The history of slide guitar goes back a long time —at least as far as the seminal playing of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson.
And, of course, it continues to be written right into the present thanks to the nimble hands and at least one stiff finger of A-list players like Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. And speaking of lists, here’s a countdown of the Top 10 slide guitar greats, sure to provoke arguments at the local music shop:
10. Duane Allman: When it comes to slide playing, Allman is most listeners’ and players’ default go-to guy. For taste, tone, timing and sheer tearin’ it up, it’s hard to equal his tour de force performances on songs like “Statesboro Blues” and “One way Out.” In open E, G or standard tuning Duane, his coricidin bottle and his cherry red SG or battery of Les Pauls had a gorgeous way with melodies and a tone that was brown molasses sweet, whether playing clean or going live through an overdriven Marshall. As his most vital modern disciple Derek Trucks puts it: “Duane is a seminal figure like Charlie Christian or Wes Montgomery — a guy who came along at exactly the point where there was a major change in music, and fell into the center of it.”
9. Sonny Sharrock: Jazz and slide don’t often mix, but Sharrock, a John Coltrane disciple who was considered the father of free jazz guitar, was an utterly distinctive player. Using a bar, much like a lap or pedal steel player, rather than a conventional round-neck guitar slide on his black Les Paul Custom, Sharrock was able to transfer modal concepts to the playing style as well as create the “sheets of sound” Coltrane often referred to when speaking of his own sax playing. From an apprenticeship with Sun Ra to journeyman work with Herbie Mann, Miroslav Vitous and Pharoah Sanders, to his final artistic triumph with 1991’s Ask the Ages, Sharrock followed one of the technique’s most distinctive and spellbinding paths.
8. Robert Johnson: Earlier acoustic bluesmen established the vocabulary of slide, but Johnson was Delta slide guitar’s most fluent speaker. Experts theorize he employed as many as 17 tunings. But listening to Johnson play slide on “Ramblin’ On My Mind” and “Dust My Broom” — likely on a Gibson L-1 — is a transcendent experience that takes one back to the core of southern American music.
7. Johnny Winter: Slide stepped up a few notches when Winter strapped on a Gibson Firebird and burned. Winter’s playing on the standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and the murder ballad “Dallas” on his first and second major label releases bridges the past and present on blues and points it straight down the highway of, as Winter still hollers at the start of his shows, “rock ‘n’ roll.”
6. Derek Trucks: Duane’s pre-eminent torchbearer not only holds his hero’s old chair in the Allman Brothers and plays a cherry Gibson SG, but is leaving his own brand on the music by mixing Eastern micro-tonality and scales into rock and blues based songs, even while pushing slide into jazz and soul territory. Like Duane, Trucks is a Gibson SG man, although he recently had the pleasure of playing Duane’s vintage Les Paul Gold Top during the Allman Brothers annual multi-night stand at New York City’s Beacon Theater — which Trucks has described as a sonically religious experience.
5. George Harrison: Although Harrison’s slide playing is not often heralded, he was an outstanding slider who applied some of the droning qualities of the sitar to his perspective, which was, first and foremost, remarkably sweet and lyrical. Harrison can be heard wielding his slide on the All Things Must Pass album, the Beatles’ “I Dig Love” and, of course, “If Not For You” plus other stellar performances.
4. Jimmy Page: A heavy electric blues slideman in the Muddy Waters tradition, Gibson Les Paul Standard monster Page put his indelible mark on the approach with heavyweight numbers like “You Shook Me” on 1969’s Led Zeppelin, the psychedelic slide masterpiece “Whole Lotta Love,” the acoustic “Gallows Pole” and the marvelously romantic and brutal “In My Time of Dying,” to name just a few staggering performances. If you want a blueprint for rocking hard and playing slide, look no further than Page.
3. Muddy Waters: And Page, in turn, needed to look no further than early Gold Top proponent Muddy Waters for electric slide inspiration. Waters developed a keening, amplified variation on Delta blues slide that remains instantly recognizable as his alone to this day. For a taste of Muddy’s sliding on acoustic, listen to the arresting “My Home Is In the Delta” from Folk Singer, and for pure electric sting check out “Honey Bee,” also known as “Sail On.”
2. Jeff Beck: Listening to Beck blend slide and wah-wah in the Jeff Beck Group’s version of his Gibson Les Paul powered “I Ain’t Superstitious” is a near spiritual sonic experience, dizzying and seductive at the same time. His take on “I’m So Proud” from the Beck, Bogert and Appice album is pure melted butter. And when he goes old school for a number like “Shake Your Money Maker.” he comes off as the super-sonic son of Elmore James.
1. Mick Taylor: The Rolling Stones’ guitarist laid down some gorgeous slide during his days in the band, often employing a Gibson ES-335 or one of his beloved Les Paul Standards. “Love In Vain” and “Brown Sugar” owe much of their radically different vibes to his expertise on slide.