How to Play Slide Guitar: Bottleneck Basics

At its best, slide guitar playing combines economical phrasing with special attention to pitch and tone.

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. Let’s look at some of the basics of playing slide in open-D tuning (DADF#AD).

First, your slide should be about as long as the pinky of your fretting hand, slipping comfortably on your finger. The ends should be smooth, and some guitarists prefer a slight flare toward the outer end. To play with your slide, place your fretting/sliding hand over the fingerboard as you would normally. Avoid pointing your other fingers away from the guitar and keep your thumb behind the neck. Tilt the slide slightly outward so it contacts the first string only, and try playing the major scale in Ex. 1.


Slide into each note from below and try to get an accurate pitch. You can compare the sound of the note you play with your slide to the corresponding fretted note to see how close you are. Lessen unwanted hiss and rattle by muting the strings lightly behind the slide with the flat of your index finger. If the slide bangs against the frets or fingerboard, lighten the pressure of the slide against the strings a little.

Still playing only the first string, alter the major scale by adding the “blue” notes in Ex. 2: flatten the third degree of the scale until the pitch falls between the minor and major third (third and fourth frets). The way this interval can be shaded with microtonal pitch variations illustrates a lot of what’s beautiful about slide guitar. Add the flatted fifth (sixth fret) and flat the seventh (tenth fret) and you have a basic blues vocabulary.

Next, try a phrase on the first and second strings (Ex. 3). Tilt your slide inward so it covers both strings and slide into the 12th fret, sounding the notes with an upward brush of your index finger. Then tilt the slide back out as you play the flatted seventh and third on the first string, lifting it from the strings to play the open first string and tilting it back inward to play the flatted seventh on the second string (third fret).

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. Ex. 4 is the same phrase as Ex. 3 but an octave lower. Tilt the slide inward to cover strings four and five, and mute them with your index finger to cut down on the rattle from the wound strings. This phrase can be played with alternate up- and downstrokes of your index finger and thumb.

Once you develop some facility with the slide, you’ll want to mix some fretted notes and chords with slide notes. Ex. 5 is a bluesy turnaround in the style of slide wizard Tampa Red. Ex. 6 is a country-sounding lick with the major third and hammer-ons and pull-offs on the second and third strings fretted with the index and middle fingers.


Steve James
Steve James

The late, great Steve James was a noted roots musician and raconteur. He is the author of several well-regarded books on blues guitar.

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