Slide Guitar for the Novice

I've always been a lover of the Blues and Southern Rock. I remember hearing the Allman Brothers cover of "Statesboro Blues", Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird", ZZ Top's "Just Got Paid" and Elmore James “Dust My Broom” as a teen and falling in love with slide guitar.

So when I started learning to play, I tried to learn slide. I bought this one brand of slide. It was a clear glass tube that fit on my ring finger on my left hand. It was packaged in a red plastic, rectangular, transparent box and inside was a paper circular that explained about something called open tunings and showed how to tune the guitar for different ones. I looked at it for a New York minute and pitched it in the round file. What a dufus I was.

It would be years before I investigated that idea again. I found I couldn't play most of the cool songs that I wanted to except for some of the ZZ Top stuff and Freebird. I read years later that Billy Gibbons and Gary Rossington played slide in standard tuning on a number of songs, so I lucked out.

So, "Standard tuning, open tunings, slides, slide guitar...what is this guy writing about?” inquire some readers. That's the topic for this article. Slide guitar, tricks, needed bits and the tunings, i.e., the open tunings used in the technique.

History aka Why

First, let's make sure we understand open tuning and the idea of tuning for an instrument like a guitar. A guitar is designed to be tuned to what's known as an equal temperament. Equal temperament is defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica's on-line resource as: "Equal temperament, in music, a tuning system in which the octave is divided into 12 semitones of equal size. Because it enables keyboard instruments to play in all keys with minimal flaws in intonation, equal temperament replaced earlier tuning systems that were based on acoustically pure intervals, that is, intervals that occur naturally in the overtone series."

After keyboards, it was employed with stringed instruments, especially those with frets like guitars, mandolins, banjos, bass guitar, etc. All this means in practical terms is that a guitar or other even tempered instrument can play with horns, woodwinds, keys, and so forth and everything sounds like it's in tune.

Some folks with an incredible degree of perfect pitch can hear the micro dissonance and it can drive them batty unless they learn to accommodate it. I had a roommate with this "gift". I thought it was a gift. He wasn't so sure. Anyway, I mention this as it might enter the discussion later depending on how I approach this. Just know that it's important to have one's guitar properly set-up if one is playing in standard tuning and fretting the notes in order to get the best tone.

If one is playing slide, it's not as critical and I suspect that is why so many of the early slide players, especially the folks playing the Blues in places like the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana and Texas learned to play slide. The instruments that they could afford or were required to build themselves, e.g., cigar box guitars (usually three or four stringed instruments), diddly bows (a single string instrument), etc., were not made well enough to have a well ordered, even temperament built into their construction.

Playing a fretted instrument of this quality does not necessarily render toneful results. Additionally, these players were often self-taught and played solely by ear. So someone somewhere developed the idea of using a tubular or quasi-tubular piece of glass or metal as sort of a movable, infinitely position-able fret to sound a pleasing note or notes (think chords) that would work as accompaniment to singing or with other instruments.

Now while one can play with a slide in the guitars standard tuning of E, A, D, G, B, E (low to high strings) as I did for many years, the technique really lends itself to tuning the six strings so that they sound as an open chord when strummed open, i.e., with no strings being fretted. So I keep mentioning this slide and playing with it. Let's get a better understanding about these terms with my favorite word-save, the picture.

Slides 'o' Plenty


The far right illustrates the proper positioning of the slide in relation to the frets. In slide, the only purpose of the fret is to visually cue the slide player as to where they need to land in order to get the note that is needed. The slide should be positioned pretty much right above the fret that would give a fretted note its pitch.

The slide need not always be in perfect alignment as the angling of the slide is used as a technique in certain situations. In truth, the slide player will rely more on their ears than their eyes in not hitting any clams. This photo also illustrates the common materials that slides are constructed from.

Different materials have an impact on the sound of the notes that are produced. As an example, a glass slide tends to produce a warmer sounding note with an attack that tends to bloom more and the ceramic slide also exhibits these tendencies, but more so.

The steel slide has a very bright tone and a rapid attack that is there, in your face, in the moment the note is struck. Brass is similar, but more subdued and copper even more so. The wall thickness also can have an effect. Thinner walled slides tend to sustain the notes to a lesser degree than the thicker walled slides.

Now these descriptions are based on my personal experiences and there might be four other players who disagree with me...sort of the four out of five slide players agree that my assessments are on crack. Hey, I'm just posting what I have learned and it might have to do with my technique overall. Still, I believe that most will have similar experiences.

The one slide photo that looks like the top of a wine bottle...it is the top of a wine bottle. The earlier players made their slides out of whatever was handy and the player who preferred glass over metal would resort to such a method to get a glass slide. I've used these and I liked them as the bottles come in different sizes and I can generally find one that fits my left ring finger well.


The Coricidin cold medicine bottle as a slide was popularized and utilized by the late great Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.


A Custom Fit Trick

Back in the late 60's and early 70's, there was a cough and cold preparation known as Coricidin. It came packaged in a small, round glass bottle with a plastic, snap on lid. Duane utilized an empty, labeless Coricidin bottle as his slide. For years that is what I used as I liked the tone.

In the beginning, I was told that I could heat candle wax so it was just barely hot enough to melt. I was told to then pour it into the bottle to about the 1/2 way point and before it began to harden, to insert my finger in the bottle all the way until my (L) ring finger bottomed out. The excess wax ran over the side, so I was smart enough to put some paper towel under it beforehand.

