Roots music virtuoso Steve Dawson discovered slide guitar at age 14, when his uncle gave him a slide for his birthday. This year — after decades as a performer, producer and two-time Juno Awards winner — Dawson has moved to Nashville from his native Canada and released a new solo acoustic instrumental album, Rattlesnake Cage, that displays his remarkable evolution into a highly original stylist with an accent on slide.
Among the guitars prominently featured is a Gibson J-45 that he borrowed for the sessions. Several months ago he ended a long search for a round-shouldered dreadnought of his own when he acquired a 1952 Gibson J-50 at the legendary Gruhn’s Guitars in Music City — the perfect companion for performing his savory instrumental “Chunky,” from Rattlesnake Cage.
Speaking by phone from his home studio, Dawson shared some insights on playing acoustic slide guitar:
• Acoustic verses electric slide: “The big difference is sustain. With an electric it’s going to be longer, and if you add a basic compressor pedal you can play like Lowell George and hold a note for two-and-a-half minutes. With acoustic slide you’re going to need to play it to make that happen, so you need to practice coordinating your picking and the action of the slide.”
• Muting: “Muting is important with acoustic or electric slide. Otherwise it’s easy to make extraneous noise. So it helps to know basic muting technique if you’re going to play with slide. You can mute with your left hand, with your fingers behind the slide — keeping them flush with the slide and keeping the strings from going crazy while you’re sliding — or with your right hand. You can do a lot to mute using a thumb pick or a hybrid flat-pick and fingers technique.”
• Picking: “I use my fingers and a thumb pick to play slide on acoustic guitar. With electric, I use a pick pretty much the way I would to play lead. I don’t use my nails, just the tips of my fingers, which makes a more organic sound.”
• Slide selection: “I like glass slides for acoustic guitar, that have some weight to them. That affects the tone in a big way and helps sustain. The weight also gives you some momentum, which makes it easier to come up with an effective vibrato.”
• To slide or not to slide: “There are no rules. It should be determined by how comfortable you feel playing slide in the tuning you’re in. If I’m playing solo acoustic, I’m usually in an open D style tuning or a G or C tuning. Some tunings, like the G, really lend themselves to interesting chords voicing you do with your fingers. Others, like the C, are really big power chords, and they don’t allow you to have much tonal color, so the slide is really effective in that kind of tuning.”
• Open tuning verses standard: “I don’t play slide in standard tuning much. And I have a technique for adapting if I’m playing lead guitar in a band and have only one guitar for the night. From standard, I’ll tune the high E string down to a D, so the strings will be E-A-D-G-B-D. That gives me the top four notes of an open G tuning. To me, if you to look at your fingerboard and understand what’s going on, that’s most familiar because most of the strings from standard tuning are still intact — you can still do chords. I use my slide on my pinkie so I can still play chords. And the top four strings in that tuning are the same as in open G. So you think of the G string as your base. For example, if you want to play an E chord, you can find the E on the 9 th fret of the G string and play the E chord there by pinning down the top four strings at that fret.”