From its primitive beginnings to its maturity in the age of rock’n’roll, slide guitar has given the guitar player a voice that extends the emotional range of the instrument. The slide allows the guitarist to find the notes between notes—those places between the frets where the slippery quality of human emotion runs.
From rudimental country-blues themes to masterpieces by adepts past and present, good slide guitar playing is seldom busy. At its best, it combines economical phrasing with special attention to pitch and tone. There are several things you can do to get a good slide sound: Set up your guitar with heavier strings, use an open tuning, try different kinds of slides, dampen the strings, and learn to properly intonate. Getting a good sound is often as much a function of proper setup as it is technique. Here are some tips on both gear and technique to get you started playing slide guitar.
To delve into slide guitar, you’ll obviously need a slide. Whether it’s made from glass, metal, or another material is up to you. Glass tends to have a smoother, rounder sound; the distinction is particularly noticeable on the lower, wound strings, where a metal slide can get really raspy. Ceramic and porcelain slides are a more recent development, offering the best of both glass and metal: they’re smooth and relatively light like glass, but they feel denser and offer a touch and sustain more reminiscent of metal. They’re a little on the fragile side, chipping and cracking easily if you don’t take especially good care of them.
In addition to which material will be best for you, there are other factors to consider, like weight (in general, heavier slides give better tone but are harder to manipulate) and size (which finger do you want to slide with). In this article, David Hamburger explains how to find the slide that will be the best physical and sonic fit for you.
Slide and open tunings go hand in hand. For example, in open-D tuning, any phrase on the first and second strings can be duplicated an octave lower by playing the same pattern on the fourth and fifth strings. This quick introductory lesson from roots and blues musician and author Steve James demonstrates how to play slide in open-D tuning (DADF#AD). To get into this tuning from standard, just lower strings 1 and 6 a whole step and string 3 a half step. You be able to get a lot of mileage from the handful of classic licks demoed here.
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As the slide touches the string, keep in mind that you don’t need to apply too much pressure—it’s more important to keep consistent pressure as you slide from note to note. The slide should cover only the string(s) that you are playing slide notes on. There are times when you want string noise and overtones, and times when you don’t want it. When you don’t want it, you will need to dampen some strings. This is a critical aspect of slide playing, and you can do it with both hands.
When you’re starting to get the hang of it, try this more in-depth lesson on blues slide taught by San Francisco Bay Area musician and educator Pete Madsen. The lesson works through ten excellent licks and culminates in two 12-bar solos: plenty of great materials for your next blues jam. You will learn how to use bottleneck slide in your own music, playing slide lines in standard tuning and applying what you learn to play a solo over a slow blues in the key of E.