Let’s talk slide. Personally, I love slide guitar.
But, I’m too damn lazy to learn all the cool
tunings that the real slide players use, so I’ve
learned to sort of wing it in standard tuning.
This month, I want to talk about some sliders
that I find inspiring, and then we’ll start noodling around a bit.
How to ‘Wing It’ Playing Slide Guitar
The first guy I ever heard play slide was
Hound Dog Taylor … I just love him. He’s
got that wicked, cheap guitar tone. Dog’s
rhythm guitarist in the House Rockers,
Brewer Phillips, also has a very unique style.
Next up for me are the Allman Brothers,
Rory Gallagher and Muddy Waters. George
Harrison also had a very distinct slide style,
and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top was the guy with
the raunchy tone that also made me want
to give it a try. I fell in love with the solo on
“Tush” the very first time I heard it, and it’s
an excellent solo to try as your first stab at
playing slide because you can do it in standard tuning. There are a bunch of other slide
players that are wonderful, too, most notably
Ry Cooder. If you haven’t already, check out
his Get Rhythm album. Ry plays several tunes
on slide and the tone is just … well, ya gotta
hear it, it’s amazing. Ry’s playing just might
get me to try some new tunings someday.
The Appropriate Tools
Ok, first you need a guitar, and it’s a bit
easier if you use at least .010s or heavier.
Super light strings just are harder to control
without whacking the frets. Next, (obviously)
you need a slide. Personally, I like steel slides,
but many players prefer brass or glass, and
there are even ceramic slides. Duane Allman
used a Coricidin bottle as his slide, and now
Coricidin bottle slides are sold for more than
they used to cost with the cold pills still in
them. Now that’s the blues!
I’ve found that, for some reason I tend to
switch pickups a bit more when I play slide
than when I just play with my fingers. I
couldn’t tell you why, but it just seems important. You’ll also want to consider the humbucker vs. single-coil decision. As I seem to say in
every column, tone is everything. So make it a
thoughtful choice that pleases your ear.
not playing from ringing out. At first this can
seem like insane gymnastics, but with practice it will eventually become second nature.
Just listen for the sounds you like and get rid
of the ones you don’t. Next, try some single
lines using whatever scales you already know.
Again, work on your string muting. You can
also try a few two-note chords, which you
may find to be very natural. Another cool
thing is to try and angle the slide on strings 2
and 3; angle the low side up so that the slide
is a half step higher on the 3rd string.
Brass, glass and ceramic are among the most common types of slide material and provide a wide range of tones.
I would also encourage you to consider just
using your bare fingers and pocketing your
flatpick. Playing slide requires a lot of string
control and muting and it’s just easier with
bare fingers. There is also not a great agreement on which finger to wear the slide on. I
like using my third finger, which allows me to
mute ahead of, or behind, the slide as needed. Now, I can get a fair amount of non-slide
action using just my first two fingers when I
need to. But as with most things, just try it
for yourself and see how it works for you.
Let’s Set Sail
Let’s start by thinking about how chords are
laid out on the guitar. With a slide you’re
pretty much stuck with playing straight across
the strings, so start with the chords you know
and figure out which notes from them lay on
adjacent strings. Next, you have to try them
and see what you get. The best one to start
with is that plain old major triad that sits
across the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings. Played
open, it’s a G. It’s also a G up an octave
at the 12th fret. Try sliding up those three
strings and landing at the 12th fret. You will
need to place the slide right over the fret to
be in tune, so use your ears and make sure
it sounds right. If there is any doubt, get a
tuner and check your notes. And don’t worry,
you’ll eventually get the hang of it.
Also, work toward the goal of relying on
your ears rather than your eyes to play
slide. You can practice this by playing way
up high past the end of the neck, for which
you can use your bridge pickup. Jeff Beck
is a genius at this technique, in addition to
blurring the difference between his slide
playing and his fingering techniques.
That should be enough to get you started in
the right direction. Now go play some slide.
It’s way important to pay attention to string
muting. On your slide hand, lightly rest the
fingers behind the slide on the strings just
enough to mute what’s going on behind
the slide. On your picking hand, you have
to figure out how to keep the strings you’re
Pat Smith founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played
Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke and Bob
Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy
Van Duser and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays
in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.