There’s nothing quite like the sweet sound of glass, steel or pipe making a guitar string cry. No other sound immediately identifies blues music like slide guitar. There are almost as many different playing styles and sounds as there are variations in the tools of the trade and like all truly great art forms, it’s fairly easy to pick up but difficult to master.
For the most part, a player chooses to wear a slide on the ring or third finger, which offers a good degree of control whilst leaving the other fingers free for chord shapes, escapes or stops. There are notable exceptions of course – Australian slide master Dave Hole pops his slide on his first finger and plays over the top of the neck. King of the Delta slide, Robert Johnson, wore his on the pinky or fourth finger, as did Hound Dog Taylor (even though he had five fingers and a thumb on each hand). Some musicians have opted not to wear a slide at all, instead using a flat horizontal slide laid across the guitar’s strings (like Robert Randolph) or a small bottle (like Black Ace).
Bottleneck and the Blues
The technique of altering the pitch of a string in this way is sometimes referred to as bottleneck slide guitar as many slides were made from the necks of bottles. Glass gives a wonderfully warm, sweet tone to the strings and is favored by acoustic players, but is not the only material from which slides are made. Steel, brass and copper tubes find a perfect match in the distortion favored by electric players and offer a nice sharp bite as metal contacts with metal. If a material resonates, it will probably have found its way into the hands of a slide guitar player at some point.
In order to play blues slide guitar there are a few fundamentals to consider. To achieve a sweet intonation, the slide is placed directly over the top of a fret, not between the frets where a finger is normally placed. Keep the slide straight and don’t apply too much pressure on the strings, the frets are really only there for visual reference. Great tonal vibrato can be achieved by moving the slide hand quickly back and forth, being careful not to overdo it and running the risk of sounding out of tune.
Muting is a vital part of playing slide. Without it all of the strings will emit some sound when moving the slide between notes. The fingers behind the slide can be used to control much of the background noise but the picking hand has an equally, if not more, important part to play. Isolating strings by muting with the picking hand is difficult to master but success is rewarded with clean string slides.
If, for example, a player wishes to pick and slide the G sharp string in open E tuning (E, B, E, G#, B, E), the thumb of the picking hand should mute the bottom E, the B and the next E strings. A couple of fingers can be used to keep the top E and B strings quiet so that only the G sharp string rings out its cry.
Although standard tuning can be used when playing slide, if the player wants to intersperse single note runs with chorded patterns it’s a good idea to try and find an alternative tuning that makes finding places on the neck where barring strings with the slide will produce a pleasant or useful major chord. Open tunings are a good way to make slide guitar a lot easier. As well as the open E tuning mentioned above, open D (D, A, D, F#, A, E) and open G (D, G, D, G, B, D) are also very common.
A Brief Visit to Statesboro, Georgia
There are many great examples of blues slide guitar but perhaps the most played, most copied and most revered modern example is Duane Allman’s powerful rendition of Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues. Tucked away amongst the many useful tutorials featured on John W Tuggle’s Learning Guitar Now blog is a transcription of the intro to that iconic version. The guitar will need to be tuned to open E before it sounds anything like the original.
No introduction would be complete without at least a quick mention of the instrument member of this successful partnership. Before heading to the nearest vintage guitar emporium to invest all of your hard-earned in a genuine National Steel Resonator it may be worth trying out that beat up, dusty and neglected attic resident with string action set so high that major reconstructive hand surgery was needed the last time it was used.
For slide guitar, bum frets are of little consequence and those painful heavy strings and high action could be just what the doctor ordered. As playing technique expands to include such things as escapes and fretting behind the slide then a change of instrument may need to be considered. Until then, make the most of what’s already at hand.
As with most music, to learn blues slide technique it’s a good idea to look back at those who have come before. Aside from those already mentioned, other players of note include from the early days of recorded blues Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Barbecue Bob, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House through to Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor and Muddy Waters. More recently Bob Brozman, Ry Cooder, Johnny Winter, Derek Trucks and Sonny Landreth have taken the technique to new and dizzying heights.
Needless to say, the more practice is put in, the better the result.
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