(photo by Stephanie Pruneau)
Over the last couple of years, a number of avid guitarists (young and old) have asked me for advice on learning how to play slide guitar. The initial inspiration to finally create this page came about when my guitar playing son Christopher Sleightholm and a guitarist I've come to be acquainted with through YouTube (nutmegger1957) had asked me for some pointers. This page is dedicated to both of these fine and talented gents as well as my musical wife Janice Wyatt who supports me in my crazy musical world. It took many hours to extract this info from my little brain and I wish to state this is strictly my interpretation and experience and it is not meant to be a complete treatise on the subject of playing slide guitar, also known as "bottleneck". By no means do I consider myself an expert in this style of guitar playing, so I am quite humbled at my being asked for some direction on this topic. Like you, I’m always learning. But I’m hoping that these notes, in addition to all the other instructional resources available on the Internet, will be useful to anyone who is intent on learning this method of playing. If you are interested in the history of slide, my knowledge is sketchy, but some browser searches will quickly land you on the laps of many interesting sites.
I hope to help with your learning because slide guitar can seem like such an alien creature at the beginning. It's certainly like learning to play guitar all over again, but only in a different way. The arms, hands and fingers are used somewhat differently, but with some similarities, as you will find in your own learning process. There was no one around to teach me these techniques, so I stubbornly stepped forth to learn whatever I could, where ever and however I could. I am slow learner, but am stubborn to learn things I like. If I can learn to play bottleneck, any other stubborn guitarist can also.
Why is it also called “bottleneck”? Because some of the first slides were literally the sawed off necks from glass bottles. In those early days when the style of slide blues guitar was forged by our blues predecessors, they couldn’t just wander into a local musical instrument shop and buy a tubular slide. They had to use their inginuity and make slides themselves.
This page does not address chords and finger placements for alternate tunings. There is already plenty of available info on the Internet to instruct you in this. My main intent is to help you with the basics for learning to comfortably handle a slide. You will learn much in the way of finger placements simply by practice and experimentation. If you know basic chords on a keyboard it is helpful to sit with your guitar at the keys to help you find the basic chords "by ear". Major and minor formations are always the most basic and you will find various patterns of these that repeat up and down the neck. Don't let any of this freak you out. Just sit down, make some noise and have some fun. You will be amazed at what you can discover on your own.
MY OWN PARTICULAR SLIDE JOURNEY
To be totally honest I never used to even like the sound of slide guitar all that much until my friend Terry Goodlad introduced me to Ry Cooder's music in the later 80's. By that time I'd already been playing guitar for over 20 years. I listened and noticed that Ry seemed to take what the old blues players did and expand on it, taking it to new, interesting heights that definitely grabbed me by the ears and caught my attention. He uses slide on both electric and acoustic guitar. I particularly like the way he uses a thick glass slide on his little finger, leaving his remaining fingers free to fret other single notes and chords. After coming to appreciate his bottleneck style I came to appreciate all the old, black blues slide players that developed the technique for generations of guitar players and blues lovers to enjoy.
Nowadays there are many resources out there for learning slide. Many of those are available on the Internet. However, in later 1980’s, not having the Internet (and not having anyone to teach me the technique of playing slide guitar first hand), I went hunting for books. I stumbled upon a book by the talented, veteran guitarist and teacher Stefan Grossman. It came with a little floppy 33rpm record with a treasure chest of old recorded gems from some of the black blues artists of the early and mid 1900's. His book, complete with pictures, gave very clear instruction on the basics. And along with the floppy record I was able to begin understanding and learning. Not without making a lot of disagreeable noise at the start, however. Reading about, listening to and practicing slide became an obsession which paid off in time.
