Slide Guitar


A song played with slide guitar :

Goobye Down The Road from Blues Talk CD

The slide guitar to a very large extent defines the Blues. This is particularly so with Country Blues music. The use of the bottleneck to imitate the human voice is one of the most impressive aspect of the guitar. Early slide guitar players invariable play slide on an acoustic guitar before the advent of the electric age. The following is the basic rudiments of playing the slide guitar.

Open tunings
You can play slide guitar on standard tuning (E,A,D, G, B, E), but to get the real sound and motion of the slide guitar you need to go open tuning. Open tuning means you tune your guitar to an open chord, say D, so that when you strum the guitar open stringed you get a D chord. Some of the more popular open tuning for slide guitar are these :-

Open D : D, A, D, F#, A, D

Open E : E, A, E, G#, B, D

Open G : D, G, D, G, B, D

Open A : E, A, E, A, C#, E

Before you jump into open tuning, one word of caution. With Open E tuning the tension of the strings are increased and you might not want to use you favourite guitar to try out the open E tuning, depending on the wood and construction of the neck of your guitar, the neck may not be able to take the tension and you will end up with warp neck. With the Open A tuning, never use it on your favourite guitar. The tension and string pull of an Open A chord is tremendous and will warp most necks. I repeat, never tune your number 1 guitar to Open A.

Guitar set-up and strings
To get a clean sound, you need fairly high action and heavier strings. If you are using the slide on an acoustic guitar, you would want a 0.10 or 0.13 gauge set of strings. Anything lighter will not work. You should set up the action of your guitar so that you can get a clean slide sound while you can still play chords and single note runs without the slide. This is not an easy thing to do. The thing is get a balance beteween the two.

With electric guitar, you also need a higher action and heavy strings to get a good sound. I set up a Steinberger exclusive for slide guitar playing. I use 0.13, 0.16 and 0.16 for the unwound strings and I have a very high action on the guitar. For both acoustic and electric playing, I set up the action to my guitars to optimum height for slide playing. Since I do not play in standard tuning, I do very little fret work with my fingers.

The action of my guitar for slide playing is set very high


I find that when you play slide guitar, the natural sound of your guitar doesn’t really matter very much as much of the sound is generated by the bottle neck. A cheap acoustic guitar works great and so does a cheap electric.

The bottleneck
There are many bottlenecks or slides available on the market. Generally speaking, a bottle neck made of glass sounds warmer that one made with any other kind of material. Cooper slides are also warm but they are a bit on the heavy side. Metal gives the brightest sound.

Brass, ceramic, metal, glass bottleneck and glass


Bottlenecks also come in different sizes and length. If you place acoustic guitar, you will probably need one that covers the whole of the finger wearing the slide. If you play electric, probably a slide that covers the two joints of the finger you are wearing the bottleneck is enough. But that all depends on which you feel the most comfortable.

You can wear your slide on your little finger or the ring finger. Wearing the slide on the little finger will give allow you to use your ring finger to fret strings. But again, that all depends on what you feel most comfortable.

How does it work?
The whole idea of the slide guitar is to use the bottleneck to slide over the string over fret instead of using your finger to fret the string. Damping is very important here. When you want to play a particular note, you slide you bottleneck to that note and your slide will almost invariable cover other strings. Without damping, all the strings will ring and you won’t be able to get a clean sound. You need to use the fingers on you left had to damp the strings by touching the strings lightly. With you right hand, you need to set your palm over the strings you are not playing. It sounds difficult but it is no more difficult than learning to play guitar in standard tuning.

Where and how to start
With certain kinds of music, it is not possible to reproduce the notes and feel on paper. Slide guitar is one of them. You just cannot learn the slide guitar reading from sheet music or musical notations. The only way to learn it is to listen to the recordings, get the feel and touch and keep working on it.

For acoustic slide guitar, you would want to listen to some of the following recordings :-

Robert Johnson “The Complete Recordings”
Robert Johnson’s slide guitar is stunning. The bass line and treble runs weaved a intricate web with the singing. At times it sound as if there were two guitar players. This is a must if you want to get started. Robert often tuned his guitar to Open D, Open E and Open G. He used a capo on quite a few songs.


