Slide guitar is a particular method or technique for playing the guitar. Instead of altering the pitch of the strings in the normal manner (by pressing the string against frets), an object called a "slide" is placed upon the string to vary its vibrating length, and pitch. This slide can then be moved along the string without lifting (hence the name), creating smooth transitions in pitch and allowing wide, expressive vibrato.
Slide guitar is most often played (assuming a right-handed player and guitar):
- With the guitar in the normal position, using a slide on one of the fingers of the left hand.
- With the guitar held horizontally, belly-up, using a metal bar called a "steel" ("slides" generally fit around a finger) held with the hand and wrist above the frets, fingers pointing away from the player's body; this is known as "lap steel guitar". This same technique is used to play pedal steel guitar and the "Dobro" resonator guitar used in Bluegrass music.
The technique of using a slide on a string has been traced to one-stringed African instruments similar to a "Diddley bow".
The technique was made popular by African American blues artists. The first musician recorded using the style was Sylvester Weaver, who recorded two solo pieces "Guitar Blues" and "Guitar Rag" in 1923. Some of the blues artists who most prominently used the slide include gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson and Casey Bill Weldon.
The first influential classic electric blues slide guitarist is arguably Elmore James, who in 1951 created a slide guitar interpretation of Robert Johnson's 1936 "Dust My Broom" riff, and is held in particularly high regard. His slide and bottleneck guitar techniques were later widely adopted by blues and rock guitarists—including British blues bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and The Yardbirds, and rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. Blues legend Muddy Waters was also very influential, particularly in developing the electric Chicago blues slide guitar from the acoustic Mississippi Delta slide guitar. Texas blues musician Johnny Winter developed his distinctive style through years of touring with Waters. Slide player Roy Rogers honed his slide skills by touring with blues artist John Lee Hooker. John Lee's cousin Earl Hooker may have been the first to use wah-wah and slide together.
The sound has since become commonplace in country and Hawaiian music. It is also used in rock, by bands and artists such as The Doors, Canned Heat, The Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin, Ry Cooder, Chris Rea, Bonnie Raitt, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot (band), Foghat, Molly Hatchet, Little Feat, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Eagles, Faces, ZZ Top, Whitesnake, AC/DC, Cinderella, and Metallica. The Rolling Stones featured a slide guitar as early as their 1963 recording of the John Lennon/Paul McCartney song "I Wanna Be Your Man". Guitarist Brian Jones played slide in a very blues-oriented style. Jones was also one of the first English guitarists to play slide and during the band's early years, he was considered one of the best slide guitarists in the music world. His successors Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood also displayed their own slide guitar skills while with the band. The album Let It Bleed features Keith Richards on slide guitar for the majority of the album, since the band were in-between guitarists during the making of the album. Rolling Stones vocalist Mick Jagger has also played slide guitar on occasion (both in the Stones and his solo career). Many early Pink Floyd songs such as "See Emily Play" feature Syd Barrett's slide guitar performances, reflecting the band's original Chicago urban blues repertoire from musicians such as Bo Diddley and Slim Harpo; David Gilmour, who is better known as the primary lead guitarist for the band, has also been known to use the slide technique in a few of Pink Floyd's songs, mainly after Syd's departure, and has been also known to use the technique on many of the bands tours although using a lap steel guitar for his slide parts.
Canned Heat's Alan Wilson also helped bring slide guitar to rock music in the late 1960s. He used it frequently to create a buzzing delta blues boogie that can be heard on tracks such as London Blues, I Love My Baby, Sandy Blues, and others, and can also be seen during their performances at the Monterey Pop Festival on Rollin and Tumblin' and at Woodstock During Woodstock Boogie and On The Road Again.
George Harrison experimented with slide guitar during the latter half of The Beatles' career, first using the technique on an early outtake recording of Strawberry Fields Forever, in 1966. The 1965 songs Drive My Car, and Run For Your Life have slide guitar, but may have been played by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, respectively). Harrison later used slide extensively in his solo career, on songs such as My Sweet Lord, Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth), This Is Love, and Cheer Down. He played slide in the Traveling Wilburys as well as on The Beatles' 1995 and 1996 reunion singles Free as a Bird and Real Love.
Like Alan Wilson, Duane Allman played a key role in bringing slide guitar into rock music, through his work with The Allman Brothers Band, specifically on the 1971 live album At Fillmore East and with Derek and the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album. Other slide guitarists such as Jeff Beck, Bonnie Raitt, Rory Gallagher, Ronnie Wood, Rod Price, Billy Gibbons, Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Joe Walsh used middle finger and later in the mid 80s, used a brass slide.
