How to Start Playing Slide Guitar - 044

podcast Oct 30, 2018

Today I’m getting to something that is one of my great joys of playing guitar: Slide.

What is it about slide guitar that has such an effect on people. Well, to me, I think it is because it is so vocal. The way that the slide moves from one note to another is very similar to how the voice can glide up and slide down seamlessly between notes.


It speaks to us. We hear ourselves in it. To me it is similar to the way people react to a saxophone. It can cry, or scream, or even whisper. It’s a very versatile way to get your musical points across.


There are so many great slide players to listen to and learn from. Where it’s Duane Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Derek Trucks, Sonny Landreth, Dickey Betts, or Keb Mo you can’t go wrong. Each of these players has or had their own very distinct sound that you can learn from and build upon.


Playing slide is something that a lot of players have tried at one time or another. And, from the group of students that I’ve had, it doesn’t always work out the greatest.


  • I’ve heard things like:
  • It’s too hard to play
  • the slide always frets out
  • the slide is uncomfortable or too heavy
  • It always sounds out of tune
  • Not sure what finger to use the slide with
  • I keep playing notes that I didn’t want to.


Yes, it’s different and does take some getting used to. But, just like everything on the guitar that we have gone over this year, this isn’t a hopeless case.


You just need to know the tricks. You need to find the narrow path that will give you the most results with the least effort applied.


Once you know the things to watch out for, playing slide is extremely enjoyable and you can start progressing ahead at light speed!


Slide Basics


What are we doing when we are playing slide?


Well, slide guitar basically uses something other that your fingers to play the notes on the guitar. In blues music legends, I’ve heard stories about stringing up broom wire to nails on the wall. Then using bottles or metal tubes to make music with it. In its most basic form, that’s exactly what slide is. Using an object across a tuned up string to make music.


For guitar, first and foremost, the thing to know is that you aren’t playing the frets. You are just  touching your slide to the string. If you press the slide down on the strings so hard that the frets come into contact with the string, you’ve gone too far.


Basically, the slide becomes our fret. It’s a movable able fret. We can take the slide from the lowest sounding part of the string all of the way to the highest part, smoothly without hearing each note in steps up the frets.


This takes the frets out of the picture. But, as I will get to in a few minutes, the frets do serve an important function in the long run. So. don’t go running out to get a fret-less guitar anytime soon. We will need them.



Guitar Slides


What slide do I play?


This is a great question! There are a lot of different kinds and sizes of slides. It can be tough to pick the right one for the type of slide playing that you want to do.


You can find Brass, Ceramic and porcelain, steel and glass. Those are the most common, but there are some other more exotic materials that slides are made from.


Brass, Steel, and ceramic slides seem to be used a lot for acoustic guitar. The reason is that the metal slides are very bright and a bright slide helps acoustic instruments project more. Brass being the darker of the two. Players like Keb Mo favor the porcelain slides for acoustic and dobro because of their warmer sound.


For electric guitar, glass is king. Glass slides may be popular with electric guitar players because of the classic tones that players like Duane Allman an Ry Cooder have been able to record. Remember, I’m just generalizing here. You can use any type of slide for any instrument if it works for you. But, this is a good way to get started.


Some prefer real bottle neck glass or old medicine bottles. I have never been lucky enough to find one that worked for me. The curve of the glass of the neck of a wine bottle has to be just right for the radius of your guitar. I prefer a completely even Dunlop slide. I seem to control the slide better if it is not curved.

Size and weight.


There are several things to consider when you are going to purchase a slide. The inside of the slide comes in different sizes to accommodate different players finger sizes.

There are different lengths of slides that just cover one knuckle all the way to longer than your finger. The thickness of the slide is also something that you can choose as well. Thicker slides can provide more sustain and tone. I will talk a bit more about the reasons that you would make some of these choices later on when I talk about certain setups for different situations.  

I suggest a trip to your local guitar store to get a better idea of what feels and sounds good for you.


Which finger?


Taking a look at some of the players I mentioned before is a good way to figure out which finger you are going to use for slide. The choices seem to be your middle, ring, or pinky. I’ve never seen someone use the first finger for slide.


Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever tried. Hold on. OK, that was no good at all. When you use your first finger, you have no way of muting the unwanted noises that occur behind the slide (the strings ring on the other side of the slide in a very out of tune way). Plus it seems very uncomfortable.

So I’ll leave that one out. But, let’s talk about the others.

The pinky is used by a lot of players like Keb Mo and Sonny Landreth to give you three fingers free to play chords as well as slide. Just lift the slide up a bit and you are free to use your index, middle, and ring fingers for anything you want. Great for playing solo without a band.


The ring finger seems to be the staple of southern rock players. To me it feels the most comfortable with the increased strength of the ring finger. You still have your index and middle to do play parts of chords or single notes without the slide.


The middle finger is not used a whole lot. The most famous player that used the middle is Bonnie Raitt. She uses the slide to great effect and I love how she sometimes mutes and sometimes doesn’t the area behind the slide. Very cool effect!


Slide Setup



OK, so now that we know a bit of the basics, let’s start to make some decisions. Let’s start to decide the whole package. And, that depends on you, your situation, and the style of music that you are playing.


To me, it seems like there are two different camps when it comes to this. The first being a guitar that is completely set up for slide (where slide work is the main purpose of the guitar), and the other is using a guitar that is setup up for regular non slide work but still being able to be used for occasional slide.


