Slide Guitar – Five Tips for Success

Slide Guitar

Slide guitar sounds so good but it can be a difficult technique to master!

I don’t know about you but when I hear slide guitar I am instantly transported to a different place.

It is a place of sultry heat, sweaty bars and blues musicians.

It is a place of hard liquor, harder men and the haunting sound of slide guitar.

For me there really is nothing quite like the sound of slide guitar.  It is a guitar technique that still has the power to enthral.  It is therefore no wonder that at some stage many of us will give it a go.

However, I am sure that although many of us have given slide guitar a go, not many of us are happy with the results.  Therefore in this article we will look at some common roadblocks that get in the way of mastering slide guitar.

But before we consider some of the roadblocks…

What is slide guitar?

Slide guitar is a technique for playing the guitar which produces glissando and deep vibrato effects. It is a style of guitar playing which has been closely associated with blues but has been used in many other genres of music.

It is impossible to give you an impression of the sheer beauty that is slide guitar in words.

The best way to explain the technique is to play a video.

The video below is of the great Justin Johnson playing some sweet slide guitar on his Jack Daniel’s Whisky Barrel Guitar.

Creating music with some form of slide has been traced back to African musical traditions. It is believed that these traditions were transported to the New World and evolved into what we now know as slide guitar.

Popularised by blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta the style developed as electric guitars evolved bringing slide guitar to a wider audience.  I would imagine that, for most of us, our first introduction to slide guitar was through bands such as the Allman Brothers or the Rolling Stones.  From there we would have traced back the roots of slide guitar to the greats such as Elmore James, Earl Hooker and Robert Nighthawk.

Once hooked on slide guitar we would have tried to recreate the sound on our own guitars and that is where disappointment and disillusionment crept in.

How do you get that slide guitar sound?  Well what follows are some great tips that I have picked up over the years from other guitarists.  Hopefully these will be useful and help you to progress with playing slide guitar.

Tip 1 – There is no correct way to play slide guitar.

I think this is an important statement to make.  You can easily get caught up trying to play slide guitar in a certain way.  I know I did.  The slide has to go on a particular finger, only slides made of brass will do, this or that tuning is the tuning to use.  The one thing that makes slide guitar so interesting is that there are no rules.  It is a very organic, natural guitar technique so do what is comfortable for you.  Play slide guitar how you want to play it.  If you want to use a plastic tube as your slide go for it.  Rest the guitar on your lap, give it a go.  Whatever works for you and sounds good is going to be right!

However, having said that the next tip is quite important…

Tip 2 – Tuning is everything!

I remember the first time I tired slide guitar it didn’t go so well!

I got some reasonable sounds out of my guitar but it just didn’t sound right.  It took me a long time to figure out that all the slide guitar greats use a different tuning.

The trouble is that standard tuning is just not suited for playing slide guitar.  That is not to say that you can’t use standard tuning.  It will work but it can limit you.

The best tuning to use for slide guitar is an open tuning.

What do I mean by an open tuning?

It is probably easier to explain it by getting you to strum all of the strings in standard tuning.  If you give it a go it doesn’t sound too great.

Now if you tune your guitar to an open tuning, open D (D A D F# A D) is a good place to start, and strum all the open strings it sounds good.  This is because an open tuning tunes the strings to a base chord.  So for an open D tuning you are tuning the strings to a D chord.  If you place your finger over all the strings and move it up the fretboard you will be playing a chord all the way up the neck of the guitar.  This is why open tunings work so well for slide guitar.

The main open tunings used for slide guitar are:

Open D (D A D F# A D) – Often used by Elmore James and can be heard on “Dust my Broom”. Keith Richards also used open D tuning, but not for slide guitar, on “Street Fighting Man”

Open E (E B E G# B E) – This tuning became popular with electric guitar players who wanted to play slide guitar. Duane Allman and Derek Trucks used open E tuning on the Allman Brothers classic “Little Martha”.  Open E was also used on “Jumping Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones and “She Talks to Angels” by the Black Crowes.

Open G (D G D G B D) – Is another popular open tuning and used massively by Keith Richards for many of the Rolling Stones’ greatest hits. Think of “Honky Tonk Woman”, “Brown Sugar”, “Can’t hear me knocking” and “start me up” and they are all in open G Tunning.

It can be a bit daunting to consider various open tunings, especially if you are new to the guitar.  My advice is to get yourself an electronic tuner, they are an amazing device which makes life so much easier.  To help we have written an article on guitar tuners.

Tip 3 – Your guitar needs to be setup correctly

If you are a shred demon and all your guitars are set with an extra low action and hyper light strings then slide guitar is going to be difficult.

The whole point of slide guitar is that the slide moving up and down the strings creates the note.  Because of this you really don’t want your strings to choke on the frets.  Light gauge strings and a low action increases the risk of the strings choking on the frets and destroying your sound.  So if you are going to smash out some deep slide grooves on your guitar then make sure the action is not too low and you fit a heavier gauge of strings.

Tip 4 – Which finger do I put the slide on?

slide guitar

Hound Dog Taylor was born with five fingers and a thumb on each hand. Which finger did he use for his slide?

It really doesn’t matter!

There are no hard and fast rules as to which finger to use other than whatever is comfortable.

Some slide guitarists use their pinky others put the slide on their ring finger.  Hell CeDell Davis played with a butter knife lodged in his partially paralyzed right hand and Hound Dog Taylor put the slide on his penultimate pinky.  That’s right you read that correctly his penultimate pinky.  He was born with five fingers and a thumb on each hand!

When it comes to playing slide guitar you will need to use the slide and also be able to fret notes with your other fingers. This is quite a thing for new players to get used to.

However, choosing the most comfortable finger to wear your slide on will help greatly in making you a more fluent slide guitarist.

Tip 5 – What type of slide should I use?

Again this is down to personal preference.

Slide Guitars

There are so many slides to choose from but the choice of slide is up to you. Experiment to find what you prefer!

There are many options available to the slide guitarist.  From plastic, metal and glass to any old piece of junk that you find in your house.  People have used some very peculiar things for slides.  As I have previously mentioned CeDell Davis used a butterknife.  I have seen slide guitarists use the beer bottle that they are drinking from and even spark plug sockets.  So when it comes to the choice of the slide that you use then experiment with the options.

Whatever works best for you is right.

Bonus Tip – Don’t worry about your guitar

As I mentioned above a guitar with higher gauge strings and a high action are great for slide guitar.  You can therefore get away with a cheap beat up guitar and still sound good.  Hell you don’t even need six strings, one will do.  Your best bet is therefore to have one cheap and basic guitar which is the instrument you use for slide guitar.  You can then tune it to the open tuning that you prefer and leave it like that.  It will then be ready for you when you want to shock everyone with your slide guitar mastery!

One final word of encouragement!

Slide guitar is a great technique to have in your toolbox.  However, it is all too easy to get caught up in the technicalities.  Remember some of the best slide guitarists had no formal training, they played on the cheapest beat up old guitars and still managed to create an awesome sound.  Just give it a go and you may surprise yourself as to how good you sound.

If you are looking for some help with slide guitar then our next article on mastering the slide guitar will help.  You can find it here.

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