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Mostly self-taught guitar player here, haven't had a lesson in 30 years. Running into particular problems with string bending, and after some google searches, trying to finally come up with a strategy to deal with it. It's a shame that the top search result I keep coming across is this one at TGP, as you have to wade through some bologna to get to 2 or 3 decent posts with good information.

When I set up a guitar with "low action", I seem to have trouble getting string bends to consistently sound good. It depends on which string / fret / finger I am using, but the most problematic seem to be strings eBG on frets above #10, with my 3rd (ring) finger. What happens is that I will fret a note and then proceed to bend it upwards, toward the sky. As I push this primary string up, my finger will naturally come into contact with other secondary strings and bend them too. However when I have the action set low, these other secondary strings become quite difficult to keep off of the fret.

For a very long time my goal has been to get these secondary strings to "catch" onto a finger, and using the force that they exert back onto the finger, hold them in place off of the fret. What I have found is that with low action, these secondary strings have a tendency to slip & slide under the finger(s) trying to hold them out of the way, eventually landing underneath of the finger, becoming fretted, and sounding, which is not what I want. Sometimes the strings gradually slide down the slope of my fingertip, sometimes they "pop" down very quickly, and on a rare occasion, I am able to successfully keep the unwanted strings from being fretted -- so I get inconsistent results from this technique / strategy.

This inconsistency also makes it very difficult to use my pick hand to mute the unwanted strings. For example when bending the high e string at the 17th fret up a whole step (from A to B), the strings get very close together, even down at the bridge. Successfully muting the B and G strings with my pick hand, yet letting the e string ring, always seems like a tightrope walk. The pick hand has to strike the e string, mute the B and G, and then move along with the bending motion to keep them muted while simultaneously preventing the e string from being muted. The fact that the strings slip, slide, and pop down onto the frets from being suspended above them adds to the difficulty of keeping the pick hand in exactly the right position to mute only the things that should be muted.

After reading through the TGP info linked above and other things I found online, I'm starting to wonder how much this may have to do with personal limitations due to the shapes of my fingertips. They are fairly rounded, though I haven't really compared them to anyone else's fingertips yet, so I'm not sure. I can say that when I have the experience I described above, I know for a fact that the strings are sliding down the curved slope of my fingertip down underneath of it (and onto the fret). I can also say that the issue is worse when my fingers get slippery with sweat & skin oils, and worse with fresh strings. It really seems to be a problem with not enough friction to keep the strings from sliding down the slope of my fingertip and down onto the fret.

Another thing I have tried is using more of an arch in the finger to fret the bent string more with the top/tip of the finger than with the pad, but I get the same results. Even the tip of my finger is sloped, and in fact I get worse and even less consistent results with this approach because the string doesn't have to travel as far to slide down the slope of the finger tip and, you guessed it, right onto the fret.

So it seems like I am down to only 3 options that I can imagine. Avoiding note bending and having my fingertips surgically altered are not options:

  1. Apply talc, chalk, or some other drying agent to my fingertips to keep them dry and increase the friction between them and the bent strings that I am trying to keep off of the frets. I've never heard of anyone doing this, it was just an idea, and may very well be a bad one (I have not tried it yet). Would be worried about getting residue all over the strings, having to constantly wipe them down and reapply material to fingertips.

  2. Keep the low action, let other strings slide under my finger tips (or even do it on purpose), and get superhumanly good at muting the unwanted strings with my picking hand. This is a really daunting challenge, especially at my age, and I'm not even sure if it's the "right" thing to do.

  3. Raise action to a point where the strings are at a height that makes them less prone to sliding down the slope of my fingertips and onto the fret. The downside to this approach is that I will end up with action height over 1/8 inch (but less than 1/4 inch). This approach can also cause other potential problems, because though I need that height to work for my ring finger, it can be too much for my pinky, causing strings to slide up the slope of that fingertip rather than down. It is however easier to manage that problem and keep it from making unwanted sounds.

Just wanted to put these ideas up and see if I am on the right / wrong track. Any other techniques that I am not covering?

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    I'm gonna confess to you in terms of writing future questions, I pretty much skimmed this question and only really read the three options at the bottom. – Todd Wilcox Dec 19 '17 at 21:55
  • in point 3, are you saying you have a low action so that you can do massive bends with your pinky, or are you saying you have trouble fretting with your pinky with higher action? – Yorik Dec 19 '17 at 22:04
  • @Yorik I meant that I have some troubles doing 4 finger bends with higher action (where the 4th finger is fretting the bent note and the other 3 fingers are supporting & muting). I have low action because someone else set up the guitar, and now I am trying to see how well I can learn to play with action low like this. – danludwig Dec 21 '17 at 12:59
  • @ToddWilcox I don't think there is anything wrong with the question as written. I wanted to be specific about the mechanics of what are happening to me in order to get specific advice about what I am doing right / wrong / not doing at all. If you don't want to read the whole thing, that's fine, but I believe it is a solid question as-is. – danludwig Dec 21 '17 at 13:06
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If you bend a string (up towards the ceiling/sky) the lower (sounding, i.e., thicker) strings are supposed to move under your finger(s). If your finger moved under the lower (sounding) strings then you would get a lot of undesired noise from those strings when you release the bend, and also when you do some vibrato while bending.

