History and Origin of the Slide Guitar in the Blues

There have been many claims to the origin of the slide guitar. Its haunting sound can be heard across the whole spectrum of musical styles, through blues, rock, country, Hawaiian and even jazz. A sound so haunting, that as fans of Robert Johnson might believe, was born from the devil himself. However, there are a few more ‘earthly signposts’ that musicologists have followed, to try and pin down the birth of the slide sound.

Throughout the world musicians have created sounds by dragging objects across stringed instruments, for either effect or as an integral part of its sound. An example of this was discovered in W.Africa in the form of a musical bow. Still used today, this one stringed instrument was attached to a gourd resonator and held to the abdomen, while the player plucked the string and used a bone or metal to vary the pitch.

Investigators into the popular form of slide playing associated with the blues, determined that this was probably why a more contemporary version of the bow called the Jitterbug came to be used by the Negro musicians around the southern states of America at the turn of the century. With the influx of slaves, years before, came a rich culture of music, and although the slaves were bereft of possessions, a musical bow would be a simple instrument to make. The Jitterbug, like the bow, had one string, but this time simply attached to the floor or side of a shack. When plucked, an object would be dragged along the string to accompany simple songs. The sound, which could wail and moan like the human voice, became an ideal backing to the early blues and perhaps forerunner to the guitar’s role in the slide style.

But why the guitar?

In the early part of the 20th century, the guitar was becoming increasingly popular, as a cheaper alternative to the piano. Along with the banjo, it was more portable and could be ordered by catalog in the many rural backwaters. It is a safe bet to say, that knives, bones and glass, would have been used on the guitar as an extension to the Jitterbug. The guitar became more widely used with the slide, after a young Hawaiian guitarist called Joseph Kekeku made a recording using this style. It was a flashy, eerie kind of tune, that became popular in the U.S, and gave the already established Negro style more impetus.

The Hawaiian influence on slide playing cannot be overlooked. The speed at which the music spread into the American culture at the turn of the century was evident in the increased production of guitars and lap steels. All the main makers were turning them out: National, Rickenbacker and Gibson. In fact, the Hawaiian style lap steel, far out sold Spanish style guitars. Since the early Kekeku recordings, the use of the slide began to seep into all styles of music, from the early blues, right into the mountain Hillbilly music of early folk and country.

The Hawaiians have always laid claim to the invention of the slide guitar, but it is fairer to say, that it was a development rather than an invention. Anyway, the young J.K could easily have got the idea by listening to an American Negro sailor, whose ship had docked in Honolulu!

Whatever the worldly origins of the slide guitar, this form of playing is best known for it’s partnership with the blues. The slide playing of Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, to name a few, has reached almost classical status. It is a style that has captivated, amazed and baffled guitarists of all kinds, and to my mind has become the most enchanting.

About the author:

Rick Payne has also written Acoustic Slide Guitar – Technique and tips and Origins of the Pentatonic and Relevance to the Blues