Even though the legendary status of the great Duane Allman has lived on and grown larger with each passing year, it is a “legend” that truly has merit, as he was one of the truly greatest guitarists who ever lived. Really just a kid when he left us at the age of 24, Duane had already amassed an enormous following as co-leader of The Allman Brothers Band, and also through his early R&B studio work with greats such as Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and many others who came out of the Muscle Shoals recording session and “Fame” Records scene.
His was a monster tone, with a powerful sound. Huge vibrato, great blues and R&B roots in it, and of course, inimitable slide guitar playing that took slide guitar to another level. Before Duane came along with his blues harp influenced slide style, most folks did the Elmore James “Dust My Broom” kinds of licks, and very few upright slide players concentrated heavily on single-note work the way Duane did. His tone has remained unmatched to this day, and his use of Les Pauls and SGs is also legendary.
There’s nothing quite like the sheer power of Duane Allman playing his Les Paul or SG through a Marshall stack, and getting that good southern rock sound that he truly defined. Also, along with his partner in crime, Dickie Betts, they both developed a truly unique lead guitar harmony approach that to this day is instantly recognizable as the “Allman Brothers Harmony style.”
His slide style was truly powerful, and more than anyone else he was able to imitate the Little Walter-esque sound of a blues harp through an overdriven amp. He often used open tunings such as G and E, and after all, what is a harmonica, but another instrument built in an open tuning. Blow through it, and it gives you a chord……place the slide over any given fret with the guitar in an open tuning, and it also gives you a chord! Thus was the beginning of Duane’s unique and influential slide style, and in true Chicago blues fashion, he really was able to blend all of his influences perfectly into a new sound that was truly "all his.”
It seemed that true worldwide acclaim would eventually be more firmly implanted for Duane Allman with his collaboration with Eric Clapton, as Derek and the Dominos. His slide work on the rock classic “Layla”, and his combined work with Clapton on that song and others on that album, such as “Bell Bottom Blues” firmly cemented his place among rock aristocracy, and his incredible and long-reaching influence. Even on my all-acoustic version of “Layla” from my album Drive it Home, I invoke and “bring back” Duane’s influence on my resonator slide overdubs at the end part of the song.
On my new Slide Guitar Summit album there are many references to the great tone and approach Duane had on slide, and both Lee Roy Parnell and Greg Martin did cuts with me that really pay tribute to Duane in many ways. It was such a joy to be collaborating with these great southern rockers who both obviously grew up on the music of The Allman Brothers Band, as well as being influenced by just about anything else they ever heard! The Duane influence was just undeniable though, as we all wailed away on our Gibson Les Pauls!
Of course, for many years I have been not only playing slide but teaching it too, and I have some pretty firm and tried and true approaches to slide that have always proven to be the best way for the majority of players, and many of the greats have learned from me, such as Joe Perry, who claims to have learned slide guitar from my slide guitar book that was published all the way back in 1970! So, no discussion of Duane Allman and of his terrific slide playing would be complete without some slide instruction! First and foremost, we must remember that it is the right, or picking hand that is truly the most important thing in slide guitar technique. It really is the machine that makes the whole operation run smoothly, and most of all, it is what stops the other strings from making accidental notes and what allows you to open up or mute certain strings based on just the licks you need to play.
Here is a link to some of my Gibson.com teaching that illustrates this technique, and here are some licks of Duane’s that are famous for the “whipping” sound he would get, which by the way, are only possible with this “thumb damping” technique.
There are also some really fundamental and important scales and “box positions” that are important to slide in both open E and G tunings, both of which Duane preferred (in addition to occasionally playing slide in standard.) Try to play these in the dampened way, so that each time you introduce another sting the thumb essentially allows that string to be sounded. Also be sure, if the lick moves away from the high E string, the finger that played the previous note on the previous string then “mutes” that string as you go on to the next string. Here are some scales, as well as some good lick examples of how Duane would handle it:
Standard tuning slide, though not often advocated by me is also something that Duane Allman liked to utilize, especially when needing the convenience of going from standard non-slide playing to suddenly needing the slide. There’s no question that this technique limits the possibilities somewhat on the guitar compared to the open chords, and the only “box” positions can be found around where certain chord shapes exist, such as the G, the 9th, and the E-form minor chord shapes. Here are some good possibilities for slide in standard tuning. Note just how important the proper muting is for this style!
Of course, in the years following his loss, the legacy of Duane Allman has spawned many a great new player, some of whom even now play or have played with the ABB. I just had the distinct pleasure and honor of working with the great and incredible Jack Pearson, one of the most gifted all-around players under the sun, and who worked with the Allmans for around 4 years. Of course the wonderful Derek Trucks has also now taken the “flame” and run with it, bringing a whole new life to slide guitar, and to the legacy Duane Allman has left to him and to us too!
Of course, Duane was not only a great slide player, but also a wonderful “straight” blues and country blues/rock player whose single-note and double-stop harmonies with his partner Dickey Betts really helped define Southern Rock guitar, and it became one of the most oft-imitated double-guitar techniques in history. Its effects and influence are still clearly heard today in the recordings of many rock, blues and country artists, who love to use this instantly identifiable “trademark” sound!
Duane Allman was, simply put, an incredible guitarist, especially at his age, and of course would’ve gone on to amazing things and to even greater heights had he not had that tragic motorcycle accident. We were all robbed of great music for sure, and he was robbed of a long and vibrant, productive life. On the other hand, there is barely a guitarist who has so had his legacy “carried on” by others who loved both he and his music, and this is a true testament to the impact that “Skydog” had on everyone!
Gibson is now offering a ’59 reissue Les Paul in Duane’s honor, and I’m sure it’s going to be one hell of a guitar to play, and to pay tribute to this incredible person with! Long live Duane Allman, “Skydog”!
Check out the newly released Duane Allman 1959 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul here.