If you enjoyed Gibson.com’s recent primer on slide guitar, here’s more. Slide guitar is almost an instrument in itself. Even many great players can’t master slide but, if you can, it remains one of the most rewarding and unique ways of getting new sounds from your guitar.
Early Days of Slide
When did slide guitar “start?” Who knows? But blues pioneer W.C. (William Christopher) Handy was one of the first to note it. Handy wrote in his autobiography, Father of the Blues, of being awakened in Mississippi by the sound of a guitarist he saw over 100 years ago.
“As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by the Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly: ‘Goin’ Where the Southern Cross the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.”
Slide playing soon became a staple of what was to be known as the blues. Willy Brown, Son House, Johnny Shines and Robert Johnson all played slide on acoustics. These pioneering artists were largely unknown at the time – mostly playing house parties and juke joints rather than concert halls – but by the 1940s slide had blossomed into its own art form. With the advent of the electric guitar, slide guitar was to boom.
Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters and many others created whole new styles of playing slide guitar – the Mississippi/Delta style of blues played on an electric with a slide did much to much to create the roots of rock ’n’ roll – fat, distorted tones and aggressive, rhythmic playing styles.
Some still call it “bottleneck” playing, as early players made their slides from the necks of beer bottles, rounded off. Knifes, hollowed bone (Mississippi Fred McDowell), were also used. In the earlier days of slide playing, there were no “designed” slides of steel, brass or glass.
Even when slides were professionally made, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd used a cigarette lighter. Joe Gore, when playing with P.J. Harvey, went back to using a knife. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have used drumsticks as “slides.”
There are too many slide greats to profile here. Elmore James was a key figure, his “Dust My Broom” (1951) perhaps remaining the definitive slide guitar song. It was, essentially, a cover of a Robert Johnson song, but Johnson had played fingerstyle on his original.
As electric rock ’n’ roll took off, many picked up a slide to memorable effect. The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones (“Little Red Rooster”) and his replacement Mick Taylor were slide experts for young English white boys. Taylor, notably, played slide in standard tuning: most slide players adopt an open tuning. Warning: playing slide in standard tuning is challenging.
Other must-hear players of the rock/blues era include: Duane Allman, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, George Thorogood, Jeff Healey, Johnny Winter, Keb’ Mo’, Dave Hole, Rory Gallagher and numerous others.
Here’s ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons saluting the slide skills of Duane Allman.
Again, it’s a massive arena with some great players. But let’s celebrate three…
Duane Allman. Allman passed away 40-plus years ago, of course, but he remains one of the most-saluted slide guitarists of the rock era. Duane’s unique slide tone persuaded Eric Clapton to take up slide playing. “There were very few people playing electric slide that were doing anything new; it was just Elmore James licks, and everyone knows those. No one was opening it up until Duane showed up and played it a completely different way. That sort of made me think about taking it up.”
Allman mostly played in open E and open G but, like Mick Taylor, he often played in standard (EADGAB) tuning. Allman, like most slide experts, used his fingers (no pick) when playing slide, and was expert at damping unneeded strings with the pads of his fingers. The epic 33-minute-long “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brothers remains a must-hear for slide brilliance.
Sonny Landreth. Louisiana’s Landreth is a slide guitar titan. He plays with the slide on his little finger, and frets chords behind the slide. Landreth normally plays in open E (EBEG#BE, low to high.)
“Whichever slide you decide on, you’ve got to have the right balance between the weight of the slide and the gauge of the strings,” he told GuitarPlayer.com. “Personally, I like heavier strings – .013 to .056 – because they give you more tension to work with. The type of slide is important, too. I started out using metal, which has a harder and brighter sound that many people prefer, but the first time I tried glass, I was hooked. I instantly loved the smoothness of it and noticed a difference in the harmonics and the overall feel.”
Derek Trucks. If there is one player of “now” flying the flag for slide, it is the exceptionally talented Derek Trucks. Widely hailed as the greatest slide player since Duane Allman, Trucks’ music incorporates jazz, Latin and Asian influences.
Trucks’ not only has brilliant slide technique, but delves deep into Asian melodies. He discovered [Indian sarod master] Ali Akbar Khan in the mid-’90s. “I first saw a video of him performing, and it completely wiped me out. As I looked deeper into Indian classical music, I was inspired by the approach and attitude of the musicians. They dedicate 99 percent of their lives to their instruments – it’s everything. I also borrow ideas from vocalists. In fact, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan [singer] is as important to me as any guitarist.”
Trucks’ mastery of slide, and the melodies he plays, is arguably unequalled in the modern era. Trucks is an example of how slide guitar can almost be a new instrument.
Trucks likes his Gibson SG for its double-cutaway. When you are playing such adventurous slide guitar, maximum top fret access can make a huge difference.
When it comes to choosing a slide it is, like pick choice, down to personal preference. But as general “rules...”
- Metal slides generally sound louder. Brass, steel, and copper are all popular, particularly for acoustic slide players.
- But glass is harder than metal (yes, it can be!) and is more popular with electric players.
- Ceramic slides also have their own fans.
- Slides are not the same. Standard cut, slant cut, bull nose, bull nose with slant, double cut… Slides, like picks, come in many different guises.
- Metal slides generally produce a warmer tone.
- Glass gives a sharper zone.
- Higher strings are easier to play than bass strings. You knew that already.
For an expert intro to slide playing, Gibson.com’s Arlen Roth is your video lesson friend. Watch an Arlen Roth slide guitar lesson. Please talk below about your own favorite slide players and tracks.
More Slide Guitar:
Slide Guitar 101: Choosing the Right Slide
Top 10 Slide Guitar Greats