• Understand the advantages
of playing slide guitar in standard
• Develop picking-hand muting
and accurate intonation.
• Create phrases in the style
of Duane Allman and Derek
The sound of slide guitar is incredibly
intoxicating. I’ve always been drawn
to it because of the singing, vocal quality
that it has—so emotional and expressive.
It’s very prominent in blues and roots rock,
but as an approach and set of techniques, I
think slide guitar is truly useful in all styles.
The conventional wisdom for slide playing
is to use an open tuning, where you
retune your guitar so that strumming the
open strings creates a chord. Two popular
slide tunings are open E (E–B–E–G#–B–E,
low to high) and open G (D–G–D–G–
B–D, low to high). The most compelling
benefit to this approach is that anywhere
you put the slide you’ll have a nice big
chord. This is also a fundamental compromise
with two serious drawbacks. First, you
are now bound to only major chords, and
even worse, all the notes and their positions
that you have already worked so hard to
learn are gone because you’ve retuned half
of the strings.
Luckily, this isn’t the only way to get
your hands around some greasy slide licks.
Using standard tuning is just as viable and
some of the greatest slide guitarists in the
world use it. What’s great about learning
slide techniques in standard tuning is that
you can apply them to any tuning you want
down the road too. The techniques are
difficult enough as it is, so let’s get rockin’
with the tuning you’re already used to.
The biggest adjustment for most players
is the sense of touch and how lightly
you have to actually rest on the strings
with the slide. Typically, players will use
thick strings and high action. I use stock
action and .010–.046 light strings. There
are some folks who take it to the extreme.
Billy Gibbons plays a super-light .008 set,
even when playing slide. Talk about a light
A great first way to recalibrate your
sense of touch for slide playing is to test the
action. Without the slide, press the strings
to the fretboard and then release—without
leaving the strings—several times to feel the
“springiness” of the strings. You’ll notice
that the action, or distance from the string
to the fretboard, is very close. This does not
give you a lot of room, so it’s really important
to be sensitive to that tiny distance.
Next, play a harmonic on the 1st string
by gently touching directly above the
12th fret. Notice that you have to be very
gentle and you can’t press through to the
fretboard. This is how lightly you have to
touch the string with the slide. Let the slide
float on top of the strings and be supported
by the strings. Also, make sure you are
touching the string with the slide directly
above the metal fret.
Another very important tip: Use your
fingertips to pluck the strings instead of a
pick, so that you can use all of your other
fingertips to mute unwanted noise. Keep
these things in mind when you grab your
slide and you’ll be tearing it up in no time.
Let’s begin with a simple muting exercise
shown using the E minor pentatonic scale
in Fig. 1. The goal here is to separate each
note by muting the adjacent strings with
your plucking-hand fingers. Make sure to
land directly over the fret and test your
intonation with a tuner. Remember, no
sliding! It should sound like you are playing
through the scale with fretted notes.
In Fig. 2 we start to connect some of
the notes in the scale. Muting is especially
important here, as you don’t want any of
the other strings to ring and create some
weird overtones. Keep the sound of each
note even and in time even though some
of the slides are longer than others. On the
last note try using some vibrato.
To create an even-sounding vibrato you
want to try to move the slide an equal
distance on either side of the target pitch.
Don’t worry if it isn’t completely perfect—
vibrato is unique to each player and it helps
to define your personal sound.
Now that the exercises are out of the
way, we can move onto some actual licks
in Fig. 3. As you can see, we combine elements
of both Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 to create a
simple phrase over E7. For the second part
of the phrase, place your thumb on the 3rd
string, index on the 2nd string, and middle
on the 1st string. This will allow you to
mute the proper strings much more easily.
We have a “see-saw” lick in Fig. 4 using
the same pentatonic box. We dip outside
the pentatonic scale for the G# in the second
measure. This note is the major 3rd
of the E7 chord and gives the phrase a
nice, sweet quality. Create some separation
between the G# and the E by muting the
3rd string with your thumb.
In Fig. 5 we have a Duane Allman inspired
lick that makes use of some grace
notes. A grace note is when you quickly
sound a note right before your target note.
With this example, the B is the grace note
and the A is the target note. These types of
phrases really show how you can get a vocal
quality with the slide. Just to prove it, try
playing the lick without the slide and see
how different it sounds. Slide on!
is a NYC-based guitarist, singer,
songwriter, and instructor. His forthcoming
album features Kofi Burbridge and Yonrico
Scott from the Derek Trucks Band, and Oteil
Burbridge of the Allman Brothers. For more
information and to check out his instructional
DVD, Ultimate Slide Guitar: Essential Slide
Techniques, visit geoffhartwell.com