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Slide Guitar 101: Choosing the Right Slide

08.17.2014

Diving into slide guitar playing might seem like a daunting endeavor to the non-slider, and even more so to six-stringers who work only in standard tuning. There are dozens of effective tuning possibilities, guitar mechanics, scale constructions and tonal considerations to evaluate. But like any new task, breaking the process down makes it easier to tackle. And a good place to start is with slides themselves.

Oddly, since slide guitar is all about sliding on strings, the slide itself is often the part of the equation that gets the least consideration. Unless you don’t particularly care about how you sound or about playing at your best, any old slide will not do. In fact, guitarists who choose a slide that gives them the maximum potential for the approach are rare.

Most slides that are commercially available limit your ability to play. Unless a slide fits snugly enough on your finger to allow you to keep it stable without using a second finger to keep the slide from wagging loosely, you can’t use your slide for fretting, hammering and other extended slide technique moves without tying up another finger that you could be using for pinning notes or creating chords. In short, the ideal slide requires only one finger to use. Blues legend Johnny Winter, who toted a hellion-toned Gibson Firebird into all his classic, career-defining sessions, is a good example of a player who uses a tight-fitting, optimal slide for his dizzying solos and blazing single note lines. Another is modern county blues giant Paul Rishell, who applies a thin-shelled, tight-fitting pinkie slide to his resonator models to create some of the deepest acoustic music now being made in the genre.

Walk into most music stores and you’ll be hard-pressed to find such a slide, although a Johnny Winter signature model is currently in production. That’s one reason why most players settle for a wobbly piece of pipe or an “authentic” bottleneck instead of the best option. Heretic as it may seem, even Duane Allman’s beloved coricidin bottles do not entirely cut the slide mustard. Even the Winter model has the drawback of being too long to let most people bend their slide pinkie at the knuckle — which may not be a problem for the seemingly spider-pawed Mr. Winter.

Leaping past the consideration of optimum playability, there is a vast amount of slide materials to consider. And each material and its density will inform your tone and physical approach. The most popular is steel. Think of the shrieking – in a very, very good way – sound of Elmore James or, once again, Winter. Steel is bright and cutting, and, if you’re looking for something that’s less weighty than Paul Barrere’s wrench sockets, is a good choice and widely available at music stores. The sounds of a steel slide on steel strings immediately barks “blues” like nothing else, but is also highly serviceable for rock or jazz. Sonny Sharrock, the king of slide guitar jazz, applied a flat-topped lap- or pedal-steel bar slide to his Gibson Les Paul Custom’s strings, but he’s an elegant exception to the rule. For the most part, unless playing lap steel, pedal steel, bluegrass or Hawaiian style, where the guitar neck is played parallel to terra firma, we’re talking about round, pipe-shaped devices when we discuss slides.

Old-school bluesman Louisiana Red is an inveterate explorer of slide types and has tried virtually every metal, from aluminum to zinc. But the second-most-popular is bronze. Bronze will provide a marginally darker and louder tone than steel, and is heavier as well. And that brings up the issue of weight. A heavy slide will move along the strings with less resistance, although if too heavy it will require more than one finger and possibly be a chore to steady above the frets on your guitar. Conversely, thinner, lighter slides must be pushed down harder against the strings to get good sounds.

Players of metal slides often carry their slides with them in their pockets along with coins and keys, so the metal will get scars that add character when applied to guitar strings. Some even leave their slides outdoors in all types of weather to achieve a worn patina they believe will increase the friction and make for a grittier tone in their slide attack.

Parenthetically, it’s worth mentioning that slide notes should be sounded with the slide directly above the fret of the note you want to produce, verses in front of that fret, where your finger would normally land if playing conventionally.

Back on topic, heavy slides encounter less resistance when propelled along the fretboard. It’s the old principle of weight plus force generating momentum. And the other aspect to consider in slide weight besides material is the thickness of the slide’s walls. Even a slide made of glass or ceramic material will register a heavier weight if they are fat-walled. Of course, using a fat-walled slide means your slide finger is further from the strings and has less control, but every variable in slide is a trade-off, depending on what sound and approach you’re reaching toward.

Glass is the most popular of the non-metal slides, and they come in many variations: thin walled and long enough to cover all six strings; thick and stubby enough for only three strings; bottlenecks; faux coricidin bottles and even near-relative Pyrex, which is less breakable than glass. Tonally, glass is smoother and warmer. Even when used with a distorted guitar sound, there’s a certain sweetness to glass that can be heard in the playing of Gibson SG hero Duane Allman and his torchbearers Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes – all users of the coricidin bottle. Glass, especially thin-walled glass, is susceptible to breaking, which can be a danger for the more effusive guitarist. With its generally warm, buttery tonal properties, glass is especially good for acoustic guitar and sweet melodies versus Elmore James-like wailing. And thicker glass tends to bring out richer, darker, more charming tones than lightweight slides, of course.

Traditionalists may find the notion of using an actual bottleneck appealing. After all, early country bluesmen who played slide often used the top of a wine bottle sliced off with a white-hot wire or a hacksaw. But bottlenecks are uneven and often have seams, so unless you’re looking for a gritty sound (which the seam produces when it grinds on the strings) or prepared to be super vigilant of how your slide is positioned, bottlenecks may be too much bother. The next step in de-evolution is animal bones, like pork ribs and t-bones. The fabulous bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell made an album called Steakbone Slide Guitar, named after one of his favorite slide implements. Another old school favorite is the knife blade. Maybe a knife is a little dangerous to wield on stage, but that’s what W.C. Handy – the first composer to copyright blues – heard when he was inspired to jot down the first written blues melody by an itinerant guitarist swiping a blade across his strings at a railroad stop in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903.

Ceramic slides have many of the same characteristics as glass slides, including, when they carry some heft, the ability to glide smoothly across the strings and make a warm-toned sound. But thin ceramic slides are even less likely to survive a slight fall than glass. One advantage of ceramic slides is that since they are formed and baked in a kiln, they can have hybrid properties that most other slides lack. Doc Sigmier of Rocky Mountain Slides in Colorado is an expert at making tone-altering ceramic slides by adding gritty material to his raw ceramic mix to induce more slide-on-strings grinding, and he can selectively rough- or smooth-finish slides or even various parts of the same slide. This is pretty rad stuff for players who like to experiment.

With the qualities of these materials in mind, listen to some of the slide players you’d like to emulate – from Son House to the Edge – and try to imagine which material would create the sounds they make that entrance you. Better yet, check out YouTube and other websites to see what kinds of slides they use, and then get to a good music store with your guitar and try some slides until you start dialing in the tones you desire.

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