When we say a guitar solo sings, it’s inevitably a compliment. There’s just something emotionally satisfying about guitar playing with a vocal character. It’s not just a matter of sustaining notes the way voices can. It’s also about articulation—the phrasing, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides we use to conjure the expression of the human voice.
With that in mind, let’s look at a simple articulation technique we often take for granted: sliding between notes, also known as glissando, or gliss for short.
Many of us incorporate glissandos into our single-note playing. (Or “glissandi,” if you insist on the proper Italian plural.) But we tend to use the technique in predictable ways. We’re likelier to employ it, for example, when moving between neck positions. Hey, if you need to jump from the 3rd fret to the 10th, why not keep your finger against the string while shifting, producing a glissando?
But great singers might slide into any note at any time, and from above, as well as from below. Let’s see if we can cultivate a similar freedom via the same technique we used when we focused on vibrato. We’ll apply glissandos in unfamiliar ways, including ones that will feel awkward at first. Remember: It’s a good thing when a new exercise feels awkward. It means you’re addressing a technical “blind spot” and escaping the trap of muscle-memory playing.
Shake Like Jello on a Plate
In fact, let’s start with a YouTube clip I included in that vibrato lesson: Howlin’ Wolf’s “Shake for Me,” with its stunning Hubert Sumlin solo.
Listen to the first four measures of the solo, beginning at 0:52, after Wolf sings, “I’ve got a cool shakin’ baby, shake like jello on a plate.” It’s a reckless, loose cannon solo that sounds a bit dangerous, like Wolf himself. I struggled when I first attempted this phrase many years ago. I was used to sliding up into a phrase, not up out of one. Also, the first smear begins on a downbeat and lands on an upbeat. That felt more natural to me than the second smear, which starts on the upbeat.
Now let’s see if we can cop that shakin’ jello feel!
The Soundtrack of Sexual Harassment
To loosen up your fretting hand and arm, try playing this two-note “wolf whistle” pattern. (Yes, young friends, for much of the 20th century it was socially acceptable for men to whistle at random women on the street.)
It’s the simplest of musical ideas: just two notes separated by a fourth. But you need precise articulation to mimic the whistle effect. The first note must be played staccato (short) while the second one is more sustained. You slide up to the first note quickly from five or so frets below. The approach to the second note is a little slower, and the slide down from that note is slower still.
Try it as notated and at different positions on the neck, keeping your fretting arm’s shoulder, elbow, and wrist relaxed. For the best sustain, keep your fingertip pressed strongly into the fretboard. This might sting a bit, depending on your fret type and finger strength. The string should still be ringing when you reach the bottom of the last gliss.
Next, let’s try applying glissandos to a familiar melody: the old cowboy folk ballad “The Streets of Laredo.” Ex. 2 shows the basic melody. (Sometimes the rhythm is more complex, with dotted quarter-notes, but I kept it simple for exercise purposes.)
In Ex. 2, I play each note dryly and evenly, with no sliding. But once you have the melody under your fingers, try adding slides systematically. Try these variations:
• Slide into the first note of each bar from several frets below, but don’t slide into any other notes, as heard in Ex. 3.
• Slide into the second note of each bar from several frets below, but don’t slide into any other notes, as heard in Ex. 4.
• Slide into the third note of each bar from several frets below, but don’t apply sliding to any other notes, as heard in Ex. 5.
There are no strict rules about fingering, but as a rule of thumb (sorry!) start each slide with the finger you’d normally use to play the target note. In Ex. 1, for example, that means sliding into the first note of measure 1 with your pinky, but sliding into the first note of measure 2 with your index finger.
Yes, these exercises feel and sound unnatural. But they force you to use slides more mindfully. After practicing these for a few minutes, try doing the same with other melodies, or just improvise random phrases, incorporating slides. I guarantee you’ll apply the technique in new ways.