Talk about playing behind the slide with the left hand.

What I learned from the delta players was to tune the guitar to a certain key. For example, if the song is in E, there are two basic tunings. I would use those and then start experimenting with tunings of my own. I was playing a blues thing and I was frustrated about playing in a minor key while tuned to a major key. Long story short, I could see the notes behind the glass and had the inspiration to fret that note behind the glass. When using a slide, the strings float over the neck – you don’t use the frets. You don’t press against the fretboard like you do when playing regular guitar. The slide makes the tones on the strings as they float above the fretboard, so behind that there’s just enough room on the hand. I have the slide on my little finger, leaving the other three fingers to chord or use for fretting positions behind and under the glass. It’s the combination of the fretted notes and the slide notes that are floating that creates the mojo.

When I discovered that, it opened the window. I sensed the potential for the creativity of slide guitar way more than I had even anticipated. I just became more adventurous and started trying things, and I started coming up with all these different techniques. But what it really comes back to is my role models; these delta players were the package in one deal – the singer, songwriter in most cases and guitar player. So they were supporting the lyric in the song, and in the case of using the slide, they could create different sounds. So that’s what it’s about for me. It’s about the song and using these techniques for the sake of the lyric more than anything.

Playing Behind the Slide: An Interview with Sonny Landreth
Sonny with Clapton ©2007 Lyle A. Waisman
Explain the right hand technique as well.

As I had said, I learned the Chet Atkins fingerstyle approach. Looking back on it, that’s when I started realizing the guitar as a solo instrument. That was the gift I got from Chet Atkins. I love those albums where it’s just his guitar – the electric guitar. But it’s somewhat of a classical approach as a solo instrument, like a piano. He would have a bass line and a fingerpicking pattern, with rhythm, chords and a melody all going around at the same time. That left an impression on me, and I think that once I got into using a slide on the left hand, which I got from the delta bluesmen, it really set me on my own path.

Now, to get a little more technical, one thing that’s important to discuss is the muting technique, whereby you assign a finger per string. From high to low, the high string would be the third finger on the right hand, the second string would be the second finger and the third string would be the first – or index finger. The thumb controls the bottom three. What happens is, whatever note I’m playing on whichever string – with the slide, for example – if it’s a single note then all the other strings are muted by allowing the fingers to drape or cover those strings. Obviously, I don’t do that all the time because a lot of times you want all that to open up and ring. But that’s how you learn to control what’s happening on one side of the slide when the notes are ringing and to use your palm to extract tones and overtones on notes on the other side of the glass.

There’s another technique that uses the palm of your right hand. You have some distance between the very bottom of the string and the fretboard with slide, so when I’m sliding those strings officially aren’t touching the frets and are not touching the fretboard. I’ll probably contradict myself later, because there’s always a weird reverse technique that pulls out a different sound when doing the exact opposite. [laughs] But basically, that allows you to press down all six strings or any combination with the palm. As you press down, the slide goes with you. That allows you to excite the strings and bend the notes behind the slide – the ghost notes I call them.

What you can do is emulate vibrato, tremolo, chorus and echo. Also, when you fret certain notes on the neck, let’s say two strings in harmony and the other four strings are floating with the slide, the clash of the two creates the potential for oscillations, which can also be controlled with the right hand. You can control the speed of them – they can really ring on and be very strange at the same time. It adds a lot of character to the overall sound which becomes more complex. You’re not just getting individual notes, but you’re getting a combination of notes and overtones plus the effect of these oscillations.

As you had said, you began on the trumpet. Did that influence your guitar playing style?

Oh yeah, and I was talking to Robben Ford about this – he started out playing saxophone. You approach the guitar with a completely different idea about phrasing because as a wind instrument player, be it sax, trumpet, trombone, oboe or flute, you have to take a breath and then play the passage. Your phrasing is completely geared around taking that breath. What that also does is bring out much more of an expression of the voice from the human side. It makes it more emotional, I think. It’s a different approach, a different idea and a different concept.

You have amazing tone, live and in the studio. Is that more a gear related thing, or is it in the fingers and through your amazing technique?

Tone is number one. Even as a kid I wanted to have my own sound. I recognized that all my heroes have their own unique style and their own sound. As soon as I hear it, I know it. That’s such and such, and this is that person. That’s what I always strived for – my own tone and phrasing. It comes from deep within.

It really doesn’t matter if it’s guitars, pickups, pedals or no pedals, amps, preamp tubes, speakers – it comes from a place where you find your own voice. Again, that’s what impressed me early on; I really wanted to sing the guitar, have my own voice on the guitar. That’s a huge part of it for me.

And it’s usually done on a Stratocaster.

I’ve got Gibsons and Fenders – I’ve just got a lot of guitars. Its apples and oranges, but I’ve settled on the Strat because it has got something going for it with slide that I just can’t shake. It’s more versatile. I can cover more bases with it. But on the other hand I have Les Pauls too. I learned to play Hendrix on a Gibson ES-175, an old jazz hollowbody. [laughs] I love ‘em all. But yeah, it’s my favorite [the Strat].

Playing Behind the Slide: An Interview with Sonny Landreth
Photo: ©2007 Tim Mosenfelderon
Which goes back to the idea that tone is in the fingers anyway.

It really is. You color that with various gadgets, gear and that sort of thing, but it really starts with that. You really should be able to hold your own. If you really want to test your metal, sort of speak, don’t use any effects. Plug straight into an amp and just try playing a gig like that. When you’ve got your own voice, it’s going to come through no matter what.