It’s a hot sultry night on the Mississippi delta. The full moon casts it’s translucent light on the fields and swamp oak trees. The lingering smell of barbecue and wisteria mix with honeysuckle and tobacco smoke. Folks are sitting on the front porch trying to beat the heat. Someone picks up an old guitar and begins to play a familiar tune.
The sound is unmistakable, cutting right to your heart, and emotions. It’s distinctive voice, almost human-like, hangs in the night air like a soulful cry. That is the signature sound of the slide guitar.
Where did this style get its start? The prevailing wisdom attributes its birth to the old single string instrument called the jitterbug, used by black musicians around the turn of the 20th century. This instrument was simply a length of thin wire stretched between two nails on a post and played using an old bone or heavy nail. Some used a bottle or other smooth objects as well. One could play a lead line or improvise an accompaniment to folk, blues, and spiritual songs. The jitterbug was essentially one of the first blues instruments.
There are ancient African instruments much like the jitterbug but using a gourd resonator with the single string. It, also, was played with a bone sliding up and down a neck to change pitches.
As guitars became more available, a lot of the early blues and folk players adopted them. These guitars had terrible action and strings were scarce. Using a slide allowed playing on some really horrible guitars yet produced a very appealing sound. Using a glass or metal slide would also save the fingers!
Guitars were very popular in the early part of the 20th century. Frequently, rural musicians got inexpensive guitars from a mail order catalogs. Banjos were very expensive at the time, but there is little evidence that players ever used a slide on a banjo.
Some musicologists suggest that Hawaiian music was the greatest influence in popularizing slide guitar. This was about the time (early thirties) when steel bodied guitars were becoming available. This music was played in “slack-key” or an open tuning as it is called today. The guitar is tuned to an “open” or major chord, such as a Gmajor or Dmajor. There are many variations in these tunings, but most tunes are played in one of the three main open tunings.
Hawaiian music was very influential in spreading the slide guitar craze throughout the country. This gave rise to a great demand for slide style guitars from manufacturers. The Hawaiian lap steel guitars were more popular than standard guitars all through the 1930’s. All of the major manufacturers had offerings: Gibson; National; Dopera Brothers; (Dobro) Regal, just to mention a few. Hawaiian slide guitar was incorporated into every style of music from Jazz to Mountain Music. This has continued on to the present. The list of today’s accomplished slide players is large and ever growing.
The adaptation of slide guitar techniques by early blues musicians is, perhaps, the ultimate marriage and is instantly recognizable. Some of the great masters of the past include: Son House; Tampa Red; Robert Johnson; and Muddy Waters, to name a few. These magical and soul filled sounds have captivated musicians and listeners alike.
The voice like quality of a glass bottleneck or brass pipe sliding up and down a guitar string has a created musical tradition worthy of it longevity. It resonates with our emotions and has found a permanent home in our hearts. God bless those who aspire to the sound of the slide guitar.