Slide Guitar 101: Seven Secrets for Beginners

Even if you don't play blues or blues-based rock, consider adding slide to your arsenal. This article will bring you up to speed on seven basic slide guitar techniques you need to get started.

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Well never know the identity of the first guitarist to take a bone or a polished stone and slide it along a guitar string. Since African slaves brought the technique with them to the United States, it may have originated in Africa. Then again, North Indian guitarists, like the amazing Debashis Battacharya, use slides, too.

English and American rock guitarists noted for their slide playing, like Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones and Allman Brother Duane Allman, cited African-American slide guitarists from the Mississippi Delta, like Elmore James and Bukka White, as their primary influences. But in the last few decades, American slide playing has busted beyond the blues with the avant-garde jazz of Dave Tronzo and the haunting modal playing of Ry Cooder. So, even if you don't play blues or blues-based rock, consider adding slide to your arsenal. This article will bring you up to speed on seven basic techniques you'll need to get started.

Examples of Slide Guitar

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First order of business, of course, is to get yourself a slide. Different slides produce different tones. Ry Cooder favors the smooth sustain provided by a cut-off bottleneck. Keith Richards likes the more biting tone of a metal slide. Duane Allman often used a small glass medicine bottle (after having personally emptied it, one can assume). Lipstick covers work, so do straight razors, pocket knives, toilet paper rollers, pens, cigarette lighters, small juice cans, beer bottles, Playtex gentle-glide tampons - anything with a smooth surface that you can hold in your left hand, really. If it fits over your finger, put it over your finger, but if it doesn't, hold it between your ring and pinkie fingers.

No matter which odd device you decide to slide along your guitar strings, the idea behind all slide playing is very simple: instead of pushing down on a string to create a pitch, you touch the string with a slide. You still use the frets as markers for the notes you want to play, but your ear becomes much more important than your eyes when you play slide proper intonation demands you place the slide in exactly the right place. You have to play more like a violinist, acutely conscious of pitch.

Slide Techniques

There are seven basic techniques that will make your slide playing solid. You can stumble across all these techniques on your own (and if you're like me, that'll take about a year) or you can learn them right now and start off on the right foot. What can I say, I'm here to serve.

1. Slide directly over the fret wire, rather than behind it or in front of it. To sound a note, aim for the fret wire immediately in front of the fret space you would otherwise play with your fingers. Always use your ears before your eyes, however. If your ear is telling you the note is a little flat even though your eye is telling you that the slide is hovering right above the fret wire slide up a bit until you hear the exact pitch of the note you want. Many slide players don't even look at the fretboard, they just allow their ears to guide them.

2. Do not press down with the slide. Slide playing requires finesse because you must touch the strings lightly with the slide. If you press them down to the fretboard, you will get a dead, buzzing sound (which can be kinda cool, but is probably not what you're hoping to hear most of the time). Apply enough pressure to the string with the slide for the note to sound, but not enough to push the string all the way to the fretboard. The amount of pressure you can apply is dictated by two things: the guitar and the slide. If you are playing an acoustic guitar with high action and heavy strings, for example, and you are using a glass slide, you are going to have to press a bit harder. If you are using an electric guitar with light strings and low action, in contrast, you will have to play very delicately. Different guitars may require different slides. The heavy brass slide that would be great for that high-action acoustic simply wont work on an electric guitar because it will weigh the strings down to the fretboard. Stick with glass or thin steel slides when you're playing on a guitar with low action and/or light strings.

3. Damp the strings behind the slide with your other fingers. This part is really key to getting a good, clean slide tone. You'll notice when you first start fooling around with a slide that many strings and notes will be ringing, making it difficult to play a clear single-note melody. The trick is to use the fingers of the left hand as a kind of damping device by dragging them along the strings behind the slide. Hold your palm flat with all the fingers straight and close together. Press them gently on the strings as you attempt to sound the note you want with the slide. They work like the damper pedal on a piano, muffling all strings but the one you are touching with the slide. Now your slide playing will pop out without interference.

4. Keep your left hand on a parallel plane to the fretboard. In order for the damping technique to be effective, though you've got to keep that left hand level with the fretboard. Bent fingers will allow unwanted open strings to ring. Aim for a smooth, sweeping stroke as you glide evenly over the fretboard.

5. Damp with the heel of your right hand. Left-hand damping is not enough on its own, because notes you've played (intentionally) will continue to ring. Let's say you just played a note with the slide on the second string and the next note of the melody is on the third string. You'll need to damp the second string as you play the note on the third string or the first note will just keep sustaining. Sometimes you'll want the first note to ring into the second, but not always; right hand damping gives you control. You can stop the second string from vibrating simply by touching it with the middle finger of your pick hand as you prepare to play the note on the third string. You can also use the heel of your picking hand to keep the strings from vibrating.

6. On higher strings, try to cover only the strings you are playing. With the straight, extended fingers of your left hand gliding along the strings as one unit, you're likely to cover five or even all six strings. If you're playing a melody on the 2nd string, though, you only need to cover the top three strings with your hands. Lowering your hand position toward the necks bottom edge will help you avoid banging the top of the slide against the lower strings. This prevents your guitar from emitting unwanted scrapes, rattles, and buzzes. If you're playing on the 4th, 5th or 6th strings, though, cover the whole fretboard with your hand, being especially careful to damp the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings by dragging your fingers along them behind the slide.

7. Use vibrato. You may already use vibrato when you play lead with your fingers by moving the fretted string back and forth across the fretboard, enhancing sustain and giving your playing a more soulful feel. Violinists use vibrato to keep a note going because with the violins small body, pitches decay rapidly. Slide guitarists need to do the same thing, because the slide can quickly soak up the reverberations of the guitar and stop them cold. It also helps obscure intonation imperfections. To create vibrato with the slide, keep your entire left hand in the position described above fingers together, hand level to the fretboard and rock your hand back and forth. Pivoting at your elbow rather than at your wrist will make it easier to stay level. You can use this technique to obtain a slow, sexy quaver (Bonnie Raitt is mistress of this technique) or a fast, keening whine.

Okay, thats enough to get you started. In Part 2 well discuss the really important things, like how to avoid cracking a front tooth when you decide to make like Ron Wood and shove your slide into your mouth.

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    This article is an excellent guide for beginners to slide. And kudos for using Ry Cooder for an example!
    Oh come one. You have to post this amazing lesson one day after i needed it my first time live.
    Great lesson, I wondered why I sounded so awful when I tried to play slide guitar, great advice!
    I can say from experience these are solid legit tips, as I actually came up with them independently
    Very nice how you make it sound so simple in written form, a lifetime to master. Great job.