Slide guitar is an essential part of blues and rock music and involves placing a tubular object across the strings, and creating a glissando effect as you move from note to note. These tubular objects can be made of glass, metal, or other materials.
In this article, we will explore the basics of this technique, covering equipment, tuning, methods, and techniques.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Styles of Slide
- Playing Slide Guitar – The Basics
Styles of Slide
Originating from early 20th Century, bottleneck slide comes from when guitarists used actual bottlenecks to produce wailing, glissando blues sounds. Coke bottles were particularly popular, due to their small size, inexpensiveness and the smooth tone they produced.
Bottleneck slides, these days, come in all kinds of materials, with glass and metal being the most common. They can be used on ‘regular’ steel-stringed acoustic guitars (ideally those suited to playing blues music), as well as electric guitars. You can play them in standing and seated positions as well as when the guitar is laid across the player’s lap.
The Dobro is a resonator guitar that is laid across the player’s lap. This is like an acoustic guitar, but instead of the sound-hole, they have a large, metal resonator which projects the sound much louder than a standard acoustic.
There are specific slides you use with Dobros, which are more like bars that you hold than tubes to put over your fingers. These produce a smoother tone and are more user-friendly for the playing position of the instrument.
Weissenborns are another type of guitar that’s specifically designed to be played on your lap.
They have no resonator, making them sound softer than a Dobro and the shape of the instrument is also different. Dobros have very wide upper-bodies which merge into the neck, making it easier to move across higher notes.
Like the Dobro, the Weissenborn uses a specific type of angular slide, which makes them more user-friendly and encourages a smooth, controlled sound.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to teach you how to play bottleneck guitar.
Here’s what you’ll need:
Bottleneck slides are available in a variety of materials, most notably glass, metal, ceramic and bone. There are benefits and drawbacks to each of the different kinds.
Glass: gives you a classic sound. Made from the same material as a real bottleneck, they are smooth and give you a silky, bluesy tone. It’s also light, making it easier to use.
Metal: gives you a heavier sound ideal for rock music through an electric guitar. They’re also smaller and thinner than glass ones, which some players prefer.
Ceramic: a cross between glass and metal, giving you a smooth, silkiness while also being capable of heavy, rocking sounds. These have a unique character and they also tend to be available in some good-looking designs.
Bone: are very light, making them easy to handle and they also offer a warm, soulful sound. They’re a lot easier on the ear than some others and as such are more versatile. They do tend to be more expensive than other glass or metal ones.
Players of this technique tend to use lower tunings than usual, so it’s worth going for a heavier gauge than usual.
If you’re only interested in occasional slide playing, using regular ’10s’ will be fine. However, if you’re going to be playing a lot of this style, it’s worth changing to heavy ’11s’. These will hold their tune better and are less prone to buzzing than ’10s’.
Raise Your Action
It’s also worth raising your action. This will ensure that the strings don’t hit the frets as you go across them with the bottleneck. When you’re raising the action, it’s important to make sure that the strings are all the same distance away from the fretboard. If they’re uneven, playing chords can get very tricky.
Playing Slide Guitar – The Basics
1. Choose Your Sliding Finger
There’s no set-in-stone correct finger to use. However, guitarists generally use either the middle, ring or pinky finger. Sometimes, a combination of these.
If you choose the middle finger, you have the benefit of being able to use a large slide to achieve a fat tone. However, your playability will be limited as it’s one of your main fingers that will be covered up. Ron Wood and Joe Perry chose the middle finger to achieve their distinctive sounds.
If you go for the ring finger, which is a popular choice, you can use your other fingers to easily mute the strings behind it. Using the ring finger also leaves you with your index and middle finger to play ‘normal’ guitar with. Duane Allman and Derek Trucks wore slides on their ring fingers.
The pinky is chosen by many guitarists, as it means that you can keep all three of your other fingers free. This is the obvious choice for those who want to use this technique very sparingly, alongside intricate lead playing. The pinky was the finger of choice for both Robert Johnson and Johnny Winter!
2. Aim Directly over the Fret
Something many people don’t get right when they first start playing this style is the finger position. Unlike when you play standard guitar, successful sliding requires aiming directly over the fret (i.e. parallel to the fret), not just before it.
