There are so many different ways that you can play guitar. However, being an instrument known for taking the solo spot in most genres, it does seem kind of limiting to one artist’s expression for a stringed instrument to have frets. Violin or cello are known for having a pure glissando and allow musicians to do a true vibrato, going both up and down in pitch. While there are fretless guitars, the unique tone of slide guitar remains very popular among the instrument’s fans due to its unique sound. The concept of this technique traces its roots back to the African instrument which became known as the didley bow. Transferred to the guitar on the American continent, it became known as the “bottleneck” style of playing and was somewhat popularized during the first half of the 20th century in the southern parts of the USA, most notably in the Mississippi Delta area. But with the development of blues and rock ‘n’ roll music from the 50s and onwards, we’ve seen the rise of slide guitar players, bringing this expressive technique to new levels. Here, we will be exploring some of the most legendary slide guitar players of all time.
What else can you say about a guy who created one of the meanest and most badass slide riffs of all time? “Bad to the Bone” is known not only by blues fans, but many other music lovers out there. Other great examples of his slide guitar skills can also be heard in songs like “Move it on Over” and “Gear Jammer”.
Best known as the member of the Rolling Stones from 1969 to 1974, Mick Taylor began perfecting his slide technique in the 1960s. He further developed it after leaving the legendary rock band and doing various other projects throughout the years.
Although Chris Rea went into different styles over the years, you could always hear the obvious blues influences in his playing. It’s not that rare to hear him use the slide for solo sections in his songs, with the most famous example being his 1989 hit “The Road to Hell”. Another great showcase of his slide skills can be heard on “Somewhere Between Highway 61 & 49”.
While clearly inspired by the old Delta Blues, Ry Cooder added his own flavor to the slide guitar playing. His emotional expressivenes where he implemented this technique so well can be heard in instrumentals like the title track of the 1984 film “Paris, Texas”, or “Feelin’ Bad Blues” from the legendary 1986 “Crossroads”.
Known for his work with The Allman Brothers Band and his own group “Gov’t Mule”, Warren Haynes takes the traditional slide guitar to rock music, adding a bit of a modern and heavier tone to it. But while many slide players use the open tunings where they can easily hit the major 3rd interval, Haynes – interestingly enough – often uses the standard tuning, mostly when playing the electric guitar.
Some of his best works can be heard in The Allman Brothers’ “Old Friend” where he shared the slide guitar duties with Derek Trucks.
Strongly influenced by zydeco music, Sonny Landreth has been referred to as the “King of Slydeco”. He also has his own unusual technique where he frets the notes behind the slide, ultimately making a distinctive and easily recognizable tone. You just know that it’s Sonny when you hear it.
The almighty John Dawson Winter III, better known as Johnny Winter, is of huge importance to the blues rock genre. During his career, which lasted for more than five decades, he cemented his place in the guitar community as one of the biggest slide players of all time. Hearing him blast those solos on his Gibson Firebird automatically fills everyone with joy.
Rory Gallagher was not only a successful solo artist but also a founding member of Taste, which was active back in the second half of the 1960s. Going through his solo discography, you can often hear him playing the slide guitar. Definitely a must for every young guitar player who wants to get into this technique.
Blind Willie Johnson
Now going way back to the early 20th century, Blind Willie Johnson is one of the famous blues pioneers. His difficult life story can definitely be felt in his music, especially in the dark and haunting piece like “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” recorded back in 1927. His music has a deeper impact knowing the fact that he lived his last years in the remains of a house that burnt down, eventually contracting malaria and dying abandoned and alone.
There are not that many people today who can reach Bonnie Raitt’s level of guitar playing, singing, and songwriting skills. Even from her early career days, she played slide guitar in some of her songs, stuff like “Give It Up or Let Me Go”.
One of the Chicago blues and Delta blues legends of the ’40s and the ’50s, Muddy Waters is responsible for bringing the electric and slide blues guitar overseas to the UK. The audiences were unprepared for this kind of a shock, but the younger music lovers were inspired.
Proclaimed as the “King of Slide Guitar”, Elmore James was an innovator who began making music on improvised 1-string instruments back in his childhood. His song “The Sky Is Crying” remains as one of the most important blues standards of all time. The slide solo parts in this piece were of great importance to the development of the genre.
Rarely does one music fan stumble upon such a unique guitar player like Derek Trucks, who combines the slide guitar with some Eastern music elements. Being a child prodigy, he began jamming with experienced musicians in his pre-teen years. Derek got more attention when he joined The Allman Brothers Band in 1999. The best – and the most popular – example of his slide guitar skills is the solo on “Desdemona” from the 2003 album “Hittin’ the Note”.
Probably the most legendary blues player, and someone who inspired countless blues, rock, and even heavy metal musicians throughout the years, Robert Johnson is one of the biggest blessings modern music ever got. While his old recordings might not exactly be HD enough for the younger listeners today, what Johnson did in the 1930s is a must for anyone interested in the development of music.
The legend goes that he sold his soul to the Devil in order to become a great blues musician. While some might say that songs like “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Me and the Devil Blues” support this particular myth, the whole thing is most likely not true. However, he did become one of the most praised blues musicians in history, so…
The founding member of The Allman Brothers Band, and the brother of legendary Gregg Allman, Duane won over the hearts of all the blues lovers worldwide. Despite the fact that he died aged only 24, he managed to write and record some of the most influential slide guitar pieces of all time. Duane pretty much set the standards in blues rock and proved that the slide technique may go over into new innovative directions. Anything from the legendary 1971 live album “At Fillmore East” comes as a great example of his slide guitar skills.
Listen to these and other songs by the slide guitar legends on Spotify below!