The Beginner’s Guide to Slide Guitar
It’s one of the most evocative, expressive and downright cool guitar styles around. UK slide maestro Chris Eaton is here to give you the basics you need to get started.
Image: Laura McKinnon / Shutterstock.com
Slide guitar is very much an American tradition, and when you play slide – especially on an acoustic instrument – it’s hard not to sound American. Slide tones are so often heard in this context – on a film or TV soundtrack during a desert scene with a rattlesnake slithering past, for example. There is, of course, the equally rich tradition of slide in Indian classical music, but in the Western guitar tradition, there are three primary styles: bottleneck, Dobro and Weissenborn.
But which came first?
In 1889, Hawaiian guitarist Joseph Kekuku accidentally discovered lap-slide guitar (also called ‘steel guitar’, due to the steel bar held in the left hand). Joseph was walking along a railway track with his guitar when he found a metal bolt on the ground. As he picked up the bolt, it hit the strings, making a sound that caught his ear. He developed that sound into a whole style of playing, and then in 1919, started touring Europe with the Bird Of Paradise show, which exposed the sound of Hawaiian lap-steel guitar to the world.
On the other side of the globe, however, there was a parallel tradition. The berimbau is a one-stringed instrument common in West Africa, which is played by sliding a stick along the string to alter the pitch while a gourd resonates the sound. The slave trade saw this concept make its way across the Atlantic, and in the Southern States – the Mississippi Delta especially – it evolved into what became known as a ‘diddley bow’ or ‘jitterbug’.
The diddley bow’s single string was often attached to the wall of a wooden shack and an object would be used to slide along the string and pick out simple blues melodies. As the acoustic guitar became more common, it isn’t much of a leap to imagine players of the diddley bow starting to experiment by sliding objects, such as bones or knives, along their guitar strings.
Over this feature, we pick out three prominent acoustic slide guitar styles for you to try out, complete with basic gear, technique and tuning advice to get you started.
Although an actual bottleneck is rarely used to play it these days, this term is still applied to describe playing slide guitar on a regular six-string instead of a lap-style instrument, and it’s the most prevalent method of slide guitar playing.
It began with players who have become legends of the blues, such as Blind Willie Johnson, Bukka White, Son House and Robert Johnson. Interestingly, NASA found Blind Willie Johnson’s playing so moving, they chose his song Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground for the ‘Golden Record’ that was sent into deep space on the Voyager mission in 1977.
Scientist Carl Sagan said the song was chosen because, “Johnson’s song concerns a situation he would have faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight.”
One of the key words to consider when learning slide is ‘application’. Where exactly in a live situation will you be using slide? Is it a solo acoustic gig? Do you need to play standard rhythm parts as well as slide licks? Are you the only guitarist in the band? All these questions influence the best approach to take when considering the techniques covered in this feature.
Remember, too, that learning to play slide guitar styles does have a steep curve. Some players get put off due to the challenges involved: the trickiest being right-hand muting – muting unwanted strings using the palm or fingers of your right hand. If you have a spare guitar that can be dedicated to slide, it will make things easier. If not, you might need to compromise in some areas, but don’t let that put you off.
Lows and highs
Acoustic slide uses lower tunings than normal – this means you can use heavier string gauges. Doing this helps to achieve a good tone, attack and intonation. 0.014 to 0.059 or 0.015 to 0.056 sets are easily found online. Using heavy strings might be sufficient to give you tighter string tension and allow for better purchase with the slide.
If not, you can experiment with raising your action. A shim of an old credit card placed under the saddle or under the nut is one method. It’s also possible to buy an extension nut to slip over your existing one and raise the action up very high; but remember, this will mean not being able to fret at all.
Bottleneck playing usually combines slide licks and fretted rhythm playing, so nut extenders are more useful for converting a round-neck guitar into a lap-slide instrument.
The right equipment
The other important thing you’ll need to consider is the slide itself. Glass slide costs vary – a starter slide will only cost you a few quid, but even a custom slide won’t break the bank. We’ve had great success with Diamond Bottlenecks – the company produces beautiful custom glass slides, and staff are great at helping you find the best fit for your finger.
Only you can tell which finger is the right one for you. It’s all about comfort and there are no right or wrong answers, but generally players use the fourth or third fingers.
We prefer the fourth, as it leaves your first three fingers free to fret as normal, and we’d recommend finding a slide with a snug fit and a medium weight. If it’s too heavy, it’ll feel cumbersome, too light and you’ll struggle to produce sustain and tone.
To aid right-hand attack, some players use thumb and fingerpicks, but these can take a bit of getting used to. For beginners, we’d advise just sticking to thumb and fingers, as this can detract from string muting, which is a crucial technique for controlling unwanted sound. Another common technique is to wear fake nails made from strong acrylic on the thumb and first three fingers, which really helps with tone and volume.
