Here, I’m going to share my top 5 tips on how to play slide guitar and introduce you to some awesome lessons if you want to get started with this great art.
There is something really evocative about slide guitar isn’t there? It’s got a whole new sound (of course!), and is usually synonymous with country playing or the blues – but some folks take it to a whole new level – read on…I’ve got a real treat for y’all near the end of this article!
The best slide guitar players make it look and sound so effortless and get such great sounds don’t they? For example, here is Ballad Of Curtis Loew by Lynyrd Skynyrd:-
How cool would it be to play this – you can – read on!
In truth, it’s one of those skills that is hard to master but relatively straightforward to play at a beginner level – my tips below will help you get the basics of slide guitar techniques but cannot possibly substitute for a series of lessons that will show you how to learn some of these songs and licks.
Tip 1 – Different Slides for Different Folks
A slide can take two basic forms:
- A block or bar of material held with the hand over the top. This form of slide is used mainly by those who play with the guitar lying flat, strings up either in the lap (lap steel) or on a strap. Typically, players of this style will use a steel guitar slide;
- A hollow tube placed on a finger (typically ring or pinky, but some players use the index or middle finger as well). This type of slide is often referred to as bottleneck as that is what folks used “back in the day”. Of course, glass slide guitar players now use glass slides actually made for the purpose! This form of slide is the one most commonly used by guitarists that play with the guitar held in the more traditional way or on a strap against the stomach/chest.
Slides are made of varying materials which will all change the characteristic tone and sustain of the sound.
Typical materials include: steel, brass, glass and more recently, carbon fiber although many companies have produced the hollow style (bottleneck) slide with different materials inside and out in order to provide a more porous material on the inside for ease of use.
Tip 2 – Your Guitar
A slide guitar set up will have the strings lifted away from the fretboard – which is not what most (non)-slide guitar players will want – in fact, they usually want the strings as close as possible (without buzzing)!
If you want to have a specific instrument with a slide guitar set up, then that’s great. If not, you will need to make some compromises.
Two major factors:
- You need to avoid pressing too hard with the slide as if the strings touch the frets, you are no longer playing pure slide guitar. This means it is more difficult (but still do-able with practice – see my special treat later on!) to play slide on a guitar that has been set up with a low action;
- Most slide guitar is played with the guitar tuned to an open major chord (most frequently, E, G, D, A and some other variations like DADGAD). This may put strain on the neck of your guitar that may take time to re-settle once tuned back to standard.
E major is therefore the best tuning to use for experimenting with slide playing as it only means tuning the G string up one semi-tone to G#, is an easy re-tune and won’t put any real strain on your guitar.
Bad To the Bone by George Thorogood – another great example of slide playing, with overdriven sound and some open strings used as well:-
Now, that rocks doesn’t it? You can play this, it’s not actually too difficult when you know how and I’ll show you where you can learn this…
Tip 3 – Keep it Straight and True
Two golden rules when using the slide/bottleneck:
- Make sure the slide is held parallel to the frets (straight across the guitar, at right-angles to the strings). This will give you the best tuning as you move the slide up and down the neck of the guitar. (Before folks chime in saying X,Y&Z players sometimes use the slide on a diagonal and so on – yes they do, but that’s for specific reasons and for advanced slide players);
- As you lay the slide across the strings of your guitar, it may not contact all strings at the same time because most guitars have curved fretboards and the strings follow that curve. This means that you may need to “roll” the slide slightly depending on the strings you want to play or press a little harder or a combination of the two. (That is why players that use a lot of slide guitar will have an instrument with an optimised slide guitar set up with a flatter fretboard or set up specifically with the strings flat at the nut and bridge with a higher action (more distance between fretboard and strings).)
Tip 4 – Keep it Clean
Ok, so you want the cleanest, purist sound possible from the slide – that is, the string tone between the slide itself and the bridge of your guitar.
One thing that isn’t necessarily obvious, is that the portion of string between the slide and the nut of the guitar will also “ring out” and actually cause an unpleasant sound to leak through.
It is important therefore to “mute” the strings behind the slide – that is, the portion of string between the slide and the nut.
You achieve this by resting your index finger (or index and middle finger) on the strings behind the slide to prevent them from ringing out. (this is why the large majority of players do not use the index finger for the bottleneck-style slide).
Lap players will actually use the side of the hand or ring and pinky fingers for muting as they are holding the slide differently.
Here is another great example of slide playing, this time from the great Ry Cooder and his version of Bad Feelin’ Blues:
Just makes you want to play the slide doesn’t it?
Tip 5 – Finger Pickin’ Good
Whilst you can play slide guitar using a pick, most players will use some form of finger picking to get the more authentic slide sounds.
Ideally, you need to be able to pick 2, 3 and 4 strings simultaneously, pick individual strings in rhythmic and differing sequences and ideally, with differing intensities and attacks to really coax expressive sounds from the guitar.
Getting some finger picking skills is great even if you don’t end up majoring on slide guitar as it gives some fantastic options for picking whilst using fretted notes and chords as well.
Final Words and Your Important Next Step
My top 5 tips above will make starting the slide guitar a great deal easier and will ease the learning curve a little as well as help you to understand the basics.
The songs I have showcased above are all playable by a beginner within a few days of practice –honestly! I know, I’ve done it!
And, I did it because of a set of slide guitar lessons from the very cool, the very laid back Kenny Mann who is a great guitar player in his own right.
For less than half the cost of a 1-hour private guitar lesson, you will get all you will ever need to start playing slide guitar – properly. You will also be able to play all the songs above at a basic level…
Zero risk – there is a money back promise as well, so you can try with no financial rrisk whatsoever – what have you got to lose?
It’ll be worth it just to pull out a few cool slide riffs and licks! It’s amazing how many jaws hit the floor when you do…Many folks think there’s a dark art behind slide playing – let Kenny show you how straightforward it really can be…
Check out the slide guitar lessons at Beginner Slide Guitar.
Oh and that treat?
I’m not going to pretend to you that you’ll be able to play this after Kenny’s lessons, you’ll need to put more work in to play like this guy.
But, it’s an example of what slide playing can be from the hugely under-appreciated, phenomenally talented, hard rockin’…
Ian Thornley (of Big Wreck) – who, in my opinion, plays better live than in the studio.
May I present to you, Ian Fletcher Thornley – Mississippi Fred (LIVE at the Suhr Factory Party 2014)
Oh, and if you need one, here are Some great guitar slides to get started with.
There it is then, my top 5 tips on how to play slide guitar – any comments? I hope this has given you a good head start and don’t forget to check out
Kenny’s easy to follow, bite size lessons and you’ll be sliding with the best of them!
All the best and keep on rockin’