Conventional wisdom when playing slide dictates that guitarists mute with the palms of their picking hands in order to keep extraneous sonic activity to a minimum. That’s part of how Duane Allman, Joe Walsh, Ry Cooder, Derek Trucks and scores of others have achieved warm, buttery well-defined tones over the decades. This is especially true when playing electric guitar, where strings can rattle, buzz and sustain wildly given a little gain and a hard-driving picking hand.
But what if the goal is to rattle, buzz and sustain wildly? Noisy slide guitar is as much a part of the technique’s tradition as refinement. Perhaps even more so. Listen to rustic slide pioneers like Son House and Bukka White. Overtones ripple amidst their slide melodies and accents. When House hits the strings of his steel bodied resonator with the power of a karate chop, the instrument shakes as if it’s got a life of its own. It’s a world entirely apart from the refined, charmed midrange of Duane.
Playing slide sans muting is part of the world of juke joint blues, a raw style still purveyed in the hard-core haunts of rural Mississippi’s Delta and northern hill country, and in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and a few other southern states. Elmore James, Fred McDowell and others carried this raggedy sound developed in the 1920s into the early electric-guitar era of the blues. And more recently R.L. Burnside, who died in 2005, brought this approach to a new generation of fans and performers.
The idea of playing unmuted slide is simply to create as much sound as possible. In the juke joints, where amplifiers are often cheap and beaten and the crowds are usually drunk and noisy, it’s necessary to create as large a sonic footprint as possible to cut the room and make people hear the music. A little buzzing along with the extra sustain and harmonic ringing just creates more sound, and more sound is the goal.
Of course, there were exceptions, even in the heyday of country blues. Robert Johnson’s slide playing had a defined and superbly refined sound thanks to his palm muting. Check out the master’s “Come On In My Kitchen” for a prime example. In fact, Delta blues players – and Johnson was one — in general developed muting as part of their repertoire well before their counterparts in the Mississippi hills, where the music still remains more wild and wooly than almost anywhere else. McDowell and his torchbearer Burnside were distinctly hill country players, kicking up a ruckus with their strings whenever they played.
So the choice is yours, depending on what approach you care to pursue. The advantage we modernists have over the likes of primal founders such as Son House, of course, is that we have almost a century of recorded history and live performances to drawn upon for information. Why, then, limit yourself to the refined or the raggedy? Both approaches work and can be applied to different songs or situations that present themselves. Embrace both muted and unmuted slide guitar, and use each one as inspiration dictates.
Check out Joe Walsh’s slide tips video here.