Video Lesson: How to Play Bottleneck in a Range of Styles

Slide/bottleneck guitar can evoke flavors ethereal and lyrical or aggressive and bombastic. From Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” to Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” and on to Debashish Bhattacharya’s Indian slide musings, this approach delivers a wide spectrum of sounds, emotions, and cultural touchstones.

Slide/bottleneck guitar can evoke flavors ethereal and lyrical or aggressive and bombastic. From Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” to Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” and on to Debashish Bhattacharya’s Indian slide musings, this approach delivers a wide spectrum of sounds, emotions, and cultural touchstones. In this Weekly Workout, you’ll look at styles ranging from blues and rock to Hawaiian and Middle Eastern sounds, which should whet your appetite for digging into bottleneck slide.

But first, if you’re just getting into bottleneck, you might want to gather an assortment of slides to see what works best for you. Slides, most commonly made of steel, brass, glass, and ceramic, come in varying lengths. For single-string slide playing, a smaller—and therefore less cumbersome—slide might suit you, but if you want to play full chords in an open tuning, make sure the slide covers the width of your fretboard. On the acoustic guitar, I prefer a bottleneck with some weight, since more mass equals more sound.

Week One

Many blues and rock guitarists play slide in both standard and open tunings, so standard tuning is a good place to start. If you’re not already familiar with the E minor pentatonic scale, check out Example 1, the basis of your first group of exercises.

For Example 2, in which the E minor pentatonic scale is played along string 1, place the slide on either your third or fourth finger (I tend to use the latter.) The goal here is to smoothly slide from a half step below each target note. Keep your slide low, just covering the first string and slightly angled away from the neck. For proper intonation, make sure to target the fretwire instead of playing between the frets, as you would in standard fretting.

In Example 3, you’ll navigate a couple of longer slides. Remember to keep your fretting-hand thumb on the back of the neck as you slide your entire hand along string 1. Example 4 transfers the E minor pentatonic scale to the second string. Try angling the slide slightly inwards to play this phrase. It’s okay to make contact with the first string, since on the acoustic, string noise is not nearly as bad as it would be if you were playing an electric guitar through a hi-gain amp.

Now try a typical blues lick that moves between strings 1 and 4 (Example 5). As you move from string to string, keep your damping finger (see Beginners Tip #1) in place while you remove the slide and place it back down on the next string; this will silence the previous note when you move to the next. One drawback of slide playing is that when you move from string to string there can be a sloppy slurring of notes and overtones, but you can minimize this with careful technique and damping.


Playing single-string lines using pentatonic scales works well in standard tuning, but what about playing chords? In standard tuning, you can’t place the slide over all the strings to form, say, a basic major chord. You can, however, imply chords using double stops. In Example 6, a I–IV–V progression in the key of E major (E–A–B) is suggested by root-third dyads at frets 9 (E), 2 (A), and 4 (B). Meanwhile, the seventh-fret dyad contains an E9 chord’s flatted seventh (D) and ninth (F#).

Close out this week with Example 7, a single-note lick that etches out a V–IV–I (B–A–E) progression in E. The B and A chords are simple dyads (root and third), while the E chord in second measure flirts with the ninth.

Beginners’ Tip #1
In addition to contacting the string with your slide, rest your first finger lightly on the string behind the slide to damp the strings. Also, keep your thumb squarely situated on the back of the guitar’s neck for stability.

Week Two

One of the main benefits of playing slide in an open tuning is the ability to play full six-string chords with the slide covering all the strings. This week you’ll explore this concept in open D (aka Vestapol), a common tuning used by Duane Allman, John Fahey, and Tampa Red, among many others. To get into Vestapol from standard, lower strings 1 and 6 a whole step, to D; string 2 a whole step, to A; and string 3 a half step, to F#.

Example 8 shows I, IV, and V (D, G, and A) chords in D major that can be played either with a barred finger or the slide placed over all the strings. (No slide or finger is needed to play a D chord on the open strings.) Vestapol and other open tunings are perfect for multi-string licks. In Example 9 you’ll play a “Dust My Broom”–style lick, employing a triplet-based phrase played on the three high strings. For phrases like this, attitude and rhythmic drive are more important than finesse. The triplets can be played with all downstrokes or a combination of down/up strokes, as shown between the staves. Make sure to emphasize the first eighth note of each triplet.

