Feel stuck in a stylistic rut? Break out a slide. One of these hollow tubes and a repertoire of a few basic licks can quickly inject some new energy and direction into your playing, and give you a fresh tone to work with besides.
A slide is used to play a self-descriptive style of guitar known as slide, or “bottle neck,” because many slides were once, and sometimes still are, made from the necks of glass bottles. Popular in blues, blues-rock and country guitar in particular, slide styles also appear in several other types of music, from pop, to rock, to fusion, though they have never been big in classical or jazz guitar. The slides used to play this style of guitar are made from a broad range of materials, and come in a wide variety of lengths, diameters, and thicknesses, although the vast majority will be tubular in shape (to fit comfortably on a finger of the player’s choice), and from two to three inches long.
Different materials offer different sounds as the slide glides across the strings, and plenty of legendary slide players can be found using just about anything you can conceive of. Among the most popular kinds are slides made from glass, steel and brass, but different types of clay and ceramics, and even bone, are not unheard of. Duane Allman, Rory Gallagher, Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Derek Trucks have all used Coricidin medicine bottles, Lowell George of Little Feet used an 11/16” socket from a socket-wrench set, Bonnie Raitt uses a slide cut from the neck of a wine bottle, and Delta blues man Cedell Davis uses the handle end of a table knife. Anything that fits your finger of choice and is smooth, hard and dense enough to produce a satisfactory tone when laid against the guitar strings (without actually pressing them right down against the frets) will do the job. If you decide to explore slide guitar more thoroughly, the most practical approach is to take your instrument to the nearest well-stocked guitar store to try a range of options for yourself. The decision-making process here, as with just about every other gear-selection decision, combines factors such as feel and tone, and is therefore particular to each individual player. Still, experimenting with objects you find around the house can yield some interesting results.
You don’t have to throw your guitar into an open tuning in order to dabble in slide, and plenty of great players throughout the years have used standard tuning, which gives them easy access to the traditional range of chords and lead scales when they’re not doing slide work. Even in standard tuning, three-note major chords are available all up and down the fingerboard on the D-G-B strings (giving you, in the key of G, the I of the scale played open or at the 12th fret, the IV at the fifth fret, and the V at the seventh fret). If you want to throw in the minor VI, G-B-E open (or at the 12th fret) gives you an Em, and with these in your pocket you can shift the intervals up and down the neck to give yourself a little something in any key.
Open tunings can be fun to use, though, and often give you a new perspective on the fingerboard, one that is certainly suited to a lot of slide styles. Open G (D-G-D-G-B-D), open D (D-A-D-F#-A-D), and open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E) are among the more popular, and all give you a full major-chord I-IV-V progression in the open, fifth fret, and seventh fret positions respectively, as well as some useful positions for solos and fills. To make the most of these, though, you will also usually need to learn your way around some alternative fretted chord positions, too, as combining slide and standard playing is often a part of the more effective slide players’ arsenals.
The final question most novice slidesters have to wrestle with is “which finger?” There’s no conclusive answer to this one, and great players have used any of the four. Placing the slide on your pinky perhaps gives you easiest access to standard, fretted chords when you’re not playing slide, and also allows you to fret strings behind the slide (while hitting slide chords) to create minor chords and other interesting effects. Plenty of outstanding slide artists also use the ring finger, and achieve similar results. As with your choice of material, slide placement is really a matter of experimentation for each individual player. Slip one on your digit of choice, slide it up the neck, and see what you come up with.