I left my finger in the bottle for a few minutes and allowed to wax to solidify. I then carefully removed my finger and set the bottle in the refrigerator until the wax set completely. I did this so that the still soft wax would not flow under the force of gravity. What remained was a perfect impression of that finger and I had a custom fit slide that did not move around on my finger when I was fretting notes.

At the time I did this, these old bottles were scarce, but as my day job was/is "Pharmacist", I utilized my professional relationships to scare up a couple of these old bottles. The main reason that I eventually stopped using this kind of slide and the wine bottle slide was because the brass and copper ones have a fairly mellow tone that I like as far as metal slides go and most importantly, brass and copper don't crack or shatter if one accidentally drops one on the hard stage. In spite of the custom fit, my overly sweaty fingers make things slick and gravity takes over.

If one has to have one of these old medicine bottle-style slides, there are now commercial replicas sold that one can use the same custom-fit wax trick with. Here are a couple of examples:


Where to Wear the Slide and My Preferred Playing Style

As to which finger to park the slide on, it's the player's preference. I prefer the (L) ring finger as this allows me the index, middle and pinkie to fret notes if desired while wearing the slide or to use the index and middle fingers of my left hand to mute undesired overtones from the strings behind the slide.

Additionally, I use my palm and non-string picking fingers to mute the strings that I don't want to ring out. I generally play finger-style, but sometimes I'll use a hybrid grip with a flat pick and fingers (think chicken pickin’). Sometimes I wear a thumb pick, playing on the bass strings and play finger style on the treble strings. It depends on the genre of music.


How Does One Learn?

How does one learn to do this? Well, there's YouTube of course and then there are books. Of course once can take private lessons too, but I believe that if one already has the fundamentals of playing guitar down, the slide playing techniques can be self taught with the plethora of resources extant available.

In my case, I used a book written by veteran studio ace Arlen Roth. It's an old book, but it's still available. It came with a sound sheet back in the day (now includes a CD) and I learned a great deal from it. Here's a photo of it with the late bluesman Bukka White on the cover:


Basic Setup

Now, in order to play slide properly, the action needs to be set higher than the U&C action that is used to fret the notes in standard playing. It need not be set so high that notes cannot be fretted, but high enough so that the slide does not bottom out on the frets and make a most unpleasant tone that smacks of amateur hour on "slide night".

If one has a guitar that they want to dedicate for slide, there is a rather inexpensive accessory called a slide adaptor or "Dobro" nut. Below are a couple of photos, one with the Dobro nut alone and another with the Dobro nut in place over the nut of the guitar.

The beauty of this accessory is that it is installed and removed by simply loosening the strings, parking it over the existing guitar nut and then retightening the string to the desired tuning. They are available in different heights if one wants to fret and slide as part of their style.


Alternate Tunings and Dedicated Slide Guitars

Speaking of desired tunings, most slide players will retune to an open chord. This is a relatively easy exercise and requires that a few strings are either raised or lowered in pitch. I prefer open G or open D as the strings that are retuned are tuned to a lower pitch. This puts less strain on the instrument, a potentially important consideration when considering acoustic instruments.

Electrics tend to be more forgiving and I have a Fender Telecaster with a low-cut Dobro nut (I can play fretted notes as my style dictates with the low cut Dobro nut) on it that is tuned to open E as well as a Gibson Les Paul which I've adjusted the action to allow for slide play in my style that I tune to open E, as well as D, G and A as required. So what does an open tuning look on paper?


The open strings when played in any of those open tunings will render a major chord in the tuning for which it is in, i.e., open G will render a Gmaj chord and open D will render a Dmaj chord when the open strings are played as will open A and open E in their respective major chords.

One of the reasons that I like open G is that I can capo the strings I have to play in a key to accommodate a vocalist. Why do I capo if I'm playing slide? Remember, I use fretted notes in my style and those tend to be in the first four frets above the nut or capo as to where I play them.

A Few Dedicated Slide Guitars

Now of course there are dedicated slide guitars made. They take on many forms, but the two most commonly used in my style of playing are the lap steel and the resonator guitar (both round and square neck). Here are a few of examples:




Below is my personal dedicated slide guitar, an acoustic-electric, round neck resonator guitar with the perfect action for fretted and slide play. Sounds great either acoustic or plugged into my Rivera Era (ca. 1983) Fender Super Champ or through DI box into the FOH board at the venue.


It is an SX Reso One that I purchased from Rondo Music of New Hampshire, www.rondomusic.com, for the princely sum of $199 + shipping. Firewood you say? Hardly. Rondo is one of the best kept secrets in retail music gear here in the US.

Sure, the about-$100, give or take can be a little rough around the edges, but when one hits the about-$200, give or take price range and up, multiply the dollar figure spent on a Rondo instrument by 3 to 5 times and that will give you an idea of about the amount one would have to spend to get an equivalent instrument that has a recognizable brand name on it.

I've bought several instruments and assorted bits of gear from them over the years and I have not a single complaint. The customer service is as good as anyone out there that I've dealt with, and I'm including the places we all know and deal with. If you contact Rondo, ask for Kurt.

Conclusion

So there is the long and short of the basics for consideration of slide guitar playing. You now have an idea of why this was developed, the kind of extra gear needed (and it really tain't much as I reckon it), awareness of the set up changes, some resources for lessons, some of the common alternate tunings, a few tricks to get better utilization out of the gear, a snap shot of a few of the slide dedicated instruments and a hint about a really decent low-price vendor.

Slide guitar doesn’t cost much for an established player to get into, unless of course, part of your mastery entails the price of your soul. Now head on out to Clarksdale, Mississippi…down to the Crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 and get your mojo workin’.

-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist

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