About 2 years later, I was fortunate enough to see Ry Cooder perform live in concert at the famous, historic Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver on 2 separate occasions; once with the band Little Village and once as a duo with slide player David Lindley. At the concert with David, I observed closely with binoculars from a balcony. By doing this I was able to put together in my little brain what I was seeing with the sounds I was hearing. And,… you guessed right,… I went home and practiced some more. Every day I practice regular guitar along with some time dedicated to slide. Expert? Not on your life, but I have fun and I enjoy the sounds I’m able to get after years of working with slide. In my early days I was mostly fumbling with it, but gradually the fumbling gave birth to some actual technique. Today it is very rewarding to feel in control (most of the time) of that tubular glass.
TYPES OF MATERIALS USED FOR SLIDES
Today we are fortunate to be able to look over the counters of music stores and choose between glass, steel, brass and ceramic pre-formed slides that are ready to use right out of the package. You don't have to make them anymore, unless you really want to, of course.
Metal slides are obviously heavier and can provide a little more string sustain, depending on the thickness. They have a fairly bright sound. Glass and ceramic on the other hand are lighter in weight and generally sound a little smoother and sweeter, depending on how they are used. Once again, the sustain you're able to get will be dependent on the thickness. What material should you use? You will find your own preference. Personally, I like glass, since I have become accustomed to it and prefer the sound and light weight. I always keep a spare around in case I drop my main one and break it. Both are kept in little cloth, tubular pouches that either my mother Marianne Wyatt or my friend Kasandra Fox sewed for me (I forget who). The cloth protects them from breakage and getting scratched. OK,… I am a little anal.
WHICH FINGER TO USE AND HOW TO HOLD A SLIDE STEADY
The slide can be worn on any finger you chose. I've seen people use slide on just about every finger. My personal choice is the little finger because of how it frees up the 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers in consecutive order for playing fretted notes along with, as well as in between slide notes. Plus I like to use my thumb for occasional fretting on the 6th (i.e. E) string (which some traditional guitar teachers would slap my hands for doing). But whichever finger you are most comfortable with for slide, your remaining fingers can be used for fretting. I recently watched Jim Houston performing in North Vancouver and he used a heavy brass slide on his index finger, while very comfortably fretting with his remaining 1st, 3rd and 4th fingers.
Prior to seeing Cooder in concert I was of the false impression that a slide MUST fit SNUGLY on my finger of choice. So I asked my friend (and fellow guitarist) Mark Statchuk to fashion some snug fitting slides for me from narrow glass tubing that is used in dairy plants. He cut them to length and carefully smoothed off the edges to prevent cuts. These were great for helping me learn the technique. Much of my earliest slide playing was done with these. They were comfortable and worked OK but the glass wasn't thick enough to provide nice sustain. It was an eye opener when through my binoculars I saw Ry Cooder using a large glass slide on his little finger; large enough that it could flop around and fall off. But he had it well under control and was getting some very rich sustain. I saw how he just gripped it lightly in place by "pinching" at the "crotch" of his little finger and ring finger. Well if that's good enough for Ry Cooder, who was I to argue, since I was still very much a novice. Shortly after I purchased a larger, thick glass side from Long & McQuade and started working with it and achieving better results. It didn't take long to become accustomed to gripping it the way I saw him do it. But regardless of what I like, if you prefer a slide that will fit snug, go for it. You can find them.
2 COMMON METHODS OF HOLDING A GUITAR FOR SLIDE
As you know, slide can be played by holding the guitar on your lap in a seated position, or by holding it upright as in regular guitar playing position. David Lindley is a prime example of the former and Ry Cooder is of the later school. Often lap style uses a solid chrome plated steel bar like what is used for playing pedal steel. I prefer playing in the upright, as it gives me the flexibility I want to also finger chords and single notes along with my use of slide. It just feels more comfortable to me and I'm more in control. Through trial and error you will discover your own preference. You may even adopt both styles.
SLIDE PRESSURE ON STRINGS
Light touch is so important. Use just enough pressure of the slide on the strings to get the notes to sound, but not so little that you only get scraping and buzzing sounds. But on the other hand, you don’t need to press really hard so that you’re forcing the strings all the way down to the fret. That will defeat the purpose of slide. You’ll find it’s a knack. You don’t have to press hard. Just enough to get relatively clean sounding notes. But in this regard you don’t need to be an absolute perfectionist either. The odd little string buzz and fret "click" here and there are part of the character of slide,… especially evident when playing slide on acoustic guitar.
