Bending is one of the most important and coolest guitar techniques you can learn. It’s essential in the blues, rock’n’roll, metal, and guitar solos are almost unimaginable without it. Its importance and omnipresence make it a key technique to learn, but it can sometimes be hard for a beginner to grasp because bending can get somewhat painful if you’re not used to it.
To bend guitar strings without hurting your fingers, you have to set up your guitar properly. Fresh strings and comfortable action and frets will help a lot. Good technique is also important; you must use more than one finger and bend from your wrist. You must have patience and let calluses develop.
If you’ve just started learning this amazing guitar technique but aren’t sure if you can continue because of the pain, look no further. I’ll go over how to set up your guitar and adapt your technique to minimize or eliminate pain so you can play some kickass solos in no time.
1. Make Sure Your Guitar Is in Good Shape and Properly Set Up
If your guitar is in horrible condition, everything you play will feel uncomfortable and painful. Old rusty strings and frets that have been eaten away by time and overuse, coupled with improperly adjusted bridge and nut will turn your guitar playing into torture.
Let’s look at some key factors that will make bending much easier when you take care of them.
Check Your Strings
Of course, your guitar isn’t necessarily in such bad condition if you have trouble bending strings. However, one element in bad shape is enough to ruin the pleasure of playing. Quite often, it’s the strings.
No matter your style of playing, having a fresh set of strings on your guitar will help. Whenever something feels weird or off, check your strings. Over time, oil, sweat, and tiny pieces of skin from your fingers will accumulate in the windings, degrading them.
They might even rust if you are reckless with your guitar strings. Rusty strings aren’t just bad for your sound; they can be potentially bad for your health if you cut yourself accidentally. Therefore, clean your strings regularly and change when you hear a noticeable drop in sound quality.
It also helps to choose thinner strings. It makes sense that the thinner they are, the more bendable they are. However, if you get too thin strings, they may break relatively easily, so don’t go overboard with that.
Make Sure the Action Isn’t Too High
The guitar’s action is also an important factor. Action refers to how close to the frets or how far away from them the strings are. If the strings are close to the frets, we call that low action, and if they’re far away, it’s high action.
High action makes all types of fretting more difficult. The further away from the frets a string is, the more strength it takes to press and hold it. It’s even more difficult if you’re supposed to bend with high action.
Therefore, you want your guitar to have low action to make bending easier. Of course, you should not go too low. Otherwise, you’ll get a different host of problems, but lowering them will definitely alleviate some of them.
There are a few ways to lower the action.
- Use the truss rod.
- Sand the nut
- Sand the bridge saddle
Using the truss rod is the best option because it doesn’t permanently change your guitar. It’s a rod that creates a slight backward or forward bow in your guitar’s neck, thus changing the action. You need an Allen wrench to use it, and you just have to turn it clockwise a bit if you want lower action.
Sanding can be useful, but it’s not reversible, so it might be a problem if you want to sell the guitar later and the buyer wants higher action than they can get with a sanded nut and saddle. However, if you’re not planning to sell your guitar, you can feel free to sand off a bit of your nut and saddle and lower the action permanently.
Inspect the Fret Height
Fret height is another important factor regarding the ease of playing the guitar. Higher frets will mean that your fingertips won’t drag across the fretboard, so bends, hammer-ons, and other things will be much easier.
With higher frets, the strings have to move less, so less strength is necessary for fretting. Therefore, your hands and fingers will strain less, leading to less pain. However, high frets can be a double-edged sword.
If you have higher frets and press hard on the strings, they will dig into your fingers more, which might cause pain and discomfort. Therefore, you must be careful with high frets and refrain from pressing hard. However, you probably don’t have that problem if you’re a beginner.
Replacing your frets with a set of higher ones is a good idea for making your guitar playing more comfortable. It’s also a good idea if you’re particularly aiming to make bending easier. You can replace them yourself, but since it’s a relatively complicated procedure, it’s best to get a luthier to do it.
You’ll probably have to invest a few hundred dollars, but the benefits will be worth it. Of course, if you know what you’re doing, you can replace them yourself, but that takes a few years of experience to master, so you’re not likely to get it right at the first attempt, and there’s no point in risking damage to your guitar.
You Can Try Downtuning Your Guitar Slightly
A downtuned guitar will be easier to bend. This happens because the strings are looser, so you don’t have to use as much strength to bend them. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to go down to some weird djent tuning. Down-tuning by just half a step might make the strings loose enough to make bending easy. Of course, you’ll have to change the key if you’re playing a cover, but that won’t make matters too complicated most of the time.
2. Correct Your Technique
When your guitar is properly set up for bending, you should start working on your technique. Even though bending seems like a super-straightforward technique, there’s more stuff to it than it might seem. This mostly has to do with what you do with your fingers and wrist.
Let’s examine some key pointers that will help you bend with less strain on your fingers and, thus, less pain.
Don’t Rely on Only One Finger
You’ll always lead the bend with only one finger, usually the ring finger. However, that doesn’t mean that the entire bend has to be performed with only one finger. Ideally, you should use your middle and index fingers to help you.
Using three fingers instead of only one will help spread the pressure over a wider surface, which means you’ll hurt your index finger less. It will also make the bend easier because you’ll create more force with less effort.
Some guitarists feel that using three fingers is awkward. If you find that you fall in that camp, you can use two fingers instead. Even that might feel unusual initially, but you’ll see that it gradually becomes easier. Using only your index finger definitely isn’t a good idea long-term.
You might wonder how you’ll prevent your index and middle fingers from touching other strings and muffling your sound. The key is in slow and patient progress and touching the strings with the very tips of the fingers.
