Sometimes it takes a little guidance to open up the door to new vistas in guitar playing. Earlier this month I taught an “Introduction To Slide Guitar” workshop at the Tall City Blues Festival in Midland, Texas, with the promise that students would be playing slide by the time they left the room. At the start of the workshop most of the players in attendance said that even beginning to play with a slide was a mystery they’d had trouble solving. By the time they departed they were all slidin’. Mission accomplished!
So I say give me 10 minutes and I can start you on the slide path, if you follow just five easy steps. They are:
• Tune to open E: Sure, once you get the hang of slide you can play in standard tuning using the pentatonic box and other scales, provided you know the note positions on the fretboard. But use open tuning as your gateway. And open E is an especially good and familiar sounding place to start. That’s the tuning Elmore James used for his classic slide recording “Dust My Broom” and the preferred tuning of modern slide master Derek Trucks. So it’s a tuning with legs and range that can serve the novice and the genius. Open E is, from low string to high: E-B-E-G#-B-E. Once in open E, you can produce a chord at each fret by pressing down the strings atop that fret with your finger or by applying a slide.
• Place your slide directly atop the frets: Your side note or chord will sound with accuracy and the vibrato you produce by shaking your slide — glass, metal, ceramic… whatever material you choose — will sound best if you place your slide directly atop the frets. Accuracy does count in slide. This will take some practice, but — taking Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” as an example — if you place your slide over the four highest tuned strings at the 12 th fret and rake them with your fingers or a pick while shaking the slide gently back and forth, you’ll be on the I chord of the tune’s I-IV-V progression. And don’t try to cover all six strings with your slide. That’s clunky and you don’t need all the strings to make a chord — just the necessary notes.
• Employ vibrato from the wrist: Since shaking the slide from side to side over the chord or note you’re producing is what gives the technique it’s shimmer and voice-live magic, practice this from the wrist alone — the same way B.B. King gets his distinctive single-note vibrato. Don’t use the arm or elbow. You’ll produce a less elegant sound and get fatigued.
• Follow the chords: Chasing “Dust My Broom,” remember you’re in open tuning, which means you’ll cover the bottom four notes on the 5th fret for the IV chord and on the seventh fret for the V chord. If you’d like to play rhythm on these chords, like James does, simple pin the low strings at each fret with your index finger to form the chord and alternate pressing the low B string two frets above your anchor fret to create the simple rhythm riff pattern. Listen to the recording, and what you need to do will reveal itself quickly.
• Get inside the slide box: Once you’re more fluid and you begin to embellish on the basic chords with single note melodies, fills and solos, there’s a simple trick that’ll serve as a spring board for your improvisations. In this style of open tuning — traditionally called “Vestapol,” anything you play within the two frets below your anchor chord or three frets above is going to be safe and produce cool sounding notes. In fact, the two high strings in open E have the same tuning relationship as they do in standard tuning, so when you’re comfortable you can play elaborate leads by following the notes on those strings the same way you would if you were playing pentatonic licks in standard tuning. Now, go start slidin’!
For further reading:
10 Things You Should Do to Sound Like Derek Trucks
Setting Your Guitar Up For Slide