Slide guitar, when done well, is a thing of absolute beauty. Over the years, slide guitar players from Ry Cooder to Duane Allman to Derek Trucks have shown innovative, creative and lyrical ways to use the famous bottleneck slide to great effect.
Like any technique, practice, study and time is required to achieve full mastery. However, with slide guitar playing there are certain basic essentials you need to get down from the beginning to be on the right track.
These absolute basics are just little points of technique, approach and understanding that will make all the difference between become a competent slide guitarist, fast, or not. So here they are. Good luck, and enjoy!
P.S. Whatever you do with tips 1-5, don’t leave without reading tip 6 – especially if you can’t figure out why your slide playing sounds out of tune even though you’re perfectly tuned!
First thing’s first – what tuning are you in? There’s no one definitive answer here, as such. Many slide guitarists play in an open tuning (i.e. A tuning in which the open strings sound as a chord, hence ‘open G’ or ‘open E’). This is great for being able to slide into full chords with just one finger.
However, conversely, Derek Trucks has famously played extensively in standard tuning, using a more linear, vocal-style approach.
Both styles have their pros and cons. But the point is – which one are you in? Make sure you know, you’re in it consciously, and you know the basics of how that tuning works. If you’re in ‘open G’ for example, and you’re playing a 12-bar blues, you can no doubt find the G chord easily enough, but where are the IV and V chords? C and D? Get to know your tuning!
Slide guitar is far far easier on a guitar with a higher action (i.e. The strings are further away from the fretboard – the exact opposite of what usually makes guitar playing easier!)
What this essentially amounts to is that any semi-serious slide guitarist will need a guitar dedicated entirely to slide playing. Thus they can have the action ridiculously high as it doesn’t matter – it isn’t used for non-slide playing.
Of course, we can’t all just go out guitar shopping all the time due to practical and financial constraints! So be on the lookout for cheap second hand guitars in thrift shops/stores or online. If you can get hold of something, raise the action and dedicate it to slide playing, that’ll really help. It doesn’t matter how cheap, old and battered the guitar is, it’s just to get your technique up. Plus – it’s all part of the old bluesy charm!
The point on the high action feeds directly into this point on pressure. Don’t press the string down! The bottleneck slide should just glide along the string, the string should not be pressed onto the fretboard at all.
The high action helps with this as it creates more room to play with here. If you’re playing on a low-action setup strat for example, it’s almost impossible to avoid regularly pressing the string onto the fretboard.
Again, this approach is a little counter-intuitive as it’s the exact opposite of what you want to do in non-slide playing. However, as always, practice makes perfect, and when you get it right, and the sound is coming from that sweet spot, it makes it worthwhile.
Start with the kind of pressure you’d apply to play a harmonic, and work from there.
Which finger to wear the slide on? The short answer is, your 3rd (ring) finger.
The long answer is either finger 2, 3, or 4, whichever feels most natural and comfortable. You may just find that wearing it on finger 4 feels like the most natural thing in the world and your playing rockets, in which case, obviously, carry on!
However the logic behind wearing it on finger 3 is that, you have enough fingers behind that (1 and 2) to give adequate muting (see next point!) or to play non-slide sections of the song, but at the same time finger 3 is strong enough to give enough control over the slide.
Finger 2 is even stronger, but leaves only one finger for muting or playing non-slide parts. Finger 4 leaves 3 fingers for this, but means your pinky is in control of the slide. Meaning finger 3 is the happy medium – so start from there!
Make sure whichever fingers you have free behind the slide dampen the strings slightly i.e. Enough to provide a kind of non-humming canvas for your slide part to sit on top of.
Not doing so may mean a lot of unwanted noise and strings ringing out (as after all, your slide part is fundamentally not pressing down any strings, just gliding along). This adds up to quite a messy sounding part, however good the rest of your slide technique may be.
This muting should be done with just the amount of pressure you’d use to stop some strings ringing out while you’re not playing. Just a light touch, making contact, without hammering on any chords!
6. End Of The Fret!
OK, now you’re all set. You’re in a slide-friendly tuning, on a high-action guitar, the slide’s on the right finger, and your strings are muted. You start playing over some chords, and it sounds horrendous. It sounds like you’re not in tune even though you double checked. What’s going on?
This is absolutely vital – do not position the slide in the middle of the fret, position it at the end of the fret. For example, if you want to play the ‘e’ note at the 12th fret of the 1st (e) string, you do not position the slide above the middle of the 12th fret, where you would if playing non-slide.
Instead, position the slide directly above the actual metal fret dividing bar, i.e. At the point where fret 12 ends and fret 13 begins. Here you’ll find the correct pitch.
Such a minor adjustment, but so central to playing slide guitar!