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. The slide can make strings growl or whimper; it can be bold and menacing, or quiet and sympathetic.
From Duane Allman to Bonnie Raitt to Alvin Youngblood Hart, the best guitarists have found the bottleneck slide to be one of the more valuable tools in their artistic kitbags. In this lesson, you will learn how to use this tool 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.
Many slide players set up their guitars with slightly higher action and heavy string gauges. Some dedicate one guitar as their slide instrument. I prefer a guitar with medium-gauge strings (.13-.56) and slightly higher than normal action.
Today slides come in various shapes and sizes. Here are some tips for choosing what kinds of slides might best suit your specific needs. At first, you will probably want to buy a small assortment of slides to experiment with. Your best choices include metal, glass, and ceramic. Glass tends to be smoother than metal, but some players say metal is louder.
You might find yourself using different slides based on whether you are playing acoustic or electric. For instance, I prefer a thinner slide for electric, because a thicker, heavier slide tends to bang around and create more noise—especially problematic if you use a lot of gain on your amp. For acoustic guitar, I prefer ceramic, because it seems to combine the best qualities of both metal and glass; it slides better on the string with a consistent pressure. Metal slides are thinner and therefore a bit easier to direct and get better accuracy over the fret. If you go for glass, I recommend a thicker glass, because thinner glass slides tend to sound thin. You can also use household objects such as a socket from a socket wrench set or the cut-off top of a beer or wine bottle—a blues classic!
There are various shapes and lengths of slides, too. If you play unaccompanied slide, you probably want one that’s at least 2 ½-inches long; that way, you can cover all of the strings at once and play full six-string chords. If you play accompanied, experiment with a shorter slide, but keep in mind that the shorter slide may or may not be able to cover all the strings.
Many players place the slide on their pinky; this provides the most flexibility, allowing the other fingers freedom to fret other strings and make chords. Other players place the slide on their ring, middle, or even the index finger. Whatever finger you use, the slide should fit snuggly. You can compensate for a loose-fitting slide by stuffing some foam, tissue, or candle wax into it.
Now, play around with your slide. As it 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. For instance, if you are playing notes on the high E string, you should only cover that one string with the slide.
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. I’m going to focus on your left, or fretting, hand, as that’s the hand less frequently used for dampening.
As you drag the slide across the strings, use one or more of the fingers of your left hand to touch and drag along that string with the slide. I use my index finger, which results in a slight cupping of my hand. This technique will rid you of some unsound string overtones. The cupping of the hand also tends to consolidate your hand, making it feel as if it is one appendage moving, rather than five independent fingers.
The following exercises and licks are derived from minor pentatonic scales and will be played mostly on the first two strings. You will play an ascending E minor pentatonic scale on the first and second strings. With your slide on, try to aim for the actual fret wire, rather than in between the frets, to achieve proper intonation. Try sliding between each note of the scale, ascending and then descending.
How does that sound? Check your intonation by fretting the notes with your finger and then the slide. Do they sound the same, or does the slide note sound a little flat? If it sounds flat, target right over the fret wire.
Ready to play some licks? Here you go:
Lick 1: On the surface, this lick is pretty simple. Play an open string and then slide into the notes of an ascending pentatonic scale. However, there is a trick with the damping finger that I would like you to try. In general, the damping finger should be the first thing to touch the string and the last thing you remove. If you play this lick and don’t use a damping finger, you will get a “ghost” pull-off sound. You may like that sound, but if it’s not intentional it is going to be there whether you like it or not.
Lick 2: This time play an open second string followed by a slide on the third fret, and then do the same thing on the first string. Keep track of your damping finger.
Lick 3: For this, you will perform a descending slide lick that moves between the second and third strings and then ascends to the fourth string and resolves on an E note. Try to lift your slide while keeping the damping finger down as you move from string to string.
Lick 4: This one uses a second-string slide that alternates with the open first string and then resolves with the previous lick (Lick 3).
Lick 5: If you took just the last three notes of this lick, you would have an E minor triad. But I have added the second degree of an E minor scale to give it a slightly different flavor. Moving between strings can be little challenging with the slide. As you move from the first to the second string, start out with the slide slightly tilted outward from the fretboard. Then tilt the slide inwards as you progress to the second and then third strings.
Lick 6: This one covers the same fretboard territory as Lick 5 but is focused on the inner strings (2 through 4). You don’t need to tilt your slide for this lick. Try keeping it very straight, covering all the strings.
Lick 7: For this, move up to the 12th fret and then up to the 15th fret. You may need to slant your slide to get up to the 15th, but that’s OK, as long as you are only targeting the one string. (Note: when playing multiple strings at the same time, be careful that your slide is not slanted and that it lines up perfectly with the fret; otherwise you will sound out of tune.)
Lick 8: This one is also centered at the 12th fret but you play a backwards slide from the 15th fret to get there.
Lick 9: Here, you use a chromatic run to move from the 12th to the 15th fret. Sometimes you will want to use the slide to play non-affected notes, but then slide into another note. So you will simply use the slide to cover the string and pluck the notes at the 12th, 13th, and 14th frets on the second string; then slide into the D note at the 15th fret.
Lick 10: You can use the slide to play slightly sharp or flat notes. In this lick as you slide on the second string from the 10th fret up to the 12th fret, you can let the slide ascend a little as you play the slightly sharpened E note on the 12th fret of the first string. This produces a slightly unresolved and haunting sound. The same idea is used in the second measure of this phrase as you slide backwards, from the 12th to the 11th fret, on the second string.
Slow Blues Groove
I have given you a slow 12-bar, three-chord groove in E to play some solos with. The groove is a variation on a basic shuffle. You play a two-beat, two-string chord followed by a single beat E6 and eighth-note triplet—a riff that dominates the groove throughout. There’s a lot of space in the rhythm for you to play through with your slide.
There are two 12-bar solos. The first uses a repeating lick that is anchored by an E note played at the fifth fret on the second string. As the lick progresses, it resolves to an A note in the fifth measure, at which time the rhythm shifts to the A chord. You also play the root note of the B chord with the slide when the rhythm moves to B in the ninth measure.
In the second 12-bar solo, move up to the 12th fret, but use a similar rhythmic phrasing as you did in the first few bars of the previous 12-bar. In measure 15, you perform a Duane Allman-style lick, in which you slide quickly backwards on the first string from the 12th to the 10th fret and ascend up a little slower on the second string from the 10th to the 12th fret. Measures 16 to 18 pull notes from the middle range of the guitar; then work your way down to a lower range. Finish off with a lick that starts on the first string and works its way up the fretboard to play an E minor triad between measure 22 and 23.
Getting a good sound with your slide takes some time and discipline. You can shortcut that time if you have your guitar set up with higher action and heavier string gauges. However, the key is to use the slide like a vocalist uses her natural talent, or like a harmonica player slips between vocal-like phrases. If you pay attention to the notes between the notes you will be on solid ground.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Many of the teachers who contribute lessons to Acoustic Guitar also offer private or group instruction, in-person or virtually. Check out our Acoustic Guitar Teacher Directory to learn more!