Many players who use standard tuning exclusively are interested in learning how to use a slide, but are discouraged by the prospect of absorbing the multiple new maps of the fretboard that employing open tunings requires. The good news is that standard tuning is also a very effective platform for slide.
Sure, it’s impossible to sound like most of the wide range of the guitarists who have helped define the slide sound — from Son House to Elmore James to Derek Trucks — if one is playing in standard, but the trade-off is the ability to have the entire standard tuning vocabulary of scales, riffs and licks at one’s disposal, along with the ultra-emotional sound of a slide on steel strings through an amp or with a fine acoustic guitar.
To familiarize your ears to the sound of slide used on a standard-tuned guitar, check out Duane Allman’s performances on “Midnight Rider,” “Dreams” and “Mountain Jam,” or anything slide by Allman’s fellow Gibson-playing legend Elvis Bishop, who takes several excursions in his 1976 classic rock hit “Fooled Around And Fell In Love” on his beloved ES-335 “Red Dog.”
To begin playing, tune your guitar in standard and grab a slide. Metal slides will produce a more piercing tone, with brass on the warm end of that adjective and steel on the bright side. Glass is warmer and sweeter all around, with thick-sided glass slides producing a warmer tone than thin glass. And ceramic and other materials generally fall in between.
Dampening the strings with the wrist or palm of your picking hand is especially important when playing slide in standard tuning. In some regional dialects of open tuning, dampening is frowned upon, since the extra harmonic activity of sympathetic vibrations and accidental string strikes actually helps fill up the sound of a juke joint, where a band might also be performing sans bassist. But in standard tuned slide you want to have as much control over the strings as possible and to pick with precision. Any accidental collisions will generally result in nasty dissonance.
Playing melodies on a single string is the easiest and safest way to play slide in standard, but not the most fun. Nonetheless, full octave slides up and down on a single string with a generous helping of reverb or digital delay produce a mighty sound. Just ask The Edge.
Working on the top two high strings — the E and B — is quite easy and more rewarding. These strings in standard tuning are the same as in open E, so they can be used as a gateway to the latter tuning. Here’s a fun place to start: press the slide — ideally using your pinkie, so the other fingers are free for chording and licks and scales — on the B string at the 10th fret. Strike that note and slowly slide up to the E string’s 12th fret and strike that note. Repeat. You’ll recognize that as a popular blues slide lick. In this example, the 12th fret is your tonal anchor. Now repeat the same move on the same strings, but start at the 12th fret on the B string and move up three frets to the E string and strike that note. Then reverse that move. Work up and down the neck from there, choosing various anchor notes and sliding two frets up to those notes and then three frets past them and back again. A lot of magic can happen in a five-fret span once you get comfortable and your ears discover the sonic sweet spots.
You can also follow the same blues box patterns you’d normally play using a slide in place of your finger tips, but the rapid movement and accurate placement of the slide that’s required to pull this off is not something to try on one’s first day on the job.
The quickest route to playing slide chords in standard tuning is employing the easiest triads, the three-note chords that can be created simply by laying a single finger across the D, G and B strings. Instead of a finger, use a slide and check out the results. That falls far from covering every nuance of triads, but it does produce satisfying tones that can put you in harmony with other guitarists playing barre and open chords in the same key. So start working through I-IV-V changes first to acclimate the ears, and then go wild — because wild and slide are inseparable.
Arlen Roth, “King of All Guitar Teachers” shows how here.