The Magic of Slide Guitar | Midwood Guitar Studio
Posted by Robinson Earle on Aug 1st 2020
When folks who are used to fretting attempt slide guitar, it’s like trying to run on ice-skates. You suddenly realize that there are whole oceans between the notes. As western musicians, we tend to base our musical understanding on the 12-tone, chromatic scale, but a guitar is not a piano, and it can cover more hidden ground. Not only can we bend the strings, we can slide in between them, too. Here are some pointers and insights for those few who will choose to dedicate themselves to the bottleneck slide.
Pick A Tuning. It could be Open E Major (E, B, E, G#, B, E), Open D Major (D, A, D, F#, A, D), Open G Major (D, G, D, G, B, D), Open C Major (C, G, C, G, C, E), or even standard. It could also be an open Minor tuning (just flat the 3rd), or a Sus4 tuning (DADGAD). The important thing is committing yourself to one fully, because within each there will be a whole new universe to explore. If you choose standard, just bear in mind that you will have to do a lot more dampening with both hands to mitigate the sympathetic ringing of the strings adjacent to the one(s) you’re sliding on.
I suggest an open tuning. They offer more possibilities for droning notes, which will not only make your playing sound fuller, but will help you locate the right pitch with your slide by offering reference tones. I prefer Open C. This tuning is arranged I, V, I, V, I, III, meaning you have the Major third of the C Major scale on the first string. This is convenient melodically because it is the highest pitched string, and a very intuitive distance from the tonic (one of the first intervals we learn in grade-school is the Major Third: “O, when THE saints”). Having the first string located at the edge of the fretboard is also convenient ergonomically, Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Open C seems to be the tuning that most guitars with a standard setup take to most readily. From standard tuning, the lower three strings go down, and the higher strings go up or stay the same. This gives you deep bass and clear treble. Most players who pursue this, or any, open tuning do increase string gauges and raise the action of their guitars, however. It’s extremely helpful to have a dedicated “slide guitar”.
Start At The Beginning: For anyone who’s been playing for a while, it may seem elementary to start with basic major scales, but trust me, it’s a whole new world. I suggest a vertical, then horizontal approach, meaning, play the scale from the sixth string to the first string in the first position (between the first three frets), and then continue it up the fretboard on the first string to the highest tonic you can reach. After mastering this, try varying the strings on which you play the different scale degrees. Each version of the note has its own qualities, timbres, and virtues. Play a note on an open string, play it on a treble string, play it on a bass string, slide up to it, slide down to it, and it will sound different each time. After you’ve grown tired of the Major scale, try another diatonic scale, or even a pentatonic. If you’re primarily going to be playing blues music, make sure you practice both Major and Minor pentatonic, try combining them, and don’t forget to throw in that blue note (#4/b5)!
Learn To Wield The Slide: Whereas one must apply quite a bit of pressure to properly fret a string, the slide requires the opposite approach. You must be able to exert as little force as possible, so that the slide balances atop the string. Try hovering right above the fret, then a little bridge-side and/or nut-side of the fret. Once you start listening deeply, you’ll notice that slight variations on a single note can sound sweeter or more plaintive. Go easy on the vibrato, and when you use it, use it with a specific intention in mind. The constant back and forth shaking that some players employ is often just a mask for poor intonation. The back and forth motion has its place, but a refined, circular motion is best. Remember the “Karate Kid”? Wax on, wax off. . .paint the fence. . .sand the floor. Navigate the exact desired pitch and all the sympathetic strings will hum along in approval.
If the slide is placed on the pinky (which I prefer and recommend), then the sliding hand should assume two main poses. The first pose is a sort of mole claw shape, with the ring and middle fingers resting atop the index and pinky fingers. The tip of the index finger should be close to the tip of the slide, forming a triangle. This pose focuses your whole hand on the movement of the tip of the slide and allows for maximum precision. The index finger should drag behind the slide, dampening accordingly.
The other main pose for the slide hand is completely flat, which should be used when playing chords, or more that two strings at a time. This flat, relaxed quality lets you dampen and stabilize with your whole hand, resulting in a minimum of mechanical noise. This hand position is also essential if you want to fret behind the slide.
You Must Train The Picking Hand, Too. The picking hand is just as essential for clean slide playing. Attack the strings too hard and the slide will tumble like a tight-rope walker in a thunderstorm. Depending on the desired timbre, you can use nails, flesh, or plectrum(s), but whichever you choose, make sure your attack is gentle and in harmony with the slide.
For maximum control, learn to rest your fingers atop the strings that aren’t being sounded. I play with my fingers, so I practice keeping my thumb stationed between the sixth and fifth strings, with my index on the fourth, my middle on the third, my ring on the second, and my pinky on the first. I then imagine that all but one of my fingers is glued to its string, and move through them individually. This cultivates digital autonomy and allows you to isolate specific notes with ease. Slide playing can be very noisy and cranky sounding if you don’t work at it.
Listen and Emulate. As a slide player, and musician in general, your ears are your greatest assets. Listening to other bottleneck players is, of course, a good place to start. Blind Willie Johnson, Kokomo Arnold, Robert Johnson, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, and Derek Trucks should all be studied.
Furthermore, other instruments that by their nature glide in between notes deserve the utmost attention. Try to play saxophone, trumpet, cello, and fiddle melodies. The human voice, especially, is worth emulating in its expressiveness.
Finally, step out of the 12-tone system and start listening to microtonal music from around the world, specifically Indian classical music. Where we have a seven note, diatonic scale, Indian classical has 22 “shruti” as a subset within them. These notes in between the notes are used to elicit different emotions, moods, and sonic hues.
Work Hard And Mindfully. The bottleneck slide is a portal into other dimensions, but the freedom it promises requires great discipline. Make it a practice. Turn it into a meditation. The hard work will pay off exponentially in time.