What the Ell? My Slide Guitar Journey

Learning how to learn is an invaluable, yet often-overlooked skill. Here’s how a country superstar took the scary leap into slide guitar.

Chops: Beginner
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Understand the basics of slide guitar technique.
• Develop a better sense of intonation.
• Re-evaluate your learning process.

This is not your typical nuts-and-bolts slide lesson. I'm not by any means a virtuoso slide player. In fact, I'm a completely just-know-how-to-get-by slide player. However, I will say that life is about accepting the challenges that you sometimes never saw yourself doing. It will help you grow as a person.

Maybe today is the day you dust off that guitar and start to learn fingerpicking or write your first song. Maybe you're a Lenny Breau fan and you want to start learning jazz guitar. Whatever your new calling may be, I want to give you a few simple steps to think about before you begin your journey. I'll compare it to learning how to ride a bike for the first time. Or learning a new sport. It's all about making sure your intention is in the right place.

Get a Grip
Before you start, you'll want to get a handle on the basic forms and techniques. This will prevent any bad habits from popping up later. In my case, it meant figuring out which finger to put the slide on, how much pressure to use on the strings, and how to pluck and mute with my picking hand.

Listen to the Greats
Before I jump into something new, I always get inspired by listening to or watching someone who is undeniably great. Top-notch artists have put in their 10,000 hours and it's motivating to see what that investment yields. Before I enter the studio—even before a show—I put on an artist that I aspire to be like. It puts my head in the right creative space. If you're going to channel some energy, why not channel the energy of someone who has paved the road you're trying to walk?

Start Small
I am an impatient person. I believe I can do anything I put my mind to, and sometimes I can become discouraged when something takes a little more work than I'd originally anticipated. For this reason, whenever I'm working on something totally new, I start small. Maybe it's just the first few notes of a solo ... or simply an intro. For slide, I focus on a short lick and try to get as far inside it as I can.

Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
The internet is vast. You can type any question you might have into Google or YouTube and within a few clicks you're doing anything from fixing a toilet to jumping on a pogo stick. Once you have inspiration, technique, and a sound, you can develop your newly found slide skills. Boring, meticulous exercises are the key here. I detail how I started developing my slide skills below, but for this moment, remember to only pick up a few exercises to start at first. And play them very slowly for the first few days. You'll be surprised how fast you can build up a skill. Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Learn an Entire Song
We play music because it makes us happy, and what sense is there learning a bunch of scales if we can't put them to use? I always find I'm inspired to learn something new when I can actually play music. Find a song that moves you and go deep until you get it right.

Rinse and Repeat ... Over and Over
Mastering an art takes time and dedication. But if you constantly move your brain through these steps, hopefully you'll not get discouraged and stay inspired to push your creative brain one step further down the road.

My Slide Journey
I've always wanted to play slide well enough to allow me to hop onstage with some of my friends and at the very least keep up ... or maybe even begin to speak this musical language. I decided to start intensely practicing slide and, for the sake of this lesson, I'll take you through how I started.

First, let's learn how to hold a slide and what type of slide to choose. There are a few different types of slides: glass, brass, chrome, and the Coricidin (pill bottle) slide. I love the warmth of a thicker glass slide myself, but it's a personal preference. All of them are good for different things. Experiment and figure out what works best for you.

You typically want your slide to rest right above your first knuckle. Like Duane Allman and Derek Trucks, I like to wear my slide on my ring finger because it allows me to play chords and other notes, while offering strength and precision. Many slide players, including Sonny Landreth and Ry Cooder, wear the slide on their pinky. Bonnie Raitt wears her slide on her middle finger. Which simply proves that, once again, you'll need to experiment.

Keep the slide parallel to the frets—this is essential to developing better intonation. Also, you'll play each note with the slide directly over the fret, not behind it. Use the fleshy part of the fingers behind the slide to mute any excess string noise. Finding the right amount of pressure depends on your guitar, how heavy your strings are, and the material your slide is made of. The key of getting good pressure up and down the neck is keeping your thumb straight on the back of the neck. It'll help you get the right pressure while keeping your slide straight and in tune. In Clip 1 you can hear what this experimentation process sounds like.

Listen, Listen, Listen
When I want to get inspired, I listen to Derek Trucks. He has a way of playing slide that can make you cry. It's how he approaches his notes, the way he phrases melodically, and the fact that his playing has such a vocal quality. Anytime I want to get fired up in general, let alone for playing slide, I listen to Derek. Specifically, the solo for “This Sky" is truly special. Take a minute and listen.

YouTube It

I also love watching my buddy Robert Randolph play. He has a soul in his playing that never ceases to amaze me—it makes me want to pick up my guitar and get practicing. The list of great slide players is endless. One of the most emulated slide players in the world is Duane Allman. He paved the way for a lot of incredible slide players today, and his music led me to Warren Haynes, Sonny Landreth, and Mick Taylor. Listen to them all and find new favorites. Look for that thing that makes you need to grab your guitar.

Small Steps
The biggest difference for me between regular playing and slide is perspective. With slide you think of melodies in more horizontal terms. In Clip 2, you'll hear me exploring a simple blues lick that helped me break away from the vertical ideas I'd developed.

I want to share a few exercises I came up with while I was breaking down how to play slide. First, I'd recommend playing with a tuner. Any chromatic tuner will work. Start on your 1st string and play every single note up the neck starting at the 1st fret. Watch the tuner as you go up the neck and work on each note until you're perfectly in tune.

Next, lift your slide after you play a note and try to go right back to that same note without making any extraneous noise. Once you hit the note, you can add a little vibrato to each chord tone to develop that singing sound. In Clip 3, you can hear me working through this exercise.

Let's practice going up and down the neck while playing an open string between each slide note (Clip 4). Again, try to eliminate all string noise when taking the slide on and off the neck. Make sure you keep a finger resting behind your slide in this exercise—it's going to help you avoid that extraneous string noise.

To refine your new horizontal perspective of the guitar, try practice playing scales up and down one string while sliding between the notes. For example, play a note with the slide, then slide up to the next note in the scale. Then lift off your slide and move to the next note in the scale and repeat (Clip 5). In Clip 6, you can hear a variation where I skip a note between sliding up and down.

Finally, don't sleep on open tunings—they can open up a world of possibilities. In short, when you put your guitar in an open tuning and strum all six strings at a particular fret, you get an entire chord. The most common slide tunings are open G (D–G–D–G–B–D) and open E (E–B–E–G#–B–E). Both Derek Trucks and Duane Allman favored open E, and many Delta blues players are open G aficionados.

It's Song Time
I will say that learning a full song on slide can be an undertaking, but if you're looking for some good options, here are a few suggestions. Sometimes it's just learning the slide solo of a song, but playing even a full solo will give you motivation that your practice is paying off. Here's a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite slide jams.

Now Get to Work
If you decide to take on something new, send me a message to let me know how you're doing. This repetitive process will hopefully never stop in your whole guitar career. As one of my favorite promoters in the business, Mr. Ron Sakamoto, would tell me, “Inch by inch it's a cinch, yard by yard is really hard." Don't let the loftiness of a dream of yours stop you from doing it. Break it down into steps and go after what intrigues your mind. You just might surprise yourself.

Until next time . . .

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