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The first guy I ever heard play slide was Hound Dog Taylor … I just love him. He’s got that wicked, cheap guitar tone. Dog’s rhythm guitarist in the House Rockers, Brewer Phillips, also has a very unique style. Next up for me are the Allman Brothers, Rory Gallagher and Muddy Waters. George Harrison also had a very distinct slide style, and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top was the guy with the raunchy tone that also made me want to give it a try. I fell in love with the solo on “Tush” the very first time I heard it, and it’s an excellent solo to try as your first stab at playing slide because you can do it in standard tuning. There are a bunch of other slide players that are wonderful, too, most notably Ry Cooder. If you haven’t already, check out his Get Rhythm album. Ry plays several tunes on slide and the tone is just … well, ya gotta hear it, it’s amazing. Ry’s playing just might get me to try some new tunings someday.
The Appropriate Tools
Ok, first you need a guitar, and it’s a bit easier if you use at least .010s or heavier. Super light strings just are harder to control without whacking the frets. Next, (obviously) you need a slide. Personally, I like steel slides, but many players prefer brass or glass, and there are even ceramic slides. Duane Allman used a Coricidin bottle as his slide, and now Coricidin bottle slides are sold for more than they used to cost with the cold pills still in them. Now that’s the blues!
I would also encourage you to consider just using your bare fingers and pocketing your flatpick. Playing slide requires a lot of string control and muting and it’s just easier with bare fingers. There is also not a great agreement on which finger to wear the slide on. I like using my third finger, which allows me to mute ahead of, or behind, the slide as needed. Now, I can get a fair amount of non-slide action using just my first two fingers when I need to. But as with most things, just try it for yourself and see how it works for you.
I’ve found that, for some reason I tend to switch pickups a bit more when I play slide than when I just play with my fingers. I couldn’t tell you why, but it just seems important. You’ll also want to consider the humbucker vs. single-coil decision. As I seem to say in every column, tone is everything. So make it a thoughtful choice that pleases your ear.
Let’s Set Sail
Let’s start by thinking about how chords are laid out on the guitar. With a slide you’re pretty much stuck with playing straight across the strings, so start with the chords you know and figure out which notes from them lay on adjacent strings. Next, you have to try them and see what you get. The best one to start with is that plain old major triad that sits across the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings. Played open, it’s a G. It’s also a G up an octave at the 12th fret. Try sliding up those three strings and landing at the 12th fret. You will need to place the slide right over the fret to be in tune, so use your ears and make sure it sounds right. If there is any doubt, get a tuner and check your notes. And don’t worry, you’ll eventually get the hang of it.
It’s way important to pay attention to string muting. On your slide hand, lightly rest the fingers behind the slide on the strings just enough to mute what’s going on behind the slide. On your picking hand, you have to figure out how to keep the strings you’re not playing from ringing out. At first this can seem like insane gymnastics, but with practice it will eventually become second nature. Just listen for the sounds you like and get rid of the ones you don’t. Next, try some single lines using whatever scales you already know. Again, work on your string muting. You can also try a few two-note chords, which you may find to be very natural. Another cool thing is to try and angle the slide on strings 2 and 3; angle the low side up so that the slide is a half step higher on the 3rd string.
Also, work toward the goal of relying on your ears rather than your eyes to play slide. You can practice this by playing way up high past the end of the neck, for which you can use your bridge pickup. Jeff Beck is a genius at this technique, in addition to blurring the difference between his slide playing and his fingering techniques.
That should be enough to get you started in the right direction. Now go play some slide.
Pat Smith founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke and Bob Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy Van Duser and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.