Slide Guitar
General Techniques and Tips

by Rick Payne
Acoustic Groove Warrior
Dec. 2, 2000

About the Author

What to use for a Slide
There have been many objects used to achieve the slide sound.  Knives, bottle necks, tubes of all kinds of metals and glass, spark plug sockets, lighters, stone, marble, plastic ... anything!  At sometime or other I've used them all but to keep things simple and effective, I use a real bottle neck or metal tube, cut long enough to be slightly longer than the pinkie.

Glass or metal
Glass is great for smooth, long sustain - Paris Texas type stuff.  The heavier glass the better.  Avoid manufactured glass slides as they tend to lack sustain and brightness - use real bottle glass.  Ry Cooder is said to use a Fighting Cock Kentucky Bourbon bottle!

Metal is good for more attack, especially electric.  Experiment with heavy or light metal - both produce different sounds.  Think Muddy Waters, light. Lowell George( Little Feat ) heavy.

For both glass and metal, think:

Which Finger
This is a personal choice, as with most aspects of slide playing.  Many well known players have used different combinations.  I've always found the slide best suited to the pinkie.  This allows me more opportunity to finger chords, and play regular fretted notes as well as play the slide.  Anyway, if it's good enough for Robert Johnson or Ry Cooder it's good enough for me. 

How to stop all that scratching and buzzing
Sometimes the extraneous noises can be used to great effect - listen to Blind Willie Johnson. For the purpose of improving technique, try and play cleanly and smoothly.  When you release the fingers behind the slide - notice
the difference.

What about guitars?
Acoustic or electric, who cares. I like the rootsy flavor of an acoustic for instant feel. My favorites are small bodied acoustics and resonators. I love all those junk shop guitars with bowed necks and impossible action.  Check them out.  Slide players can pick up some real winners.  In fact all the exercises were recorded with an old, small body Hofner, that I found in Denmark for 20 pounds.

For electric players, the fenders have great natural sustain.  Check out that early Ry Cooder sound.  With added compression, like the old purple pecker, or rack effects, the slide sounds great. On his later albums, Ry used the pick up from an old lap steel, for that real slide sound and sustain. The trick is don't be afraid to experiment.

This is a crucial aspect of slide playing. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Think of the slide ( bottleneck, or whatever you decide to use ) as a moving fret which by careful handling will maintain the pitch of the note you are trying to play.  If you are new to slide playing you will fast realize how difficult this is.  Vibrato with the slide means you play a compromise between an in and out of tune note - somewhere in the middle is the correct pitch.  To keep good pitch, keep the slide at right angles to the fret at all times.

A violinist uses the same effect on the fretboard ( fretless of course ) to maintain steady pitch.  Witness the intense movement of the fingers as they ensure the right notes are achieved.  This is especially so for the slide, when reaching the end of a phrase or riff, as the final note sounds dull or sharp or flat unless vibrato is used

There are many different styles of vibrato. Listen to the intense movement of the slide on Blind Willie Johnson's - "Dark Was The Night", or the almost non existent vibrato on Tampa Red's "Denver Blues". This leads me to my next main point.

  1. Vibrato gives your slide playing a personal touch which can reflect the intensity of your mood or your feeling for the blues.  Once you feel comfortable with the slide, experiment with different amounts of vibrato - light or heavy. Listen to as many players as you can and gauge the amount used which distinguishes their playing.  The slide can be held tight against a finger to produce a very controlled movement or loose for a more carefree result.

Careful though, as they tend to fly off your finger!

I've noticed that some players use lack of vibrato to produce quarter tones, which are carefully placed, and give an eerie effect against the proper pitched note. Once again, listen to Blind Willie Johnson or Ry Cooder (Vigilante Man ) to hear these notes.

About the Author

Rick Payne is associated with the Acoustic Groove Warrior