Guitars and bass guitars are unusual amongst stringed instruments in that they have frets (unless you’re playing one of these Vigier Excalibur’s). The frets are placed in the correct area of the finger board by the instrument builder and, as long as it is in tune, good intonation is achieved. This is not the case when string bending and, by extension, string vibrato.
Intonation on a fretless instrument is an ongoing battle, the fingers have to be trained to find the correct position on the finger board in order to play in tune (assuming this is western music where the smallest division will be a semi-tone) but an error by the smallest increment either side of that ‘sweet spot’ and the intonation of what is being played is compromised. Compare my intonation in these two videos, released two years apart from one another –
My first attempt at a fretless guitar video falls short of good intonation in my opinion, however, a couple of years experience later, and there is a vast improvement –
As a ‘get out of jail card’ on my fretless journey I realised that trying to be so precise was something of a pointless endeavour – it would require an impossible to maintain level of precision in truth. So my playing developed more of a slide guitar approach and treated each note as a moving target to be approximated in much the same way a blues guitarist fractionally bends notes (usually the minor 3rd) – the note becomes ambiguous and actually never settles at a pitch when examined. I would eventually realise that I had to do this in my fretless playing but with slides instead, which my playing benefitted from as a result.
Good intonation on a fretted instrument (assuming the player is mindful of tuning) is a mixture of technique and aural perception. The ear tells the hands where they’re off but the hands need the experience and practice to carry out the ears instructions. This is where our hitherto safe system of frets becomes rather more difficult. As we have to now pitch the notes accurately ourselves. The first piece of information needed, before an accurate string bend can be executed, is where the note is being bent to. This is simply measured by how many frets higher the resultant bent note will sound. 1 & 2 fret bends are the most common but strings can be bent as far as their tension or the player’s fingers will allow. This makes checking intonation, in bending, quite easy in practice as the player can simply play the desired note as a normal fretted note then bend to this note from the correct distance away and measure the results. The aim should be to get these two notes as close together and as in tune as possible. For example – to execute a 2 fret bend on the 15th fret of the first string (high e) the player checks the in tune, fretted note at 17th fret high E (an A note) and then executes the bend back at 15th fret and uses judgement to assess the accuracy of the bend.
Let downs & Pre-Bends
There are many string bending ideas a player can add to their arsenal. As well as playing a note and bending to another, a note can be ‘pre-bent’ (bent to it’s destination pitch silently) and let down to the regular pitch, pre-bent and let down only slightly (i.e. bending 3 frets and letting down 2) and many permutations of those ideas. These all must be practiced and experimented with to build a good string bending technique. The battle with intonation is a winnable one with hands and ears acting as allies.
Left Hand Position
Of the 2 main positions the left hand can occupy on the neck, the desirable one for string bending is the ‘thumb over the top’ position (above picture) – common to fans of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton & Chuck Berry. The reason for this is simply leverage. In the ‘classical’ position, with the thumb flat against the back of the neck (see the picture below), the fingers can’t get the right level of purchase to pull & push the strings effectively enough – a very famous exception to this is Dimebag Darrell who (I’ve only seen video footage of him) appeared to play all lead guitar, including bends and very wide vibrato, in the classical left hand position –
In practice the left hand flips between the two positions, for the different benefits each one brings to a player for different scenarios. What is to be avoided at all costs is a general mixture of the two – neither one position or the other, as I’ve found that a player gets the benefits of neither and the drawbacks of both.
This post doesn’t discuss right hand positioning but click here for an explanation of that.
Direction Of Bend
Each string can be bent in either direction, however pushing the string upwards towards the sky is the most desirable direction and this is only changed due to a string’s proximity to the edge of the fret-board. So for that reason here are the directions I bend each string –
1st String High E – UP
2nd String B – UP
3rd String G – UP
4th String D – DOWN
5th String A – DOWN
6th String Low E – DOWN
There is one bone of contention I’ve encountered with other guitarists – some people prefer to bend the 4th string D upwards. It is far enough away from the edge of the fret-board to avoid falling off but only with smaller bends. So rather than have a situation where I sometimes press up and sometimes pull down, I keep things simple and bend the D string in the same direction each time – down.