Why you should care

A lesson in the science of music amps our appreciation of the magic of Clapton, Hendrix and other guitar legends. Rock on.

You can’t play like Paul Gilbert. Don’t even try. The man’s superpower is having fingers that fly over the frets.

There are many reasons a guitarist’s style sounds unique, but a new study by an Oxford University-trained scientist tracks the physics, including a move called string bending. That’s when a guitarist pushes the fingers of her fretting hand across the guitar neck to give the a note a kind of wailing, plaintive sound. Watch a soloist’s fingers while he really wails on a rock song, and you’ll see him bending the strings to get, among other sounds, that real hard-core whine.

It’s as much feel and ear, developed over time and through practice, as innate musicianship.

David Robert Grimes decided to test string bending in an engineering lab. He hammered nails at set intervals into the neck of a guitar — a lab worker “was a musician too and looked at me with abject horror” — pushed the strings to those nails and measured the effect on the sound.

Grimes’ paper, published in PLOS ONE journal, found that even the smallest string bends can increase pitch nonlinearly, while other bends only add “subtle variations.” Understanding which bends give the most impact, and which the smallest, helps explain why it’s so hard for beginners to bend successfully — it’s as much feel and ear, developed over time and through practice, as innate musicianship.

The biggest surprise for Grimes was how much depended on string material — in particular, string thickness and stretchiness. He sees potential for string manufacturers to use the physics to adapt new materials for new sounds.

A Dublin session guitarist when he’s not researching cancer, Grimes cites Gilbert as an exemplar of string bending.

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