My guitar playing—my relationship to/with my guitar, really—has continued to change over the last few months. A lot of that is a steady drip of improvement, but my feelings towards bending strings have been a bit more of a state change.

Bending strings was probably the most significant technique that Rock Band 3 didn’t model but Rocksmith did: some of Rock Band 3‘s behavior made a lot more sense once I understood why what I was listening didn’t seem to match what I saw on screen. It took me a while to get used to bends in Rocksmith, too; part of that was that the guitar I was using at the time actively fought string bending, but I suspect that part of that is the novelty of the technique compared to other instruments I’d played. There’s nothing like it on a piano; it would perhaps be possible to some extent on a violin (though I’m not convinced that a violin’s strings could take the abuse), but, vibrato aside, it’s not something people actually do on a violin. And it’s not something I’d seen in other instruments I’ve dabbled with.

Rocksmith‘s modeling of the technique is surprisingly distant, too. They show you a sustained note, and tell you to bend it; they have a hidden requirement for a minimum amount to bend it, but they don’t actually show you what that minimum amount is, and they don’t care when in the sustained note you do your bending. This all combined to leave me in a quite uncertain state: I didn’t know how much to bend, I didn’t know when to bend, I didn’t really know how to bend, and I was afraid that I’d break the string if I went too far.

After a month or so, though I started to calm down: I got a guitar that wasn’t fighting me, and I got used to the idea that yes, moving strings sideways was a reasonable thing to do. So I got less and less shy about shoving the strings around; this helped me be more successful score-wise when playing the game. Still, there was something missing: I could do what the game was asking me to do, but the game honestly wasn’t asking me to do very much.

Two songs in particular helped me get over that hump. One was a version of The Star-Spangled Banner: in one bit, one of the notes in the tune was missing. I assumed for a while that that was simply something that they left out in the easier difficulty levels and that the extra note would appear as it got harder, but they kept on not adding that note. And then I realized that the string bend in that section wasn’t for emphasis: it was a larger bend (a full step) that was there to serve as part of the tune. The other song was Are You Gonna Go My Way: it has a very distinctive riff that it plays over and over again, one that includes a string bend followed by a pull-off. At first, I just played it however I wanted; but listening to the song more, I realized that the notes and timing involved in that combo are very distinct and very precise. (I’m still not good at playing it accurately, but at least now I know what I’m listening for!)

So, with those, I started to appreciate string bending more: it’s not just a flourish, it can work well to carry the melody. I’m listening a lot more to the music: figuring out what notes they’re playing, and what the timing is for the bends. But I don’t want to be ruled by that, either: I want to acknowledge the fact that this is a string bend, not a hammer on or a pull off or two distinct strums.

The upshot is that I have license to play around: to go with what sounds good, and to go with what feels good. (One of Rock Band 3‘s surprisingly strong reminders is how important the physical and tactile aspects are of making music; here’s yet another example of that.) At first, I was a little frustrated that Rocksmith had an idea of how far it wanted me to bend but wouldn’t show me; now part of me is glad of that, because the game is explicitly constructing a safe space were I have to play around a bit on my own.

It’s a very small safe space, of course. But it hints at the existence of a much larger realm of possibility.

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