How to Play Slide Guitar (5 Tips!)

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.

In truth, it’s one of those skills that are 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 optimized 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).

4. Keep it Clean

Ok, so you want the cleanest, purest 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.

5. Finger Pickin’ Good

Whilst you can play slide guitar using a pick, most players will use some form of fingerpicking 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 fingerpicking 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.

There it is then, my top 5 tips on how to play slide guitar. I hope this has given you a good head start!