels when in the next nano second he has to play 32nd notes,with the single semitone "psycho" rhythm chord changes underneath that Metallica helped popularize....hard job IMO.

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