Slide Masters: 6 Guitarists Who Play Bottleneck Style in Fresh and Unexpected Ways
It’s not possible to know the exact specifics, but at some point near the beginning of the 20th century, a random musician in the Mississippi Delta must have rubbed a guitar’s strings with a knife, glass bottle, or other hard object, and in doing so discovered that the instrument could be made to produce an eerily vocal-like sound. At around the same time, the Hawaiian musician Joseph Kekuku pioneered the steel guitar by using a steel bar on the strings for a similar effect.
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.
But 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. The six musicians showcased here—Harry Manx, Steve Dawson, Doug Wamble, Ross Hammond, Marisa Anderson, and Debashish Bhattacharya—show just how wide a range of concepts, sounds, and inflections can be brought to life with slide technique.
Harry Manx was a young teenager when he bought his first blues album—Johnny Winter’s The Progressive Blues Experiment—and instantly fell in love with the sound of the slide guitar. He eventually got around to tuning a guitar to open D, placing it across his lap, and teaching himself to play slide with a socket wrench. “In those days [the late 1960s and early ’70s], there weren’t really any teaching materials available, so I had to work it out by ear,” Manx says. “Listening to Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and Jerry Douglas, I was able to hear the possibilities.”
Manx, who dropped out of high school at 14, says his education came from working as a soundman at the El Mocambo blues club in Toronto and seeing great blues players like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon up close. He began his life as a professional musician by busking in Europe in the mid-1970s, finishing up this itinerant work in the late 1990s in Japan. Manx, now his mid-60s, says, “I spent a lot of time playing other people’s songs and making a decent living. Then at some point in my mid-30s, I realized that I really wanted to play more slide. My first few attempts were very frustrating, but after practicing slide for three hours every day, I quickly got better. With my right hand, I started to develop a kind of slap that would indicate the beat while I was picking, and I could see my street audience getting into it more.”
In the 1980s, Manx travelled frequently between India and Japan, and one day while busking in the latter country, he followed some interesting sounds into a small record shop and learned that he was hearing Indian classical music. “What an awakening I had that day,” Manx says. “Upon returning to India, I went immediately to Rajasthan to find Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the creator of the mohan veena (a 20-string slide guitar). I arrived at his doorstep late in the evening and pretty much laid my life at his feet. He accepted me as his student and gave me a veena. What a joy and a blessing it was to be close to the mountain of talent and graciousness that he is.”
Though Manx admits he never became a great Indian classical musician, he did find a way to incorporate the music’s feel and depth into everything he does today—including his latest album, Hell Bound for Heaven (Stony Plain), with the Canadian multi-instrumentalist Steve Marriner. Through his travels, both literal and figurative, Manx has arrived at a unique slide style that is equal parts Eastern and Western. “My blues is a little Indian, and my Indian is a little bluesy,” he says.
What He Plays
Manx’s main instrument is a Taylor 710, set up for lap-style play in a D-based tuning—either D A D F# A D (D major), D A D F A D (D minor), or D A D F# A C# (D major seventh). The guitar is outfitted with a Sunrise pickup, which Manx plugs into a Universal Audio preamp. He also has a National Style 0; a Gold Tone model Banjitar six-string banjo (tuned to open C); and a four-string cigar box instrument (tuned F F C F), made by the luthier Grant Wickland. Manx uses acrylic nails on his picking hand, a Dunlop Lap Dawg tonebar, and assorted Elixir strings.
Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the 1980s, Steve Dawson enjoyed playing typical rock-band fare on the electric guitar. He figured he’d become a serious musician and study jazz when he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but things took a sudden turn when he arrived. “That’s where I got into acoustic guitar seriously, as well as dobro, country music, bluegrass, and fingerpicking,” he says.
After college, Dawson worked with various bands but grew weary of playing in loud bars, where the clientele was less than attentive, so he formed an acoustic duo, Zubot & Dawson, with fiddler Jesse Zubot. The duo toured all over the world and found success, which Dawson has leveraged into a busy and multifaceted career. Now based in Nashville, the guitarist splits his time between serving as a sideman for musicians like Matt Andersen and Birds of Chicago, recording and touring in support of his own music, and working as a producer for “whoever comes calling that I think I could work well with,” as he puts it.
Dawson, who estimates that 80 percent of his work involves a slide, plays both in conventional position and lap-style on the Weissenborn; he also does a good bit of pedal steel. As opposed to a fully open tuning like E, D, G, or A, he usually opts for double dropped D, in which strings 1 and 6 are tuned to D, as he finds this arrangement most practical. “That allows me to play all the slide stuff I want,” he explains, “while also getting through entire songs without playing slide.”