There are drawbacks, advantages, and considerations for both of these situations. Let’s talk about having a dedicated slide guitar.


A dedicated slide guitar will usually go for the biggest tone with the most sustain. This will mean a high action with heavy strings. And the slide you choose can also be a heavy one to maximize the sound. This direction can give you an awesome slide tone but is tough to use for anything else. The high action will give you a hard time fretting notes if you need them.


If you are looking in the other direction, to be able to take the guitar that you regularly use, the compromises will be a bit different. Usually these guitars will have the action as low as possible and lighter strings than a dedicated slide guitar. This will mean that you choices all deal with the slide itself. And, this is where lighter and thinner slides come in handy. Yes, they aren’t going to give you the most dramatic slide tone, but for convenience sake, this is a great way to go. And, the tone can still be great (think Duane Allman). You can use your same guitar setup the same way and still get the benefits of slide.


If you wanted to add more sustain to the guitar with the lighter slide, Compressor pedals and even more overdrive can add sustain to your sound.


Slide Technique


When I talked about using the slide as a new movable fret, I mentioned that the frets are still important. This is more visual than anything else. To hit a note correctly, you have to position the bottom of the curved directly over the fret. This is very awkward to the new slide player who is used to putting their fingers slightly behind the fret for each note played.


This is where the intended note is in tune. Thank goodness for those frets. Ask anyone who had learned the violin or trombone. Those are instruments where there is very little visual information as to where the notes are supposed to fall. It takes a very long time to get those positions correct and in tune.


Having these frets as markers not only shows us where our intended note is, but gives us a reference point for any kind of back and forth vibrato with the slide.


Another thing that is needed for basic slide technique is damping. What you find out quickly when starting slide is that since the slide goes across all of the strings, there is a lot of potential for notes to sound that aren’t wanted. Using the palm of your right hand to lightly touch the strings that you don’t want to sound is a skill that is needed in slide technique. Also, using the fingers behind the slide is key to keeping the back part of the strings silent as well. Sometimes I think that slide is mostly all about the notes that you don’t play.


Playing rhythm is fairly easy if you are playing major chords in open tuning. Because of the new tuning of the guitar, all of your major chord note are under the slide. Just slide around for your other chords. Of course, most songs have more than just major chords, so you can see how this start to become a limitation. If you use your fingers to make chord shapes, you will have to learn all new shapes for the open tuned guitar.


This is where standard tuned slide guitar has an advantage. You can lift the slide and make the shapes that you already know with your remaining fingers. Also, anywhere you have a few chord notes in a row, you can hit a few chord notes to fill in.


Let’s talk about your right hand technique. A lot of players prefer finger-style for slide guitar, but that is definitely not the only way to play. Finger-style and slide sound great together but you will see a lot of hybrid pick and finger-style, finger picks, and thumb picks. If you are interested in trying finger and thumb picks, I suggest again that you head to your local store to try them out before buying.


Slide patterns


OK, so now you have a good idea of what you are in for and some ways to make some informed decisions before spending some money. But let’s move on to what we are going to play.

With open tunings, everything (at first) revolves around the straight across chord. You know that your strong tones are straight across under the slide. The other notes are either a half step or whole step away (either forwards or backwards).

So sliding in and out of your strong notes is relatively easy. The problem is similar to what happens to a lot of players that only learn pattern 1 of the pentatonic scale. It’s all they ever do. Just being able to play around the chord line gets you started. But there is so much more to take advantage of. This is really big and not really what this particular show is all about. Look out for more in the future.

But what I do want to get to today is an easy way to get started. And, it’s one that you can build on over time. This uses some things that we are already familiar with in a different way using standard tuning.


Here is a scale chart of D Major pentatonic pattern 1. Next to it is the same chart with no fingerings and the arpeggio notes highlighted in red. I circled the arpeggio notes that are all in a line. That is so important for standard tuned slide and take advantage of them whenever you can. 


So lets give this a try. Lets play some slide licks using this scale patterns, relying heavily on the arpeggio notes.

First I’m going to pick the key of D and put on a D blues background track.

In example 1 i’ll start off with our two arpeggio notes high up on the 10th fret of the E and B strings. The notes D and A. I then play them  one at at time and slide down to the 7th on the B and G strings. Notice how I slide up into the major 3rd ( 7th fret B string).


In example 2, I focus more on the chord tones all in a line at the 7th fret on the D G and A strings. I play them all together and then one at a time. Eventually sliding into the major third (9th fret A string) and ending on the Low root (10 fret Low E string).


In example 3 I start to show how some minor adjustments can give you a really great sounding minor pentatonic lick using the same general position. I have added the 8th fret on the High E string (b7) and lowered the 3rd  on the B string to the 6th fret (b3)


So today, I got us started with the essential information we need to know to just get started with slide. I talked about:

  • The basics you need to know to get started
  • The difference in different slides
  • Different setups for different situations
  • The techniques you need to sound notes correctly and avoid unwanted notes
  • Playing rhythm
  • Right hand technique
  • Slide patterns
  • And My easy way to get started right away with slide

Learning slide is so much fun and when you can get the hang of it, it can really take your playing into many new directions. This is just the beginning. I have a whole lot more for you as far as slide goes.

My challenge for you this week is to find an old slide or buy a new one and start giving it a try. And, let us all know how you did here in the show notes. 


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