If you play with the slide just beneath the fret, where you’d normally put your finger, the note will be slightly flat, making your playing sound out-of-tune. Get used to applying this technique from the very beginning, to avoid getting into bad habits early on. Whilst the flatness might not be obvious when you’re playing alone, it will be glaringly apparent if you accompany musicians who are playing in tune.
3. Apply the Right Pressure
Another thing that can throw new players is the amount of pressure to apply when sliding.
We’re so used to pushing down hard on the strings, it can feel wrong when you try something different. However, the correct amount of pressure to put on your strings when sliding is about the same amount of pressure you apply when playing a natural harmonic.
Touch the string, but don’t push down onto the fretboard. This is one of the reasons why players of this style like to have high action (i.e. high action gives you room to apply pressure without risking touching the fingerboard).
4. Choose Your Tuning
As opposed to standard tuning, its common to tune to open E for this technique. This tuning spells out E, B, E, G#, B, E. (aka an E Major chord).
This tuning allows you to play an open major chord, which can be raised simply by sliding up the neck. The tuning also makes it easy to blast out stylish licks, just by moving between strings on the same fret.
Getting used to the tuning will mean learning new positions for your pentatonic and blues scales, but they’re no more difficult to remember and master than the pentatonic you’re used to. The shapes are simply different.
If you have an old guitar that you rarely use, why not heighten the action and put it into open E tuning? This will make it easier to practice this technique, without having to spend time tuning up each time.
You can hear open E tuning Allman’s legendary ‘Statesboro Blues’:
If your sliding isn’t sounding good, even after you’ve found the right pressure, adjusted your action and tuned into an open tuning, it’s probable that your open strings aren’t muted enough.
It’s important to ensure that, while your third finger slides across the neck, your first and second fingers sit behind, so they can mute the strings that aren’t being played. If you don’t do this, your sliding may sound messy and the notes will lose their clarity.
When you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to hone your technique even more. Here are some techniques worth knowing about.
Left and Right-Hand Muting
To achieve the highest possible clarity, it’s best to mute with both your left and right hand.
Your left picking hand (assuming you’re right-handed – if you’re a lefty, switch these) should have the slide on your ring finger or pinky so that the others can mute the strings behind them. They should follow your sliding finger, whilst touching all of the strings.
Your right hand can also be positioned to mute the strings that aren’t being played. Using finger-picking to strike the notes you want to hear, your thumb can cover all of the strings that precede that finger. This will prevent them from ringing out and producing clashing overtones.
Vibrato is a commonly used technique.
Unlike when you vibrato with your fingers, vibrato with a slide involves moving up and down on the neck. It works great when you play the desired note first, then introduce a vibrato to give it style and a personal twist.
You can vibrato quickly or slowly, according to the vibe you’re trying to create. You can also vibrato ‘below’ or ‘above’ the note. This means sliding up or down to the note.
Check out how BJ Baartman moves quickly and slowly, down and up into a smooth vibrato in this video.
Combining Hammer-ons and Pull-offs
Another common technique is to play hammer-ons and pull-offs.
You need to touch the string extremely lightly as you pull off or hammer on, which can be quite tricky to get used to. However, when you master it, you can combine these with vibrato to get varied, interesting sounds.
Double Stops and Triads
The technique of double stops (playing two notes together which harmonize) and triads (playing three) is extremely popular too. They can be easily found in open tunings, as a major chord is always in place across each fret.
As with any guitar technique, learning this isn’t something that will happen overnight. There are the physical requirements of restringing, changing the action and tuning your guitar, as well as all of the techniques that take time to master.
Getting used to holding your slide in your chosen finger, muting the other strings and sliding from fret to fret is a great place to start. Once you get used to that, you can try adding some vibrato and playing more than one string at once.
When you get really competent, you can add in techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs, as well as experiment with different lengths and speed of vibrato.
Note: the videos in this article are taken from TrueFire’s course ‘BJ Baartmans’ Creative Slide Guidebook’. If you follow this link, you get a special 25% discount on the course.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.