Here, we take a look at slide guitar – one of the most distinctive and expressive guitar techniques
Slide guitar is the technique of using a hard object to slide over the strings in place of the fingers on the fretting hand. The advantage of this is that notes are not fixed in pitch to where the frets are placed. Instead, notes can smoothly move from one to another, giving slide guitar its unique sound.
Slide guitar has a long and interesting history, and many different styles, but learning to play can be as simple as just buying a slide and playing around, if you already play a guitar.
Here, we present a potted history and mini guide to slide guitar, so that you will be armed with all of the relevant information you need when you decide to give it a go…
It is believed by some that the true origin of the slide guitar is a traditional, single stringed African instrument. It was made popular in the US by black musicians from the Mississippi delta region. Parlour style guitars had become popular in the late 1800s, and, workers often took them around to fields and agricultural environments to entertain themselves.
The weather, humidity and changes in temperature did not always have the best effect on these instruments. As a result, they often ended up with very high playing actions, making it difficult to fret, and throwing out intonation.
To combat this, players used the backs of knives, or other hard objects, to slide across the strings in place of the fretting hand. This, combined with the rise of blues music popularised by Robert Johnson, Son House and Willy Brown, resulted in the birth of a new musical form.
During this period in Hawaii, a 15 year old by the name of Joseph Kekuku was playing around with ways to make new sounds with his Spanish guitar, and hit upon the idea of using a bolt he found by the railway line to slide across the strings.
He developed this, the slide evolving into a polished steel bar, and in the process created a sound that defined his country.
As a rule of thumb, Hawaiian style slide guitar is played on the lap, whilst blues style slide is played upright, as a traditional ‘Spanish’ guitar.
So, how do you play?
When playing slide, the manner of ‘fretting’ is very different. Rather than pressing the strings down to the fret board, the slide is pressed gently against the string to be played above the relevant fret. The material used (being much harder than a finger tip) acts in the same way as a fret would.
By playing a note and moving the slide up or down, the pitch also slides smoothly. Rapidly moving this around a particular fret gives a vibrato effect.
Though it’s possible to learn to play slide in standard EADGBE tuning, it is more common, and in many ways more useful, to play in open tunings (i.e. with strings tuned to open chords).
This has several advantages.
You can play groups of strings at the same fret together, and they will sound good. Hey, you can strum all of them together, and move the slide around and it will sound good.
You can place a capo on the fret-board in open tuning, and easily change key.
There are lots of different types of slides available. When playing a lap steel, you would typically use a polished steel bar.
When playing a ‘Spanish’ style guitar, tubular style slides are most common. Over the years, objects such as bottlenecks, metal pipes, socket wrenches and more have been used as slides. These have greatly influenced the range o ready-made slides that are available.
There are several factors that affect the tonal character, and style of a slide, and may influence your decision when picking one.
- Size – Everyone has different sized fingers, so getting the right size to fit is always important. Size also depends on which finger you choose to play with (more of that later…)
- How thick/ dense – This is less of an issue for electric guitarists, who can get away with a thinner walled slide. Acoustic guitarists may find a heavier, thicker slide more effective at isolating the strings, and stopping string movement when they are plucked.
- How hard – The most popular slides are made from Pyrex glass, porcelain, steel and brass. Like mass, the ideal hardness depends on the guitar, strings used and sound desired. As a general rule, softer slides are less suitable for acoustic guitars.
- Finger choice – Like a great many things in music, there is no right way to play slide. Therefore, the finger you decide to place the slide in is up to you. Often, however, the little finger is the best place to start to learn.
Playing slide guitar requires a lot of patience and practice. It is such a different experience to fretting that in some ways, it’s a bit like learning a new instrument.
Don’t let this put you off, however, as this is also the beauty of playing slide- your guitar suddenly becomes an entirely different instrument. This will take you in exciting new musical directions, and all for the price of a slide.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.