Whether playing with the slide or without, Dawson draws from a deep well of influences—the blues and rock canon in general, guitar greats like Doc Watson and Chet Atkins, eclectic stylists like Ry Cooder and David Lindley, and much more, as can be heard on his latest album, Lucky Hand (Black Hen Music). “I even got pretty deep into Hawaiian music for a while and did some work with Bob Brozman, who showed me all kinds of stuff,” Dawson says. “It’s been all over the map.”
What He Plays
Dawson’s go-to acoustic for live performance is an early 1990s Larrivée JV-05, a cutaway jumbo outfitted with a Sunrise pickup. In the studio, Dawson gravitates toward a 1955 Gibson J-50, a 1927 National Style O, and a Martin OO-DB Jeff Tweedy signature model, plus a Celtic Cross Instruments Weissenborn. He often plugs into a Fender Deluxe and uses Strymon Flint, Catalinbread Belle Epoch, JHS SuperBolt, and Dingtotone HZD Boost effects pedals. His guitars are strung with various D’Addarios, and he prefers a no-name lead crystal slide for bottleneck and a Dunlop 925 Ergo tonebar for lap-style play.
As a teenager in Memphis, Tennessee, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Doug Wamble was surrounded by old-timey music. His mother was the house pianist in their Baptist church, and his maternal grandfather, an amateur but dedicated musician, played gospel and country songs on his guitar at home. Wamble started on the clarinet and, watching clips of the Benny Goodman Sextet on television, got inspired by Goodman’s guitarist, Charlie Christian. “That’s what started it for me,” Wamble says. “I took up guitar at the same time as I got into jazz.”
Wamble, who studied music at the University of North Florida and Northwestern University in Chicago, made the time-honored move to New York in 1997. Thanks to a fortuitous connection with Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter, composer, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wamble found work very quickly. Within a week he had a gig with Madeleine Peyroux, and he first recorded as a sideman for Marsalis on the bandleader’s 1999 album Big Train. Wamble stepped out on his own with 2003’s Country Libations, on which he views jazz though a lens of gospel and blues—an approach that has characterized his work in general. “I’ve always been guided by a love of American roots music,” he says.
Wamble estimates that he plays slide guitar about 60 percent of the time. He got into slide not through learning the work of the old blues masters but by adapting the mannerisms of the great jazz horn players. “I was aware of [adventurous electric slide guitarist] David Tronzo from reading guitar magazines, but it was years before I ever got to hear him,” Wamble says. “For me, it actually all started by trying emulate the distinctive vibratos of Johnny Hodges and Sidney Bechet—I just loved how vocal they sounded.”
Great slide moments abound on Wamble’s latest project—9 for ’19 (available via Bandcamp)—a collection of nine albums to be released one per month from April through December of 2019. On a previously unreleased octet arrangement of “Sleepytime” (the old standard “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”), Wamble opens with the most impeccable bottleneck solo against a warm backdrop of horns. “Slide allows a guitarist a great opportunity to be the bridge between horns and the rhythm section,” he says. “I can solo, play written lines with horns, or slip back into rhythm playing. I love that freedom.”
What He Plays
For slide guitar, Wamble prefers his Mule Resophonic tricone or his 1929 National Triolian. He uses assorted D’Addario strings, Planet Waves Nylpro picks, and a Shubb AXYS reversible guitar slide.
Ross Hammond, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, had a familiar musical trajectory in his formative years. As a teenager, he played mostly rock and blues on the electric guitar, but while attending California State University, Sacramento in the mid-1990s, he got into jazz and improvisation. Around the same time, he began working at Fifth String Music, a shop that specialized in acoustic instruments and served as a center for regional folk and bluegrass scenes. “There were a lot of great players that either taught there or were regulars, and it was probably the best education one could get on the guitar,” Hammond says.
After college, Hammond spent a decade playing electric guitar and working on building an improv scene in the Sacramento area. But when he became a father, in 2010, he shifted his focus to the acoustic, concentrating on playing blues and raga (basically, the framework for melodic improvisation in Indian classical music) on bottleneck and acoustic lap steel. “After I became a dad, I wanted to be home more, and I started playing solo. I felt it was time to unplug,” he says. “And it felt right, as a way to play blues, world music, and the spirituals and gospel songs I knew growing up in Kentucky,” he says.
These days Hammond plays acoustic slide almost exclusively, save for the occasional fretted chord, as heard on his latest album, Riding Dragons in Winter (Prescott Recordings). He has not lost his affinity for improvisation and tends to avoid through-composed pieces, instead exploring spontaneous variations on short pre-composed themes. “Slide is great for that, he says. “The raga and improv music lends itself to being able to compose on the fly, and to trust yourself and trust your ears. And the slide is the closest thing I’ve found on guitar to the human voice, so it’s pretty easy to get lost in the sounds the slide makes and then wake up about 30 minutes later.”
