Slide your way to more expressive playing.
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.
What Goes Up …
Next, repeat the last three exercises, but sliding down into the target note from a few frets above. Ex. 6 is like Ex. 3, but with downward slides instead of upward ones.
Ex. 7 is like Ex. 4, but with downward slides.
Ex. 8 is like Ex. 5, but with downward slides.
Again, try picking out melodies and soloing a bit, using both upward and downward slides. Do you find your hands playing fresh things?
Infinite Shades of Blue
The goal here isn’t to play with lots of glisses. It’s having the control and flexibility to apply this articulation freely, regardless of beat or finger position. The slides in the above exercises sound stiff and artificial, but ironically, practicing them can help you apply the technique in loose, naturalistic ways.
With that in mind, let’s try one last exercise. We’ll start with a simple B.B. King-style blues lick in A (Ex. 9).
The basic melody has no sliding—just one bent note. But once you have the phrase under your fingers, try adding a slide to only the first note. And then only the second note. Then only the third. In Ex. 10, I play the phrase nine times, sliding into a different note each time.
After that, try playing sliding into the target notes from above.
None of these phrases sound particularly odd. They’re just subtle variations on a single idea. It’s such subtleties that can give your guitar playing the nuance and complexity of a good singer. Can they add anything meaningful to your playing?
Glissando vs. Portamento
Guitarists usually refer to the technique of striking a note, and then gliding the fretting finger to a new fret while the string sustains, as “sliding.” A more technical term is glissando.
Another term you might hear is portamento, and some musicians use the words glissando and portamento interchangeably. There’s a technical difference, however. If you play, say, a C note on a violin and then slide to the C an octave higher, you don’t just sound each of the 12 half-steps along the way, but all the nooks and crannies between them. That’s portamento. But if you drag your finger an octave from C to C on a piano, you produce each half-step, but not the frequencies that fall between them. That’s glissando.
Guitarists play portamento when we bend strings or use a slide. But conventional finger-on-fret playing is strictly glissando.