It’s All About the Bends

In music discussion, the word “soul” often gets used in reference to a musician’s ability. Or the word “feeling” might get used in a similar context. The implication is that a certain musician has the ability to put more emotion into their music, thereby making it better. But that explanation never satisfied me. How exactly does the musician channel this “soul”? It all seems very symptomatic of our issues with music discussion in general. Much like great music, great musicianship is treated as if it’s intangible. We say one musician plays with soul, but that another does not have soul and call it a day.

Really though, it’s pretty simple in theory. In terms of technique, when you strip away ideas like note choice, composition, and timbre, what we call soul is based on bending of notes. Let’s use David Gilmour as an example. Gimour is a guitarist that I think many would agree can play with “soul.” He’s at the top of many “greatest guitarists” lists, and any Youtube video of him will undoubtedly have some kind of debate about why he is good and “soulless shredders” (i.e. people that play fast) are bad. People definitely revere him. So how does he do it? Well, in his own words, by bending his notes “absolutely all the time.” Watch his fingers in this video.

Every single note is bent.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself for some of you. How does bending a note work? It really depends a lot on what instrument we’re talking about, but let’s focus on guitar. On a guitar, you can bend a note by pulling on the string, which makes the string tighter, thereby making the note higher. What it allows you to do, though, that makes it so important, is the fact that it allows the musician to play out of tune. Those out of tune notes are what we define as “soul.”

While “just bend all the time!” seems like a very simple thing, the implementation is where things get complicated. Those out of tune bends accomplish two things when used by a musician (singers are a whole different story, we’ll get to that in another article some day hopefully). They provide small bits of tension and release to the musician’s playing. We all have a natural ability to sense when a note is out of tune even if we have absolutely no musical training. “Tone deafness,” from what I understand, is  a myth. If someone truly was deaf to tone itself, he wouldn’t be able recognize anyone’s voice (among a whole slew of other problems, I’m sure). And we all have an innate understanding of the 8 note scale. So when a note is bent slightly out of whack, we can hear it. And once a musician puts that note back in the scale we’re familiar with, that tension is released. It’s a powerful technique that can be utilized by a musician, especially when soloing. Next time you hear a solo, take note of the way a musician bends their notes for dramatic effect. The way they will give their notes a slight wobble (vibrato), or even when they do a big bend up to a high note for dramatic effect. These are the moments that connect with the listener.

Secondly and probably more importantly, bends add humanity to a musician’s playing.  And I mean “humanity” as in, slight bends mimic a human voice and its small, natural errors when singing a melody. By using bends, the audience can identify better with what the musician is playing because it sounds more organic. Not to get too hippy-dippy on you all, but it bends make the instrument less of a machine that churns out notes, and more of an extension of the person playing it. Really, it all comes down to making a certain progression of notes sound natural.

And continuing on that train of thought, bends allow a musician to have a unique voice. Anyone can play a certain melody on a certain instrument with enough practice, but I believe what really makes a great musician is when someone can play anything, and still give it their voice. And that comes completely from bending and the way the musician approaches playing a note.

So really, when you’re talking about how a certain musician can play with “feeling” or with “soul,” you’re talking about the way they play out of tune.

Of course, like with all artistic media, it all comes down to the intent of the artist and these rules are often broken (as they should be). This isn’t an “anti-shred” manifesto. Any musical technique has its place, but the musician must be aware of what emotion he is evoking with his playing. A solo that mimics a human voice with a lot of bends and a lot of long, held notes is going to be great to get an audience to feel uplifted or emotional, whereas a barrage of notes might be right at home in a  more “in your face” metal song. Or short, notes that are played exactly in tune might be at home in a robotic sounding DEVO song. Or maybe the musician is just playing a support role in that particular piece and keeps the bends at a minimum! There’s a ton of variables is my point. BUT. If “soul” is what a musician is going for, of if you’re wondering how musicians can make a few notes strung together make you feel a feeling: it’s all in the bends.

There’s actually not that many bends on this album. False advertising!! BOOOO

Thanks for reading! Comment ya dope! You’re not a dope. Byeee