STRING ACTION (STRING HEIGHT FROM FRETS)
If your strings are so low that you find it is impossible to use a slide without fretting the notes, you may need to set a slightly higher action on your strings to prevent too much unnecessary fret buzzing. It took me a while to find a compromise,… i.e. high enough to play fairly clean sounding slide yet low enough to still be able to comfortably play up and down the neck without slide. Raising the action at the bridge on most acoustic guitars is not that difficult. I raised mine on my Martin with a couple cut pieces of a greeting card under the bone at the bridge. Using heavier gauge strings can certainly assist with this as well. Light gauge can certainly give you problems with fret buzzing because of the lack of needed resistance counteracting the pressure of the slide. I'll discuss this further down the page. If you simply prefer to learn to play straight slide without fretting any notes with your free fingers, you'll find that raising your action could be desirable, although you may need to do this at the nut as well as at the bridge. But just remember that if you do that to a guitar, it's just good for slide and not regular playing anymore. With you're guitar set up this way you can use more slide pressure on the strings because there's less chance of you pressing down to the frets. If you're uncomfortable with undertaking any of these minor guitar modifications, a guitar tech at your local music store could do it quite painlessly and inexpensively. Perhaps even while you're browsing, looking at all the new "toys" they received since you were there last.
String damping is quite simply the deadening of strings to keep them from unwanted ringing. Although having strings ring is desired at times (especially when using open tunings), string damping is also desirable for mood, dynamics and clean sounding playing. This topic falls into a few categories. Below are the damping methods I like to use:
#1) Damping using the free fingers on your slide hand
#2) Damping using the palm edge of your slide hand
#3) Damping using the heel or palm edge of your picking hand
#4) Damping using the fingers of your picking hand
The most basic and most important damping method that I suggest you learn right from the beginning with slide is #1 above. The other's (and adaptations thereof) you will pick up as time goes on. Plus you may develop some of your own methods. Chances are you may already be using some damping techniques with your picking hand in your regular guitar playing.
The importance of damping method #1 needs a little explanation. When you hold the slide against the strings and strum (or pick) you not only get the strings vibrating between the slide and the bridge,... you also get "sympathetic" vibrations occurring between the slide and the nut. This can be a little noisy and aggravating because these 2 opposing groups of notes are rarely the same pitch (except if your slide is dead center between the bridge and nut. When playing electric slide through an amp you normally won't notice this but on acoustic guitar you certainly will. If you are using your slide on either your 2nd, 3rd or pinky finger, you can easily "mask" or dampen the strings from vibrating between the slide and nut by keeping your free "slide hand" fingers (or finger) between the slide and nut very lightly on the strings to prevent them from ringing. This was tricky for me to get. I was either pressing too hard or not at all. It's a feel and a knack you'll catch onto with practice. This was another issue I discovered which was partially solved by using at least a medium gauge of string. Before long this damping method will feel natural and you won't have to even think about it. You'll just automatically do it. Remember how easy it is to ride a bike now compared to when you first got on one?
Sometimes you will want the strings to ring unrestricted and sometimes you won't. This is why it's good to learn damping control. Effectively damping unwanted strings from ringing can make your playing sound very clean and sometimes percussive, like violin pizzicato. With slide you can do hammer-ons, pull-offs or even quick arpeggios ending on a final ringing note with vibrato. Or even simply play a grace note ending on a note with vibrato. The combinations and possibilities are endless. Listen to and watch some YouTube videos of Sonny Landreth and Ry Cooder to get the drift of what I mean. It may be dificult to actually see these damping techniques (and some of the other techniques I mentioned), but you can certainly hear them in action. Especially on their single note playing. If they didn't use damping you'd hear many unwanted notes sounding simultaneously. Any phenominal slide player will use a combination of various damping tricks. Here's a very good link by California guitarist and guitar teacher David Lamar in which he explains string damping for slide further...
a few tips on damping for slide guitar.
