Just because you want to slide, doesn’t mean you need to retune.
• Understand how to phrase with a slide.
• Develop a better sense of intonation.
• Learn how to emulate the playing of Warren Haynes, George Harrison, and more. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
The history of slide guitar is filled with open tunings. When each note at a given fret is part of the same chord it makes things really simple, but for many of us, retuning every time we want to whip out the slide just isn't practical. The logistics of gigging without a tech handing you pre-tuned guitars each song makes playing a brief slide solo in an open tuning highly impractical.
Then there's the obvious: We already know the fretboard well in standard tuning! No figuring out where a note is in some foreign tuning—the locations are all the same.
Of course, it doesn't take too long to find great exponents of standard-tuned slide, even among players who embraced open tunings at various times. Muddy Waters, Jimmy Page, and George Harrison all have made important contributions to standard-tuned slide. The modern master, Warren Haynes, is positively virtuosic with the slide in standard tuning, presenting impeccable blues playing in the tradition of Duane Allman, but without the constraints of open-E tuning.
If you're new to slide, you should try to find a short slide to use. Longer slides cover more strings and increase the likelihood of noise and sounding of undesired notes. We never need to cover all six strings in standard tuning—single-string playing abounds and we rarely need more than three strings.
The slide glides on the strings, so don't press hard. You might find it's easiest to play with medium or high action. If your action is low, follow Gary Rossington's lead and place a thin piece of tubing under the strings at the first fret, that will raise them enough for a clean sound. (Check the footage below of “Freebird" to see exactly how it's done.) Most of the time, you'll aim for the center of the slide directly above the fret (not behind the fret, where you'd be pressing in normal guitar playing.) Of course, the slide allows for more refined and varied intonation options, especially the nuances in blue notes, where the desired pitch might be “in the cracks."
When in open tunings, it's hard to go wrong with the slide: Pick the right fret and chances are you'll sound a good note. Not so in standard tuning. There are some funky (in a bad way) choices and lack of good right-handcontrol can wreak havoc. So, it's time to address our selection of what rings out and what doesn't. Playing with the thumb and the index (or middle) finger makes this easiest, but a pick can be used as well. Try Ex. 1to develop a single-note presentation. The goal is one note sounding at a time.
Here's a classic rock-style example, a bit like some of George Harrison's work and also like the slide playing we hear in ELO as well. The 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings are the notes of a major triad (and just like open-G tuning), so these are easy to employ when we need to find chord tones. Ex. 2 could work as a background part or even in solos.
George Harrison was one of the most distinctive voices in slide guitar. Added benefit? He was typically a standard-tuning player! In Ex. 3, a carefully crafted line spells out each chord. We can even navigate Harrison's trademark usage of a diminished chord with a cleverly chosen slide location. The 11th fret has the dim7 and the b5 of the diminished chord. Elsewhere, the dyads on the 2nd and 3rd strings are used in a major way and a minor way. For major, look for root and 3rd; for minor, find the b3rd and 5th.
Long, sweeping slides and meticulous note choices are crucial for getting inside George Harrison's approach to his highly melodic slide playing. In Ex. 4, outline a simple E major triad in the first measure before hitting the chord tones again over the Edim7. When going from the A to the Am, focus on the movement of the 3 to the b3 to really outline the sound of that change.
Jimmy Page is no stranger to open-tuning slide, but on occasion he played in standard. This mellow lead (Ex. 5) works over a jazzy progression in E. The scale choice is E major pentatonic (E–F#–G#–B–C#), but there's a G natural used to match the 7 of the A13 chord.
Muddy Waters used open tunings extensively, especially in his early years, but his playing in the '70s and '80s often favored standard tuning. He typically capoed at the 3rd fret and played as if in the key of E, though the actual sound was the key of G. We're blessed with a generous amount of live footage of him playing slide. Below is a clip from the 1981 Chicago Blues Fest.
Ex. 6 shows the wild abandon that Muddy Waters exemplified in his spirited slide playing. There's perhaps no place better for finding “in the cracks" notes—colorful blue notes in between the conventional 12-notes-per-octave.
Warren Haynes is one of the most influential standard-tuning slide players. He was the guy who convincingly brought Duane Allman's masterful open-E playing to standard tuning. Ex. 7 is a “back and forth" slide lick, crucial to this style. Muting is paramount. Warren uses fingers rather than a pick when playing slide, which makes control much easier. If you get a washy sound from a picked approach, definitely consider switching to fingerstyle.
The note locations in Ex. 8 aren't all that different to where you might find them in a fretted blues solo. That's a big advantage of standard tuning over open tunings: All the notes are where you think they are!
Ex. 9 is right out of the Duane Allman school of slide. Of course, the top two strings of a standard tuned guitar are the same as they'd be in open E. Take advantage of the similarities when possible. The slide allows great freedom of inflection and the Allman style is filled with such nuance and finesse.
So by now you can probably see, standard-tuned slide playing is not a limitation, but rather a new way to repurpose your fretboard knowledge and unlock unprecedented expressiveness. Start small, focus on your intonation and tone, and emulate the masters.