On an open-tuned guitar, there’s nothing quite like that haunting sound of an open string ringing underneath a slide phrase. Example 10 is a Ry Cooder–approved lick reminiscent of “Paris, Texas.” Make sure the open sixth-string D sustains when you play this phrase.

Blues fingerpickers often play alternating bass patterns in open D by simply using the open sixth and fourth strings for the D chord. This idea is explored in Example 11a, which features a simple slide melody on string 1, played atop a common thumbpicked bass line. Keep your slide low, just covering the first string, so that it doesn’t interfere with the other strings.

Example 11b transfers the basic pattern to the fifth and seventh frets, for the IV (G) and V (A) chords, with the slide covering all six strings.


Beginners’ Tip #2
Rest the slide on the string, but don’t push down. The goal is to let the slide glide on the string: too much pressure and you will hear a segmented sound; not enough contact and you will hear the sizzle of the slide coming off the string.

Week Three

Another popular tuning for blues and rock players is open G (a.k.a. Spanish tuning), used extensively by guitarists like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Jimmy Page. From standard tuning, lower strings 1 and 6 down a whole step, to D, and string 5 down a step, to G.

Many of the applications of slide in open D can be transferred to open G, including alternating bass, licks played on multiple strings, and the use of open strings. Example 12, inspired by the licks Jimmy Page played in Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying,” places slide licks above a G pedal tone, all on string 3.

For a bigger sound, you can play parallel licks on strings of the same notes, as shown in Example 13, an octave-based line on strings 5 and 3, which are both pitched at G. On your own, try a similar approach with a line played at parallel frets on strings 1, 4, and 6, all tuned to D.

The 1959 Santo & Johnny hit “Sleepwalk” employed some wonderful lap-steel playing, which you can emulate with the bottleneck. For a facsimile of that tune’s opening lick (Example 14), begin by playing a 12th-fret harmonic on string 1, then place slide behind the nut, and in one continuous motion, pass through frets 2, 4, and 9, without picking. It might take some practice to pull off this maneuver, but it’s a crowd-pleaser every time!

As you progress deeper into this lesson, the emphasis will be on playing multiple notes with a single attack, in the manner of players like Santo Farina (of Santo & Johnny) and Debashish Bhattacharya. Example 15 is similar to the main melody of “Sleepwalk.” In bar 2, pick only the first-fret C and sound the other notes by sliding into them. Make sure that your bottleneck maintains contact with the string and that you make an audible stop at each note before progressing. Do the same with each group of three notes in Example 16 while striving for a smooth and clear sound.

Beginners’ Tip #3
When placing the slide over all the strings, make sure to align it with the fretwire. If your slide slants inside of the fret, you will sound out of tune.

Week Four


Now that you’ve worked with some open tunings and gotten comfortable with your slide technique, try some more unusual sounds in D7—a new tuning that’s like open D, but with string 2 tuned to C. First, play a Middle Eastern-sounding scale (1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7), as depicted in Example 17.

From time to time, I bounce the slide on the first string, as shown in Example 18, for an interesting effect. This technique requires you to wiggle your entire hand—you’re going for a buzzing, fly-like sound. In Example 19, you’ll play an Indian-style phrase based on the same scale presented in Ex. 17, once again with multiple slides on each picked note, along with some vibrato from the slide. Example 20 builds on bars 2 and 3 of Ex. 19 by adding notes on string 2 for a very cool-sounding riff harmonized in major seconds.

If you’ve played through the exercises in this lesson, you can see that slide guitar has a wide range. As you move forward in your studies, experiment. Don’t be limited by a genre or specific tuning. Think of slide as a voice unto itself that has shades of light and dark, boldness and delicateness, fullness and sparseness.

Beginners’ Tip #4
A good-sounding vibrato requires that you slide into the note(s), then retract, pulling the slide back towards the nut and then returning to the precise note(s). Try not to go sharp of the note, which will produce a rubber-band-like sound.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Pete Madsen
Pete Madsen

Pete Madsen is an acoustic blues, ragtime and slide guitarist from the San Francisco Bay Area. He's the author of Play the Blues Like..., an essential guide for playing fingerstyle blues in open tunings.

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