The Roots of Robert Johnson
The recording contains some of the definitive classic bottleneck playing : Son House’s My Black Mama, Hambone’s Roll & Tumbling. There are quite a few tunes in open tuning although not necessarily play with a bottleneck. But this is one recording you want to hear if you are interested in acoustic slide guitar.


Fred McDowell : Mississippi Delta Blues
Fred McDowell is one of the giants of Delta Blues. The gospel based You Gotta Move is an all-time classic. His voice and his accompaniment on the guitar is emotional and intense.


Johnny Winter : Nothing But The Blues
On T.V. Mama, Johnny Winter combined all the traditional slide licks together with is own touch. This is one of the best acoustic slide track ever recorded. Bladie Mae is also a great slide track. Johnny Winter used a National Triplate on both recordings.


John Hammond Live
John Hammond played all the classic tracks in this live recording including Dust My Broom, Can’t Be Satisfied and many others. John Hammond has his own feel and his finger picking and chord work are impressive.


Terry Garland : Trouble In Mind
Terry Garland is a relative new comer. Really funky style and great voice. Find this recording, it will be well worth your time.


For electric slide guitar, you would want to listen to some of the following recordings :-

Allman Brothers : Live At Filmore East

Allman Borthers : Eat A Peach

Duane Allman is the best single note slide player. He is the king of contemporary electric slide guitar. The opening notes of Statesborough Blues on Live At Filmore East are enough to throw you off seat. The two cycle of slide solo in this cut are out of this world. One Way Out on Eat A Peach has the funkiest slide groove ever, the solo is also fantastic. Duane Allman used his fingers when he plays the slide and wears his slide on his ring finger. He uses a small medicine bottle for slide. Duane Allman died in the early 70’s in a motor cycle accident at the height of his career.



Johnny Winter : Guitar Slinger

Johnny Winter : Third Degree
The name of Johnny Winter is synonymous with the Blues. It’s My Life Baby on Guitar Slinger has some of the tastiest slide ever recorded. The slide guitar on Idoine In My Coffee is also great. Mojo Boogie on Third Degree is just crazy crazy.Johnny Winters plays a lot tunes in Open D. On It’s My Life Baby, he tuned his guitar to Open E and used a capo on the 3rd fret. Johnny plays a lot of screaming high notes with his slide.Johnny plays a lot of triplets in his fill-ins and solos and he often employs an off beat timing when soloing.


Elmore James : King Of The Slide Guitar

Elmore James was a pioneer of electric slide guitar. He opening riff on Dust My Broom is the most copied Blues licks. By the way, Elmore James copied that from Robert Johnson. If you want to learn to play electric slide guitar, this is the best place to start. The licks on Dust My Broom is relatively easy to learn. If you cannot get this box set, any Elmore James recording will do. Elmore James’ It Hurts Me Too is an all time classic. Elmore often tuned his guitar to Open D


How to learn it
Blues is not a precise music; it is not classical or standard Jazz that can be written in standard musical notation and be reproduced by any musician with competent skills at sight reading. With the Blues, you have to go to the source, listen to the music, feel the rhythm and hear the sound. All you need to get started off is this know this:-

(a) When you strum your guitar open stringed, you have the chord of the Open Tuning, the I chord;
(d) Slide the bottleneck over the 5th fret you have the IV chord
(e) Slide the bottleneck over the 7th fret you have the V chord

There a lot of printed materials on slide guitar, there are also videos available. Listen to the recordings and if you feel the need, go and get some books on the subject. Once you get the hang of it it is not difficult at all.

Patience is the key. Playing slide guitar is a wholly different ball game. You will need a lot of patience when you try to learn it. But there is nothing you cannot do if you love it enough. The first thing you need to be able to do is to get the right pitch on the note you play. You should slide you bottleneck back and forth to maintain the correct pitch. The key to it all is to listen to the recordings and learn. You will eventually develope your own style and sound.