I guess this might be a hot take on the topic of bending in Jazz, but this is a really common question, and that was sort of surprising to me because I never really thought about it like that but I will try to explain that later.
I get a lot of comments about this ranging from “why is there no bending” or the more frustrated ones that are “Bending isn’t allowed” and of course my favorite which is to blame it on me. which is always fun.
But why isn’t bending a part of Jazz Guitar? And actually, I think there are quite a few reasons for this.
Is Bending Overrated?
Maybe sometimes string bending gets a bit overrated? The main reason you would ask why Jazz doesn’t use string bending is usually that you come from playing genres where that is a common part of phrasing and playing. That would probably be Blues, Classic Rock, and Metal? In those genres bending has almost become synonymous with demonstrating good taste, emotion, and not over-playing in a solo. Usually, David Gilmour from Pink Floyd is the typical hero of this way of playing almost to the point of it almost becoming a joke.
Some of the comments I get on YouTube will explain to me that “bending is the BEST phrasing” and that is used to argue that Jazz is lacking emotion or expression, but maybe it is worthwhile to point out that there are a lot of genres of guitar music where bending is not a standard part of the phrasing. Unless you also want to write off Flamenco, Bluegrass, and Classical music as lacking emotion as well.
It is not that Jazz fans are really any better, you can easily find examples of Jazz used in the same way to dismiss chord progressions that don’t have extensions as boring which obviously is just as silly.
But, while you are learning Jazz then there is a reason why I often tell people to avoid to play in a way that makes it a lot less effective to play boomer bends as a way of phrasing.
There Are Jazz Players That Use Bending
Of course, there are Jazz Guitarists that DO use bends, let’s start with a modern example and then add some of the more classic guys!
John Scofield was one of the first Jazz guitarists I listened to a lot, and in many ways, he is also one of the people to use bending in phrases that are not just Blues phrases. You can hear it in this example where he is using quite a few bends in the theme of the Gershwin ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me”.
Scofield always had this a part of his sound. It is certainly a part of his style, but you can actually find examples of most Jazz players using bends, it is just not as big a part of their vocabulary and not something that happens every other phrase.
As I mentioned earlier then you most commonly hear this in Blues phrases, like this example with Barney Kessel – BARNEY EXAMPLE or here with Kenny Burrell – BARNEY EXAMPLE
Both are soloing on a Blues and using blues vocabulary which of course is a part of Jazz.
So it is in there and it always was, but it is not something you use all the time. I think there are 3 possible reasons why bending is not so common in Jazz.
#1 Jazz Melodies Are Different!
You want to keep in mind that string bending is primarily used in blues phrases, and it is not a technique you would use for the Bebop lines, let me show you what I mean:
In the Blues, bends are used more on sustained notes or when notes are repeated.
But Bebop vocabulary is not about long notes or repeated notes so the effect of bending is not as powerful. The point is that you want to clearly hear that gradual move in pitch. Another thing is that for Jazz lines, connecting and locking in with the groove is more important where Blues melodies often will float more freely on top of a very clear groove.
Example of floating Blues Lick?
Try to listen to this short phrase where you can hear that the melody uses more notes, has more direction and tension, and is a lot lighter with a more syncopated rhythm.
It is a completely different type of melody, and playing syncopated rhythms more freely floating just means that you lose what is nice about them being syncopated.
I don’t know if I need to mention this, but the difference between Jazz and Blues is not really about one being better than the other, this is just that they are different and what makes Jazz Jazz and Blues Blues.
It Is Bending Too Slow For Bebop?
If you were to try to add bends to an 8th note line then it is fairly clear that bending is not a very efficient way to produce a note compared to legato, slides, and the other techniques used in a phrase, and for Bebop then speed and efficiency is certainly a factor.
Maybe you can see that from the opening phrase of Donna Lee. You could choose to play the trill in the beginning of the melody with a bend:
But it is a lot of extra motion for the left hand so it is not very efficient to get to work in a Bebop line compared to a normal legato trill.
Another thing that is also worth mentioning is the guitars and I am sure they were certainly also a factor.
