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