SLIDE ACCURACY (INTONATION)
Obviously placing fingers between the frets give guitar players a precise note. With slide you need to be a little more careful so your playing is in tune. this will prevent your drummer from throwing his sticks at you during your big slide solo. Unlike regular playing, your slide needs to be positioned directly over top of your frets when sounding notes so your intonation is on pitch and therefore listener friendly. Of course you will move between the frets when you slide up to or down to a note or chord, but always end up over a fret when “landing” on a note or chord.
Learning slide vibrato was one of the most frustrating techniques for me to accomplish. My whole body would tense and my arm, wrist and shoulder would just lock up. Then one night I got a little tipsy on red wine while I was practicing and I noticed I was finally starting to get it. The 2nd coffee mug full of merlot (what a classy guy) relaxed me enough to realize that to create slide vibrato it was necessary to RELAX,... not tense up. This was major for me. I spent the next 2 hours just practicing vibrato so that my body parts could get used to and remember how it felt to do this technique. I went to bed that night feeling like I had conquered Everest. When I got up in the morning, the first thing I did was grab my acoustic guitar and slide and do a vibrato. YES…I could still do it. My body remembered how to do it and alcohol was not necessary. COOL !!! The wine was only a vehicle the night before to help me to learn the lesson. The body itself (irrespective of the brain only) has it’s own “memory”. When it’s done something often enough it takes over and can do what the conscious mind doesn’t necessarily remember specifically how to do on it's own.
No…I’m not suggesting you get plastered and play slide. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone being hung over or falling off their 12-step wagon. Don't drink and slide. Yah that was bad, I know. I’m just trying to make a point… RELAX. You’ll be surprised what you can finally do.
The motion for creating vibrato is sideways, back and forth, over top of the fret. It's not really a wrist motion so much. At least it isn't for me. The forearm and hand move back and forth with the elbow acting as a kind of pivot point along with the thumb slightly holding a steady position on the back of the neck. That's the simplest way I can describe it. And it can be done slow or fast and applied to chords or single notes. The slide giants Sonny Landreth and Ry Cooder have some of the sweetest slide vibrato I’ve ever heard. Give them a listen. You’ll find plenty of live footage for both of them on YouTube.
I’m a fuss bucket where this is concerned. If you’re used to using light gauge strings you might want to consider moving up to medium gauge on both acoustic and electric. I prefer medium gauge on my electric and acoustic guitars for all my playing,…with or without slide. If you are used to light gauge it won’t take long to adjust to getting your fingers stronger to use medium gauge. Plus they stay in tune better and have a richer, bigger tone. Where slide is concerned, medium gauge will give you more of the desired tension and resistance against the slide, making it easier to hit accurate, full notes without contacting the frets below. If you're a real monster you might even move to heavy gauge. I'm too wimpy for that, though.
COMMON TUNINGS FOR PLAYING SLIDE
Slide tunings can be as many as your imagination will allow you to discover. Below are some of the more common ones. The ones with the plus signs (++) beside them are the tunings I prefer for acoustic guitar. Whereas the ones with the minus signs (- -) are the tunings I prefer for electric.
Open-D (DADF#AD) ++
Open-E (EBEG#BE) - - [This is probably the most commonly used open slide tuning]
Open-G (DGDGBD) ++
Open-A (EAEAC#E) - -
Standard Tuning (EADGBE) ++ & - -
Open-D and Open-E have a direct relationship in that the intervals between the tuning of the strings are identical. The only difference is that with Open-D all the strings are tuned a whole step (2 frets) lower than Open-E. Between these 2 tunings, I normally use Open-D on acoustic guitar because it’s less strain on the strings, giving them a longer life. The cool thing is that when you are in Open-D you can capo 2 frets up from the nut to get Open-E anyway. The deep sound of the open strings of the Open-D tuning I find very appealing and bluesy. And of course you can capo at any desirable fret to get your open strings to any key. Many well known slide players use capos, so you don't have to think you're cheating.