#2 The Guitars and Pickups
Evolution of sound: Acoustic, Jazz Guitar + Amp – Solidbody with effects – Guitar into Laptop
If you think of how Jazz guitar sits in the history and development of Jazz then it was mainly used from Bebop and on, and the instruments that were used at that point were archtop guitars with fairly heavy strings and some sort of early single coil pickup like a p90 or a Charlie Christian pickup.
This type of guitar sounds great but, similar to an acoustic guitar, does not have a lot of sustain, which again fights a bit against a technique like bending that works better if the note keeps ringing and doesn’t fade out before you have hit the pitch you want.
I think you can also sort of hear this in how T-bone walker, who also played a hollow body guitar, often repeats notes when bending almost like he tries to find a way to compensate for that.
Again, it makes sense to compare Jazz to Bluegrass where the acoustic guitars have a similar sound without a lot of sustain. In Bluegrass, the soloing style is also relying on more dense and active melodies weaving through the changes and not long notes with vibrato. The gear really does often shape the style of music, by now modern styles of guitar music really incorporates recording and studio effects as much as real gear like amps and effects to shape the sound. In a way, it is an evolution from acoustic to adding more and more ways to shape the basic sound.
There was another thing that we don’t talk about that much, but it most likely also played a fairly big role besides the guitar though.
#3 You Don’t Want Feedback
You might be thinking that even with a single coil pickup you can get more sustain, which is certainly true for a tele or a les paul with p90s where you can turn up the amp to get more compression and therefore also more sustain, but If you have ever played a hollow body with a p90 like this one, then you also know how much trouble you can get with feedback which can get completely out of control. In the 40s and 50s when the basic Jazz guitar style was evolved then most amps just had a volume knob and some sort of simple EQ. This limits how loud you can go with an instrument like that and if you want to play the amp so loud that it starts compressing and gives you more sustain then you are most likely going to be at a volume where you are spending more time trying to mute the strings and keeping the guitar in a direction away from the amp so it doesn’t go crazy with feedback.
I am curious about which reason you think was more important, maybe it is something I didn’t mention at all? You can let me know in the comments.
It Is Not Jazz, It is You!
A completely different reason for why it feels like bends are not allowed in Jazz has nothing to do with Jazz, because it could also be that you show up to a Jazz Jam session and want to play the blues licks you have in your fingers over the standards, which I imagine will not go down too well.
Before I start explaining why the way I teach Jazz sort of leads away from string bending there is something else that is maybe also worth understanding, especially if you were one of the people asking the question.
Does AC/DC Need Synthbass?
The first few times that I had students or people on the internet asking me about this then I was pretty surprised by the question, simply because it wasn’t something I had ever thought about. I guess that also has to do with how you approach the music.
When I got into Jazz then the main thing that drove it all was that I liked the music that I heard, and I was very curious about how to sound like that. That also means that I was not really concerned with what they didn’t do, only in figuring out what they were doing so that I could do that as well. If there was no tapping, bending, or delays then that didn’t matter. What interested me was how to sound like the music I heard. I especially remember this from hearing El Hombre, Pat Martino’s debut album.
The reason I mention this is because I suspect you will get that reaction more often, and it feels a bit like asking why there is no synth in AC/DC or BB king tapping licks. The music is fine as it is, and we can’t go back in time and change it.
Beginning Jazz Phrasing
When it comes to Jazz phrasing, and especially Bebop phrasing, then the fact that the vocabulary is about rhythm and syncopation also means that you start by letting people play shorter notes. That is also what you hear if you go back to the phrasing of swing which is the origin of Bebop.
Pat Martino playing the Benny Goodman piece, Seven come eleven is also an example of this. Phrases end are ending on an off-beat and the last note is short to make it clear that it is syncopated. Often when you come from especially Blues then it is less important to stop the notes and you let every note in the melody ring out. When you start playing Jazz then you need to learn to take control of the length of the note and really choose when to play long notes. Bending is just not that effective if you play a lot of fast short notes.
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