You probably won’t get the bend perfectly with three fingers immediately. Like any other technique, you must start slowly and work your way up. Take your time to position your fingers properly to understand how it’s supposed to feel, and repeat until you’re confident in your positioning. Start increasing the speed from there.
It’s also important to make contact with the strings using only the very tips of your fingers. You should touch the strings a few millimeters in front of the fingernails. This will allow you maximum precision, thus reducing the chances of you bending the wrong strings.
Use Your Wrist
One very common mistake that beginners make when bending strings is bending only with the fingers. This puts a lot of pressure on them and causes pain. While you might get away with this sometimes, most of the time, you’ll need to use your wrist as well. Sometimes, you might even need to throw in the elbow.
So, when you bend strings, rotate your wrist up as far as it can comfortably go. This will feel awkward initially, but when you get used to the movement, it will help significantly. You’ll produce more force if you move from a bigger joint, which will relieve your fingers and make them hurt less.
If there’s a particularly difficult bend you want to pull off, try pushing your elbow forward a little bit. This will extend your range of motion by an inch, allowing you to bend more easily. Of course, this is not to say that you should always bend from your elbow, but it can help in some cases.
3. Let Calluses Develop
Unfortunately, having nice soft fingers doesn’t go hand in hand with playing guitar. Avoiding pain in your fingers means that the skin on your fingertips will have to harden. As you play, it will inevitably get damaged and form calluses as your body repairs it.
While this might throw you off, this process is perfectly normal, natural, and you shouldn’t fight it. In fact, you want your fingertips to get callused and hardened as soon as possible because hardened fingertips don’t hurt when fretting and bending.
This will happen over time as you play. Of course, when you first start playing, it will hurt a little, but that’s a part of the process. If you see that your fingertips are getting seriously hurt, take a break, but don’t give up if they are getting rough or the skin feels a bit sensitive. Soon, the skin on your fingertips will be like armor.
Let’s examine some additional tips for hardening your fingertips. This will help you significantly as you make progress with your guitar playing.
Learn on an Acoustic Guitar
Learning the basics of guitar on an acoustic one will make it easier to learn electric guitar. This is particularly true regarding the strength and toughness you need for this instrument.
Acoustic guitars typically have steel strings which are also thicker, and they also have higher action. This will harden your fingertips much faster while also developing the strength in your fretting hand. Yes, starting with an acoustic guitar might be more difficult, but it’s a good long-term investment.
Keep the Nails on the Fretting Hand Short
While it’s perfectly acceptable to have the nails on your picking hand long if you play fingerstyle, long nails on your fretting hand are unacceptable. Not only does this ruin the sound of your guitar, but it also makes it more difficult for calluses to develop. This will make it much harder to harden your fingers.
Wipe Your Fingertips with Rubbing Alcohol
This piece of advice allegedly comes from Eric Clapton. The thinking behind this is that rubbing alcohol dries out your skin, which makes calluses develop faster. You can soak a cotton pad with alcohol and rub your fingers with it. It’s advisable to do this twice a week as a beginner (or someone who hasn’t played in a while) or three times as a more seasoned player.
You can use salt water if you’re not a fan of alcohol’s stench. There has to be a lot of salt in the water for this work. The idea is that salt draws moisture away from the skin, which again helps form calluses.
Use an Old Credit Card
Some hardcore, dedicated guitarists keep an old credit card (anything similar will work) in their pocket and press their fingertips into its edge to harden their skin. The goal is to simulate the pressure of a guitar string against the fingertips.
Alternatively, you can press your thumb’s nail into the tips of the other fingers, where they usually touch the strings. However, this can’t be a particularly nice feeling, so it might be best to opt for something else.
Get Thicker Strings
Lighter strings are easier to play and easier on your fingers, which doesn’t let them callus easily. Thicker strings will be much harder on your fingertips, so they’ll get callused more quickly. Yes, this will hurt more initially, but you’ll get hardened much sooner.
Avoid Skin Softeners and Conditioners
Softening your skin is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do here. Therefore, avoiding any skin-softening products is crucial.
Lots of soaps and detergents also have softeners in them. Of course, you shouldn’t stop washing your hands, but you can use a sanitizer instead of soap or look for a soap with no softener in it. When doing the dishes, put on gloves to prevent the detergent from coming into contact with your skin.
Avoid Pressing Too Hard
Holding chords with all your might can look like a good way to strengthen your hand and harden your skin. However, it’s counterproductive. You should only press the strings as much as it’s necessary to get a decent sound.
Pressing too hard will make you develop a very tense style of playing, and you might develop tendonitis. Tendonitis might keep you away from your guitar for a few weeks, which will set you back significantly.
This is the easiest and most straightforward way to harden your hands. If you practice regularly, calluses will develop whether you aim for it or not, so learning how to bend properly will be much easier. Even if you just practice and do nothing else to speed the creation of calluses, your hands will probably be tough enough in a few months.
Do Not Remove the Calluses
It might be tempting to bite or cut them off when they get annoying. No matter how satisfying that might be, if you give in to the temptation, you’ll be back where you started. You’ll have to build up the callus again from scratch, and that’s a painful experience you don’t need.
Even if they get annoying, it’s best to put up with it and leave them where they are. You’ve worked hard to build them; you shouldn’t get rid of them that easily.
Getting your fingers hardened will help you bend easily and with no pain. While it might be uncomfortable at first and hurt a bit, your future self will thank you for the torture. There is no guitar technique you can learn overnight, and bending is no exception.
While bending strings on a guitar can be painful at first, it’s possible to overcome the pain with some patience. Here are the main takeaways to help you with this.
- Set your guitar up properly.
- Use your wrist and elbow.
- Harden your fingertips.