• Create simple and meaningful blues phrases in the style of B.B. King.
• Understand how to emphasize chord tones over a blues progression.
• Learn how to use repetition to build tension in your solos.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Improving your intonation on slide guitar can be a real challenge when you’re flying solo—one is definitely the loneliest number in this context. Most people don’t realize it, but when you’re learning slide guitar, you’re not just developing your muscle memory. Training your ear to discern the subtleties of pitch variation is as important as developing your touch.
Playing with a slide opens the door to much greater pitch inflection then simply fingering a note on the fretboard. When fretting notes, the main challenge is to avoid using a death grip—applying too much pressure will result in a note going sharp. But when playing with a slide, you can easily sound sharp or flat on any given note. Too many players simply rely on their eyesight to tell them when their slide is in tune. Although this can work, to truly master slide you need to learn to hear when it’s in tune. I’ve often had to adjust for a string that went a little out of tune onstage, and when that happens, you can’t trust your vision to bail you out.
One of my favorite ways to help develop my ear for slide intonation is to play against a drone. The drone acts as a pitch anchor. If you’ve been playing guitar or any instrument for a period of time, you’ll be able to hear if you’re sharp or flat when playing against a drone.If you’re new to guitar, it may take a little while, but you’ll learn to decipher subtle pitch variances over time.
There are several ways we can approach using a drone. My favorite method is to use an app for the iPhone called iTabla. It allows me to choose several drone instruments and pitches. It even has rhythms to play along with. To this day, I still practice slide with this app.
You’ll also find drones on YouTube that musicians have created. However, this isn’t my favorite method because I find YouTube to be distracting. When I’m practicing, I want to be in a place of Zen, not drawn to the computer screen like a fly to a bug lamp. ZAP!
Yet another method is to use a looper pedal. I’ve been using the Pigtronix Infinity looper, but really any basic looper will work. When making your own loops, avoid adding too many intervals to your drone. It may be tempting to add a 3 or a 5 to create a chord. Try just the root layered a few times. If you can digest the sound of one note looping, do that.
Whatever drone method you employ, it’s a good idea to turn off your phone when practicing. Distractions ruin your concentration. It’s not about quantity of time, but quality.
Make sure you tune your guitar first! This is going to be crucial—not only for when you’re playing slide, but also when creating the loop. Tuning should be your mantra. Tune, tune, tune. Repeat with me….
To get the party started, I created a loop for us to play along with. Here is a long version of the loop for practice. (Click the link here to download the loop as an MP3 along with a PDF.)
Your instrument’s timbre can greatly influence your slide experience. Adjusting the guitar’s tone for slide makes the learning experience much more enjoyable.
It can be very difficult to learn slide on an acoustic guitar, and this is especially true for dreadnought flattops. That’s because slide is all about midrange, and many dreadnoughts are a bit scooped in the mids. Also, the sustain on most acoustic guitars—or lack thereof, when compared to an electric—presents a challenge. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I am saying it will be more frustrating. If you want to take the acoustic route, consider nabbing a resonator guitar. They’re naturally lush in the frequencies that complement slide, which makes them a great match.
Amps and Effects
On the electric slide front, I avoid completely clean tones from Fender blackface-style amps. Blackface amps have a scooped midrange, making them the electric equivalent of an acoustic dreadnought. If I do use a blackface or silverface Fender, or an amp inspired by these classic designs, I use a few tools to assist my slide-playing experience.
For example,the right overdrive can embellish the slide in a flattering way. This is a place where I really like the Klon. Some argue it’s a boost, some say it’s an overdrive. Whatever. All I care about is that a Klon is rich in midrange. You don’t have to drop a ton of cash for an original Klon that you’ll be too scared to step on. There are many Klon-inspired pedals out there, but I prefer the J. Rockett Archer Ikon paired with a glass or porcelain slide. These two can really bring the whine out of your guitar—in a good way.
Slide guitar loves compression. Compression allows us to play with more nuance because it increases the guitar’s sustain. This means we can attack the string less and hear intonation more clearly. Currently, I’m using an Origin Effects Slide Rig, but of course, any good compressor will work.
Don’t think of overdrive or compression as cheating. It’s not. You don’t call putting jelly on a peanut butter sandwich cheating, do you? Slide, overdrive, and compression are like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (Unless you have a nut allergy, that is.)