Articles

The Origins and Magic of Slide Guitar

by Denny Tryon

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.

 

How to Play Slide Guitar.

 

By: Denny Tryon

 

Don’t you just love the distinctive sound of a slide guitar, whether it’s on a country tune or the down and dirty blues?  There has been a renewed interest in slide and bottleneck guitar playing in the last few years, and the new country music has adopted the sound big-time.

 

I was intimidated when I first put a slide on my little finger, it was awkward, and the sound I made was horrible. I did not have anybody to show me how to dampen the strings, what scales sounded good in standard tuning, and not a clue as to all of the “open-tunings” that are available to both finger style and slide playing.

Actually playing with a slide can be very easy, and beginners can get some really cool sounds with a bit of practice.  I would recommend tuning to an open D or open G at first.   The open tuning approach gives nice major chord sounds up and down the neck, and allows for some easy fingering and ability to play songs right away.  That’s the reason for playing right?  Exercises and scales have their place but most people I know that stared to play guitar, want to learn some songs.

First start with a slide or “bottle neck” as many refer to when describing the tube that you wear on your finger.  The choices are many, the material is endless, and the type of tone they produce is just as varied. You will be the ultimate judge of the tone and sound you create.

The two basic materials are either glass or metal, with ceramic coming in a distant third. Can’t really say I have a favorite type of slide. I have just about one of every kind you can think of, I prefer glass on electric guitar and steel or brass on acoustic guitar.

One tip that is guaranteed to help give you better TONE is go for very dense material.  Get a thick or heavy glass slide, as this will increase sustain and fatten up your sound.  My preference is hand blown leaded glass, but very hard to find in the US, as it is illegal to use leaded glass for manufacturing. I got mine from a vendor in the UK.

The preferred finger is the pinkie on your fretting hand, but lots of players use their ring or even the middle finger. The advantage of using your little finger is that it gives you the most fretting possibilities, but some claim you give up some control.  The main thing is just try on a bunch of slides and go for what feels good to you!

Once you have found a slide just have some fun running it up and down the strings.  More than likely you can make some awful noise, the task is how you can quiet down all of that excessive noise and get some soulful sound coming from your guitar.

 

Lets start with an open tuning; my preference is open G tuning.

 

Drop your fat or lower E string down to a D pitch.  You can use the 4thstring or D to tune to. Then tune the A string down G and you can use the 3rdor G to tune to as well. The last string you have to detune is the bottom E or 1st string.  Tune it to D as well, then when you strum you guitar it plays a G major chord, and sounds really sweet.

Your guitar sound now be tuned D-G-D-G-B-D as opposed to regular tuning of E-A-D-G-B-E.

Open G tuning. It’s a favorite among slide guitarists, because it gives you a wide open major chord on any fret, and it allows an easy alternating bass because the root (the main note of the chord, G if it’s a G chord, for example) is on the fifth string while the fifth (D if it’s a G chord, for example) is on the sixth and the fourth.  Both slide and non-slide players also appreciate the fact that open G also enables you to play a standard blues line with relative ease!

One of the most crucial aspects to getting good clean sound is the use of damping behind the slide.  Master this technique and you will be amazed how good the sound of you slide on steel strings will be.

I suggest that you lay your fretting fingers flat on the neck just behind the slide, and use slight pressure on the strings with the slide.  Not too heavy, as you do not want to hit the fret but not so light that you get no sound ether. Just experiment a little and you will find the right pressure to use.

You also want to play just over the fret and not behind as this will give you the best intonation.  This also takes some practice but with some careful listening you will know when you are on pitch.  Mater this technique and you will be beyond most occasional players.

I have a website devoted to slide guitar and links to many resource and reviews of video lessons on slide playing.  I think the sound of slide guitar is the most human-like of any instrument and allows the guitarist to express an amazing range of emotion and feeling on the guitar.

Peace   Denny