Why do jazz guitar players rarely bend strings?

  • In pop, rock and blues guitar players very often use bending technique in their riff and solos. Much more rarely it happens in jazz music, where guitar players prefer other techniques (e.g. hammer-on...). Is there a particular reason for that?

  • user546

    user546 Correct answer

    6 years ago

    It depends on the period of jazz history, and on the type of instrument the musician is playing.

    Earlier jazz tended to make use of a hollow-body archtop guitar, which is acoustically very loud, but which has very little sustain, and which requires heavy-gauge strings, strummed or picked quite hard, to get a good sound. The hollow-body archtop guitar was originally designed and built to be an entirely acoustic instrument, and early jazz bands used them that way for strumming rhythm -- no pickup, no microphone, no amplifier. Bending notes on such a guitar is very difficult and does not work well.

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    The great Freddy Green, of the Count Basie Orchestra, came up in the 1930s. He only ever strummed chords, and only ever played a completely acoustic hollow-body archtop guitar, with very heavy round-wound strings and high action, in the middle of a big band with horns. He never plugged in, and continued to play that way until his retirement at the end of the 1970s.

    The hollow-body archtop guitar was the first kind of guitar to have a pickup attached to them, going all the way back to the late 1930s. But even after pickups were added, players tended to continue to use very heavy strings (and flat-wound rather than round-wound strings, which produce a very different tone) and the same playing techniques they used when the instrument was purely acoustic.

    enter image description here Kenny Burrell on a really big hollow-body archtop guitar with really heavy strings, probably in the early 1960s

    After the mid-1950s the solid-body electric guitar (Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul) and the semi-hollowbody guitar (Gibson ES-335) came into use in jazz, although many players to this day still use the older hollow-body archtop design. With solid-body electric guitars in jazz, players began to use the same light-gauge round-wound strings as the rock and country players, and to adopt some of their techniques in string-bending. A solid-body guitar with light-gauge round-wound strings enables playing notes with much longer sustain, and this in turn makes it feasible to hold notes longer and bend them. You can hear a lot of jazz fusion from the 1970s and 1980s where the players make use of string-bending.

    enter image description here

    Mike Stern in the 80s playing a solid-body electric guitar with light-gauge strings, and bending them, too.

    Since that era, much jazz guitar has gone back to a more traditional 1950s and 1960s approach, using the hollow-body archtop and much heavier strings. But you can find exceptions to the rule among different players in every decade.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM

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