Allman extended the expressive range of the slide guitar by incorporating the harmonica effects of Sonny Boy Williamson II, most clearly in the Allman Brothers' cover version of Sonny Boy's "One Way Out", heard on their album Eat a Peach. Allman's recordings were a seminal influence on Derek Trucks, a skilled slide player who has risen to international prominence as a member of the Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Eric Clapton's touring band.
Most recently lap style slide has been reborn via artists like Ben Harper, Jack White, Sean Kirkwood and Xavier Rudd - both Harper and Rudd are players of Weissenborn slide guitars, the former using original early 1900s instruments long with modern-day variations such as his own co-designed Asher signature model, the latter using modern reproductions.
Slides may be used on any guitar, but slides generally and steels in particular are often used on instruments specifically made to play in this manner. These include:
- Steel guitars
- Many resonator guitars, particularly Dobros and their descendants
- Lap slide guitars, particularly Weissenborns and their descendants
- Conventional electric guitars
An ordinary guitar, either electric or acoustic, can be used for playing slide. Often, the strings are raised a little higher off the fingerboard than they would be for conventional guitar playing—especially if the player isn't going to use the free fingers for fretting. An extension nut may be used to achieve the higher string height at the peghead end of the fingerboard. This is just a normal nut, with the slots filed less deeply, and often in a straight line rather than following the radius of the fretboard. The lap steel and the pedal steel are guitars that have evolved especially for playing slide in the horizontal position. Resophonic or resonator guitars have often been employed for slide playing, typically held horizontally. They are sometimes known as Dobros after the Dopyera brothers, whose company first made them. National is another brand. In resonator guitars, rather than the sound being produced by the body's hollow, a special bridge transfers the vibrations from the strings to a metal cone placed inside the body.
A slide can be made with any type of smooth hard material that allows tones to resonate. The slide's weight (in terms of density and wall thickness) cause differences in sustain, timbre, and loudness, while the surface structure and material affect tonal clarity and timbre. Square, beveled or rounded edges may allow a player to apply different techniques, while tapered rather than straight sides may help improve control and cause less damping. Pedal steel players may prefer using tonebars, which have one capped end. One recent development is the rise of hybrid slides. Carbon Fiber is a great material for a slide due to its unique clarity and sustain, while maintaining comfort. Glass Moonshine slides are made of glass, but have a porous ceramic interior that helps prevent slipping; other slides have been designed to reduce the weight of brass or porcelain slides by using a lightweight interior, while still others are made of glass on the front and of metal on the back to allow easy switching. One can use a solid metal bar or rod, laid across the strings of the guitar and held by the fingers of the fretting hand being laid on it to either side, parallel to it. Pipes, and stones have also been used to good effect, as have rings and spoons. Even a knife can reportedly be used: "As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable." ―W. C. Handy on his first hearing slide guitar, a blues player in the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station.
Nick Manoloff was a pioneer in the making, patenting and commercially marketing slides as early as 1937. In 1989, Terrie Lambert invented the Moonshine (ceramic) slide that produces a timbre in between that of brass and glass, and the Mudslide (porcelain) slide, which like brass slides is quite heavy, producing richer, fuller and resonating tones with more harmonics. As a result, they are often used in blues music. The Moonshine and Mudslide slides are glazed on the outside but porous on the inside so that finger moisture is absorbed, preventing slippage. Metals such as stainless steel, chrome and aluminium cause a bright penetrating sound and are mostly used with electric guitars, among others for rock music. Necks cut from bottles, segments of copper or PVC plumbing pipe, small glass medicine bottles, and even deep length wrench sockets are commonly used by those who do not choose to buy a slide.
The slide is pressed against the strings—lightly, so as not to touch the strings to the fretboard, and parallel to the frets. The pitch of the strings can then be continuously varied by moving the slide up and down the fingerboard. The usual limitation in fretted guitar playing of twelve pitches per octave does not apply. The technique lends itself to glissandi (swoops up or down to a note); in addition it has the ability to evoke sounds of the human voice or natural noises. Another strength of the technique is its vibrato, which is easily achieved by oscillating the hand so that the slide goes quickly back and forth.
The major limitation of slide playing is of course that only one chord shape is easily available: whatever the strings are tuned to going straight across. Other two-note intervals can be played by angling the bar. Many slide guitarists also use their free fingers to fret the strings to add that sound. Using the free fingers opens up the possibility of playing chord shapes other than the straight line given by the slide. One strategy is to use the free fingers for rhythm work, and intersperse this with lead phrases played with the slide.
