Slide guitar can be used in both standard and open tunings to create bluesy, vocal-like sounds. But while slide guitar is perhaps most commonly associated with the blues, it can be used to excellent effect in a range of other styles, as players from Doug Wamble to Ben Harper demonstrate.
Jazz and roots guitarist Doug Wamble plays a mean slide in his work with trumpeter/bandleader Wynton Marsalis, vocalist Cassandra Williams, and others. Wamble originally got into playing slide out when he became frustrated by the limitations of conventional fretting technique.
As Wamble explores musical territories farther and farther afield from his jazz-via-down-home-Memphis beginnings, he continues to deepen his commitment to great guitar playing and utter singularity as an artist. He has gone deep in two particular areas of playing that are rarely heard by players in any corner of jazz guitar—slide and D A D G A D tuning. He also found that the slide got him closer to the big, bold tones of some of his musical heroes—like trumpeter Louis Armstrong and trombonist “Tricky Sam” Nanton.
In this feature, he explains how he explores slide in DADGAD, a tuning more commonly associated with styles such as fingerstyle Celtic. To begin playing in this style, he suggests taking a simple song you enjoy playing and learning to play and sing it in D (even if you’re not a singer). Then try to play the melody in the middle strings, then the high strings, and let the open strings ring.
The singer-songwriter Ben Harper has the unique distinction of playing slide on a Weissenborn guitar in a rock context. Here he gives an exclusive lesson on playing the slide solo on his 2006 hit “Better Way.” (If you’d like to play along with the notation, check out the print or digital edition of the January/February 2021 issue.)
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The track’s main guitar presence is a propulsive Weissenborn solo, and Harper has also performed “Better Way” solo with acoustic guitar, in the key of E. The tune follows the simple classic rock progression E–D–A or I–bVII–IV (as in Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and tons of other songs), and any straight-ahead rock strumming pattern in 4/4 will work.
In the century since slide guitar became a common practice, the technique has been used in just about any imaginable context from rock to jazz and beyond, on acoustic, electric, and resonator guitar, lap and pedal steel, and other stringed instruments. While the origins might be murky, it’s clear that slide guitar became popular with blues guitarists like Robert Johnson and Son House and Hawaiian musicians such as Sol Hoopii in the first half of the 20th century, to say nothing of country-and-western and bluegrass musicians like Noel Boggs and Leon McAuliffe. The sound of an open-tuned instrument played with a slide is inextricably associated with these styles and their offshoots, and American popular music in general.
Artists such as Harry Manx (pictured above), Steve Dawson, Ross Hammond, Marisa Anderson, and Debashish Bhattacharya all play slide guitar in fresh and unexpected ways, whether channeling Indian classical music or jazz improvisation. Read their stories here and learn about their gear choices, and, of course, check out their music for some good slide inspiration.