Bottleneck players to hear:
- Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings – John Lee Hooker’s producer and guitarist
- Martin Simpson – Legendary English folk troubadour
- Michael Messer – UK blues artist and designer of his own resonator range
- Sonny Landreth – The Louisianan slide master who has reinvented the bottleneck vocabulary
- Papa George – London-based bluesman
Bottleneck tunings to try:
- Standard (EADGBE) – Good for slipping in a few slide licks within your regular playing, but it’s much more challenging when it comes to string muting, and can be very unforgiving. Open tunings are more sympathetic
- Open D (DADF#AD) – Open D is the acoustic equivalent of open E, used to great effect on electric by the likes of Chris Rea. This type of tuning, regardless of the pitch, is often called “Vestapol tuning”
- Open G (DGDGBD) – With open G tuning, the middle strings remain the same as standard tuning, which helps provide some familiarity for navigation
“Dobro” is actually the name of a brand of resonator guitars, which is currently owned by Gibson. But like Hoover, Velcro, Tannoy and the like, its success and popularity has led to it becoming the generic term for the product type, regardless of the manufacturer.
The word “Dobro” is itself a portmanteau of the words “Dopyera” and “Brothers”. The Dopyera brothers were Slovakian instrument makers who invented the resonator in order to increase the volume of acoustic guitars in the days before electrification and amplification. The body acts as a speaker cabinet and an aluminium cone acts as the speaker.
For the purposes of this article, when we talk about dobros, we’re referring to square-necked resonator instruments, which can only be played on your lap. They have wooden bodies and a spider-style bridge, with the cone facing outwards – unlike metal resonator guitars, which have biscuit bridges, or tri-cones, where the cones are turned upside down and face inwards towards the back of the body. These approaches produce a different tone to spider bridges.
Raising the bar
The dobro will always be associated with country and Western or bluegrass music, in the same way that metal-body resonators will forever be linked to the blues. With very high string action and the use of a heavy steel slide known as a bar, lap-steel instruments are the best way to produce slide tone, as there’s no danger of banging your slide on the frets and having to develop a light touch.
However, the tradeoff is that you can only play slide on these guitars; no fretted notes are possible. In that sense, it’s 50 per cent a different instrument to bottleneck guitar. Your right hand moves in the same way, but not your left.
To develop a clean technique, you’ll need to practise right-hand muting, which is also known as “string blocking”. Mastering this while wearing finger and thumb picks takes some time. Palm muting is also used to help control your sound. The ability to play perfectly in tune is the thing that separates players. Be aware that the transition from bottleneck to lap slide can be very challenging, and just learning how to play in tune can take hours of practice!
If you’re after a starter square-neck dobro, the likes of Gretsch, Epiphone and Washburn all offer guitars that are sub-£500, but finding a really good quality example in the UK isn’t easy. One option is Gold Tone, which works with resonator specialist Paul Beard to produce more affordable versions of his world-renowned designs.
The standard strings used on a dobro are 0.016 to 0.056 phosphor-bronze, and these are easily available online. The other bit of kit you’ll need is, of course, a tone bar. Tone bars come in two different shapes; a Stevens bar, which has grooves running along the top and sides to help grip it, and bullet bars, which have round ends and are more commonly used for electric lap-steel and pedal-steel guitar.
Dobro players to hear:
- Jerry Douglas – The best-known dobro player in the world, who has played a huge part in popularising the instrument. He’s a 14-time Grammy winner and a session player on more than 1,500 albums
- Rob Ickes – A virtuoso player from the US bluegrass scene
- Mike Auldridge – The late master who inspired so many to learn the instrument
- Mike Witcher, Andy Hall, James Church and Josh Swift – Key players from the new generation of sliders
- Philip Henry and Noel Dashwood – UK dobroists currently touring on the folk scene
Dobro tunings to try:
- High-bass G (GBDGBD) – Not to be confused with the open G tuning used for bottleneck, this is the standard tuning for dobros, and offers two octaves of a major triad. The bass strings mirror the treble ones, so whatever you play on the first three strings can be repeated on the bottom three. Capos are often used, for example, at the 2nd fret when the song is in the key of A
- Open D (DADF#AD) – This is another popular dobro tuning, which is useful for self-accompanied arrangements due to the low root note
Before the Dopyera brothers started producing their resonators in 1928, Hermann Weissenborn was already selling his beautiful koa-wood slide guitars, which proved popular at the time, due to the Hawaiian music boom initiated by Joseph Kekuku.
Mr Weissenborn was born in Germany in 1863 and moved to America in 1902. Today, people still use his surname to describe Weissenborn-style guitars made by various manufacturers.
In the UK, we have our very own specialist manufacturer; Anderwood Guitars, based in Dorset. The unique selling point of a Weissenborn is its hollow neck. This creates a bigger sound chamber than regular acoustic guitars and helps produce their signature mellow, woody tone.
Playing techniques when using a Weissenborn are very similar to those of the dobro or lap steel, but on the whole, more players use their bare fingers to play, as opposed to using thumb and fingerpicks. Open D or low-C Vestapol are popular tunings, with a set of 0.013s or 0.014s as standard. Again, right-hand string blocking/muting is the key to achieving a clean, controlled sound.
Weissenborn players to hear:
- Ben Harper – Grammy-winning roots artist
- Martin Harley – The UK’s very own virtuoso Weissenborn exponent
- David Lindley – Long-time Jackson Browne collaborator
- Bob Brozman – The late ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist
- Jeff Lang – Australian folk star
Weissenborn tunings to try:
- Open D (DADF#AD) – As with the dobro-style, the low root note makes this a great tuning for self-accompaniment
- Low C Vestapol (CGCEGC) – As the inclusion of the “Vestapol” name suggests, this is effectively open D tuned a whole step lower
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