In my experience, there are two things that good players do, and most of the time it's a combination of both:

  1. If you bend with your 2nd or 3rd finger, use your first finger to mute the lower strings and/or to keep them at some small distance from the string that you're bending. You can do this by letting the first finger move a bit higher up the fretboard towards the low E string. enter image description here

  2. Use the side of the thumb of your picking hand to touch all strings that are lower than the one you're bending. enter image description here

Both of these measures will avoid sound from other strings, even with lots of gain.

  • I do #1. It helps with keeping strings that are more than 1 hop away from the bent string from sounding. But say you are bending the B string, and the G slides under the tip of the finger and down onto the fret, muting that G string above that fret will make no difference. – danludwig Dec 19 '17 at 22:12
  • @danludwig: Right, that's what I meant by saying that you can use your first finger to keep the strings at a small distance from the string that you're bending. This keeps them from sounding. Your right hand thumb can take care of the rest. – Matt L. Dec 19 '17 at 22:17
  • @danludwig: And, by the way, using my first finger as described does make a difference, even if the lower string touches the fret. It must have to do with the way the string moves onto the fret; it remains silent even if it touches the fret. Of course without using the right hand thumb. – Matt L. Dec 19 '17 at 22:20
  • I'm sure you're on to something here, paying closer attention when playing yesterday, my hand shape looks a lot like your photo. What I don't understand is if the other strings are touching the frets, even if you are using your other fingers to move them out of the way, they are moving across the frets, right? If a string is making contact with the fret and being moved/bent while maintaining that contact, how can you keep the friction from that movement from imparting energy onto the string and causing it to sound (without the right thumb muting technique)? – danludwig Dec 20 '17 at 15:31
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    Practiced this more yesterday, and yup, it works. What I was doing before was using finger 2 to support finger 3 in the bend (same string), and muting with finger 1. When I use finger 2 to instead help push the other strings out of the way, they tend to not slip under finger 3 and sound. Releases still need some work. I can release about halfway without unwanted noise, but eventually the other strings slip out during the release (may need to loosen grip during release?). Tried the thumb muting, feels weird, and am probably doing it wrong because getting unwanted harmonics at times. – danludwig Dec 21 '17 at 14:04
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Similar to Todd, for a large bend I'll use three fingers, and as they push the desired string, the natural rotation of them catches the next strings and moves them up away from frets.

In this picture you can see my fingers have caught 2 strings out the way, and just moved them up enough that they don't play.

enter image description here

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Keep the low action, let other strings slide under my finger tips (or even do it on purpose), and get ... good at muting the unwanted strings .... This is a really daunting challenge, especially at my age, and I'm not even sure if it's the "right" thing to do.

This is what I do. I think bending technique can depend on your playing ergonomics. I play with my thumb over the top of the neck and it hangs down and helps with the muting. I also use my thumb on top as the other side of a squeeze action in my hand to help with the bending. You don't have to mute with your picking hand. In fact I rarely do. I developed a lot of fretting hand muting and I recommend you focus your muting on the fretting hand.

What I'm actually doing here (since I had time to go home and look at what I do) is the strings I'm not fretting are actually held away from the frets because they dig into my fingers. Callouses on the tops of my fingers prevent this from hurting a lot. My action is less than 1/8". It's almost exactly 1/16" at the 12th fret.

photo of bent string

When I do vibrato or small bends with my second or third fingers, I do mute with my index finger as shown in Matt L's answer, but when I want to bend up a couple whole steps, I need all three fingers to make it happen.

As you practice bending, you'll find that you develop the microscopic finger placement ability where you fingers push the strings out of the way without fretting them, and therefore the sides of your fingers mute the strings. You just have to keep practicing at it. I think it took me 12-18 months to be able to bend effectively after I started working on it.

I'm not sure what your age is, but mine is 44 and I'm still doing compound bends of at least a minor third (three frets higher).

  • Right, this is similar to what I would do on my "medium/high" action guitars. The action in the photo looks much higher than what I have on a couple of guitars that were recently set up by someone else after being refretted. Difference is like in Matt L's photo I will extend my index finger out a bit to mute the other strings. – danludwig Dec 20 '17 at 14:39

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