Over the years I have spent more and more time playing slide guitar. From the first time I heard that sound I recognized that slide guitar was the closest a guitar comes to the human voice. I remember hearing Dwayne Allman taking Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” up past the clouds, David Lindley lifting up Jackson Browne songs by weaving slide guitar throughout. Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt, Mick Taylor, Ry Cooder, Ellen McIlwaine… all these players lead me to trace out the history of the slide guitar back to the blues, to Chicago’s Muddy Waters and Elmore James and back to Mississippi to Son House and Robert Johnson…
There are no frets dividing your guitar voice into semi-tones. Slide guitar soars and sighs, weeps and screams. It’s a great way to add expression to your guitar playing. If you’re just getting started playing slide, it can be discouraging. It doesn’t sound great right away, but here is an opportunity to find your “voice” as a slide player. Every one of the players I listed above sound different from the next, each has a unique tone and approach.
For today, I’m going to talk about bottleneck slide, because that’s the style I play. The slides were originally made from the necks of bottles, though small prescription bottles were also popular (like the Coricidin bottle). Today music stores stock glass, stainless steel, brass, ceramic and pyrex slides. It’s a matter of preference – I have most kinds of slide, but usually play a brass, flared slide. Some of the best players play the cheapest slide, some prefer glass, some are happiest with a 3/4” socket wrench. Some play with the slide on their third finger. I prefer the pinky. Bonnie Raitt uses a glass slide on her second finger and she has one of the best tones ever.
What’s more important than all of these preferences is just liking the sound you get. Most important is tuning. Slide is great for ear training because you have to hear the note land in the right spot. Vibrato plays a huge part in your slide guitar sound. A quick nervous-sounding vibrato has it’s place, just as a wide, slow, deliberate vibrato achieves a different emotional effect. If you are sliding up to a note, be sure not to go past it. It’s all over once you’ve gone sharp. But, the ear is very forgiving if you slide up to a note and add vibrato to bring you just up to pitch. As a matter of fact, the tension of approaching the note is a lot of what slide playing is about.
If you’re just starting out on slide guitar, find time every day to work on your new techniques. Find a few riffs you really like and keep going over them. Find a slow song with a beautiful melody (learn Amazing Grace, that was one I used) and learn to play the melody with your slide. If you love the song, you won’t allow yourself to butcher it – your pitch and vibrato will get better in time as you work to do justice to a melody you love.