The guitar may be held in the normal guitar-playing position (that is, with the face of the guitar more-or-less vertical) or it may be held flat, with the face of the guitar horizontal. In the latter case the guitar may sit flat in one's lap or on a stool, face up, or held in this position by a strap, and played standing up. If holding the guitar in the normal vertical position, it is more common to use the tube type of slide. In the horizontal approach, solid bars are more commonly used, and the grip is overhand: the hand is not wrapped around the slide, the index finger is nearest the bridge, the little finger nearest the nut, fingers pointing away from the chest.
Usually, a slide player will use open tuning, although standard tuning is sometimes used. In open tuning the strings are tuned to sound a chord when not fretted. The chord tuned to is most often major. Open tunings commonly used with slide include Open D or "Vestapol" tuning: D-A-d-f#-a-d; and Open G or "Spanish" tuning: D-G-d-g-b-d. Open E and Open A, formed by raising each of those tunings a whole tone, are also common. These tunings can be traced back to the 19th century through the banjo, predating the Hawaiian guitar. Other tunings are used as well, in particular the 'drop D' tuning is used by many electric slide players as this tuning allows for power chords in the bass strings and conventional tuning 'navigation' for the rest.
Slide guitar is most often fingerpicked, with or without plastic or metal picks on the thumb and fingers. However some players use a flatpick (plectrum).
The bottleneck or tube type of slide is usually worn over the ring (3rd) or little (4th) finger, while others wear it over the middle (2nd) finger. Wearing it on the 4th finger has the advantage of leaving one more finger free to fret notes if desired. However some players feel that they get better control using the ring or middle fingers. Most instructors recommend letting one or more of the fingers behind the slide rest lightly on the strings to help mute unwanted vibrations.
Double slide guitar system
A relatively new technique, expanding the musical range and sonic capabilities of slide guitar, is the system of double slide guitar. It was invented by Brian Cober, a Canadian blues musician. In double slide, the first slide is placed on the middle finger (usually a modified steel bar that can be put on the finger), and a modified thumb slide is put on the thumb that is able to cover two strings. Double slide is meant to be played on a six-string lap guitar (or a regular six-string guitar modified with the strings raised for high action like a lap guitar), usually tuned to open E tuning. The double slide guitar system enables the player to play chords not heard in open tunings, such as minor chords, dominant seventh chords, etc. and provides a greater use of technique in soloing. Will Ray of the Hellecasters uses a similar technique, wearing "stealth" pinky-type slides on either hand.
In recent years, some guitarists have developed the bottleneck technique further by introducing other guitar effects. Commonly overdrive from tube amplifiers, and distortion effects pedals are commonly employed to produce bluesy and swampy tones.
A few musicians have used slides with bass guitar: slide bass. Mark Sandman was probably the best known proponent (with Morphine, he performed primarily on a custom two-string slide bass guitar). Bill Laswell, Robert Weaver, Kevin Rutmanis, Marc Sloan, Chris Wood, and Stefan Lessard have also played slide bass. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin has performed on a custom-made bass lap steel. Timo Shanko of G. Love & Special Sauce, incorporates slide playing on electric bass. Jazz bassist Victor Wooten occasionally uses a slide for soloing during his live performances. Similarly to Jones, Mark Robbins, bass player and song writer from Joan, plays a number of songs in the standing lap slide style .
"Traveling Riverside Blues"
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- Payne, Rick. "History and Origin of the Slide Guitar in the Blues". Lessons. Guitar Noise. Retrieved 3 March 2010.
- Oliver, Paul (1984). Blues Off the Record. New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press. p. 109. ISBN 0-306-80321-6.
- Dicaire, David (1999). Blues Singers: Elmore James entry. McFarland. Retrieved 2013-06-02.
- Mick Jagger Playing Slide Guitar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBeXS-mru5Q
- Brian Cober, "Home Page"
- Jonathan St. Rose "Brian Cober, blues guitarist"
- van der Merwe, Peter (1989), Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 66–67, ISBN 0-19-316121-4
- The Magic and Mystery of Slide Guitar - an exhibit curated by the Museum of Making Music, National Association of Music Merchants, Carlsbad, CA – detailing the history and evolution of slide guitar technique.
- Open-G tuning, Open-E tuning and Slide guitar An overview of Open-G and Open-E slide