What He Plays
Hammond’s main acoustic guitar is a Pleinview Guitars Small Jumbo made by the luthier Raymond Morin. Hammond also plays a baritone lap resonator and a 12-string lap resonator, both by Turkey Tone (luthier Chris Harvey), as well as a Republic resonator guitar for bottleneck slide. For fingerpicking, Hammond uses Dunlop and Acri fingerpicks and Fred Kelly Slick Pick thumbpicks, and for flatpicking, a Dunlop Gator pick (2.00mm). On acoustic guitar, he prefers a Dunlop 228 chromed brass slide, opting for a Dunlop Lap Dawg on steel guitar. If the occasion calls for it, he amplifies his instruments using the Lace Ultra Slim Acoustic Sensor and plugging into either a ZT Lunchbox or Lunchbox Acoustic amp.
Marisa Anderson might spend less time on slide than the other guitarists featured here—she estimates that about a third of her current work uses the bottleneck—and she plays acoustic as often as electric. But a deep connection to acoustic slide guitar is apparent in her work, which is always earthy and occasionally strange. “I love the notes between the notes, the journey of getting from one known place to another by traveling through the sonic space. It’s literal and physical, moving an object along the neck of the guitar,” she says.
Anderson, based in Portland, Oregon, began playing guitar in the early 1980s, when she was around ten. Though her first loves were country and folk, she began on classical guitar and later studied with guitarist Nina Gerber, who taught her to improvise—an aspect that has remained a big part of her music. “Traditional American music is an improvised music. Common themes and characters, phrases, and melodic fragments show up all over American music,” Anderson says. “The way I approach those common elements is similar to the way a jazz player might draw from the jazz tradition to create new work or cover a standard.”
Anderson also relishes some of the improvisational details that come as byproducts of playing with the slide, as is heard on the track “Lament” from her latest album, Cloud Corner (Thrill Jockey). “I love the unintended noises and transients that accompany slide playing, as well as the way that the style allows me to vary my timing as I move from one position to another,” she says. “When playing slide, I can’t control everything the way I can when I play conventionally, and I feel like some great moments happen when
I respond to the unexpected.”
What She Plays
Anderson’s main guitars for playing slide include a 1930s Dobro Model 27, a Gibson ES-339, a mid-1960s Fender Stratocaster, a Dickerson lap steel, and a Sho-Bud single-neck pedal steel. She makes her own slides from the necks of wine bottles, and she favors assorted D’Addario strings.
As the son of Indian classical vocalists, Debashish Bhattacharya might have been destined for musical greatness, but he was much younger than most—only three years old to be exact—when he received his first guitar and learned to play it. “I was playing around in the orchard of our village home one afternoon when my mom gave me a very old Hawaiian [lap style] six-string guitar,” Bhattacharya, a major proponent of Hindustani slide guitar, remembers. “The joy of having it on my lap was mixed with surprise, and then my mom squeezed on picks and showed me how to play sa re ga ma [the first four notes of the octave in Indian classical music].”
Bhattacharya, now in his mid-50s, first heard Western slide guitar on All India Radio (on which he also debuted at age four) as a small child in the late 1960s. He found the music a “sloppy act,” as he remembers it—at least relative to the pristine Indian classical music that was in his DNA—so he worked out a way to reconcile these seemingly disparate worlds. “God helped me by adding the idea in my brain to practice more staccatos and develop faster and finer wrist [control], to build a new technology of slide guitar playing,” Bhattacharya explains.
Bhattacharya’s trademark brand of Hindustani slide guitar is indebted equally to his Indian roots and to Western influences—not just in terms of the open tunings used by many American slide guitarists, but the virtuosic improvisation of idioms like jazz and fusion. This is especially apparent on Bhattacharya’s 2013 album Beyond the Ragasphere (Riverboat Records), which features guitarist John McLaughlin and steel player Jerry Douglas. “Western influences haven’t confused me, but rather have empowered me,” Bhattacharya says.
What He Plays
Early on in his musical development, Bhattacharya realized that he needed specialized gear to realize his visions, and in 1978, when he was 15, he made his own instrument. His self-designed “Trinity of Guitars” now includes the chaturangui, a 23-string combination sitar/sarod/violin/rudra veena; the gandharvi, a 12-string guitar/veena/santoor/sarangi; and the anandi, a slide ukulele. Bhattacharya says, “These aren’t slide instruments I picked up and followed; rather I’ve created them by following my growth and passion for playing music. It’s been a journey of mine for more than five decades, and I feel I have much more to create and share.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.