Similarly, there is also a direct relationship between Open-G and Open-A in that the intervals between the tuning of the strings are also identical. The only difference is that with Open-G all the strings are tuned a whole step (2 frets) lower than Open-A. Between those 2 tunings, I normally use Open-G on acoustic guitar because it’s also less strain on the strings. And when you are in Open-G you can capo 2 frets up from the nut to get Open-A anyway. And of course you can capo at any desirable fret to get your open strings to any key.
I also like to play slide in Drop-D tuning (DADGBE) for acoustic and electric guitar. It’s quite simply standard tuning with your low pitched E string tuned down a whole step (2 frets) to D. It hasn't been until just recently that I started playing around more with slide in standard tuning.
PICKS, FINGERS OR BOTH
If you don’t already use the individual fingers of your picking hand (with or without finger picks) to pluck the strings, it’s rather a good time to start exploring that too, as it will certainly expand the possibilities available to you for playing slide. David Lindley uses thumb and finger picks. Ry Cooder uses his bare thumb and fingers. I sometimes use bare thumb and fingers or a combination of flat pick and bare fingers. But if you're not used to, or don't wish to play with individual plucking fingers, just strum full chords across all the strings (with or without a pick) and practice sliding up and down to various fret positions on the neck. This, I found was a good way to just get started in a simple way.
Perhaps I’ve blathered on a bit too much, and made it sound confusing. If you feel that way, I apologize. But just remember this:
BEFORE YOU THINK YOU SHOULD GET HEAVIER STRINGS AND DO GUITAR MODIFICATIONS OR BUY A NEW GUITAR JUST FOR SLDIE... just put a slide on a finger and make some noise. If you give yourself time to experiment you may even find you don't need to do any modifications at all. Have fun getting your feet wet and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are good. That's how we measure our progress. Sometimes "mistakes" can lead us to accidental discoveries. Incidentally, some of my favorite riffs I discovered "accidentally". Your beginning attempts at playing with slide probably won't sound too pleasing to you or anyone else within ear shot. So just be patient. Your friends and family should just be grateful you're not playing the bagpipes. And don’t forget to listen to the old blues recordings of slide players like Robert Johnson, Blind Blake (yes he did some slide work too), Memphis Minnie, Elmore James, Bukka White, Son House, Tampa Red,… there are many others. Also listen to the more recent amazing slide players which include Duane Allman, Sonny Landreth, Ry Cooder, Derek Trucks, Leo Kottke, Jeff Beck, Colin James, Johnny Winter, Bonnie Raitt, George Harrison and many more. You’ll hear differing styles, tunings and techniques from these awesome players, past and present. There are plenty of amazing videos on the internet which showcase phenomenal slide playing. Listen, watch and try to do what you see and hear. That way you’ll be inspired by and learning from the best in the world, past and present. Start simple though. And remember,... you won't learn to play slide by just reading,... you'll learn it by doing. Reading is useful though to understand the head theory of the concept.
If nothing else, my wish is that from what I’ve presented here you will be inspired to discover and follow your own path in learning this cool technique of playing guitar.
Below are some YouTube videos of me playing slide in a few tunes. These videos are also on my YouTube Videos page on this site. In "Roll and Tumble", "Whistle in the Dark" and "Slip-n-Slide" I use Open-D tuning, whereas in "Weight On My Mind" I use Drop-D. These are not flawless performances but they may be of help to you. In the near future (as time permits) I may add some instructional photos and short videos to help explain some of the concepts described above. Thanks very much for your interest, now go to your room and practice !!!
;-) I'll be doing the same.
ROLL AND TUMBLE - Live
at Rossini's Jazz Club, Vancouver April 21,
WHISTLE IN THE DARK - Live at the Vancouver Rowing Club November 27, 2009
WEIGHT ON MY MIND
BELOW IS A PLAYLIST OF SOME OF MY SONGS WHICH INCORPORATE THE USE OF SIDE GUITAR.