Acoustic Slide Guitar – Technique and tips
What do I use for a slide?
There have been many objects used to achieve the slide sound. Knives, bottle necks, tubes of all kinds of metals and glass, spark plug sockets, lighters, stone, marble, plastic… anything! At sometime or other I’ve used them all but to keep things simple and effective, I use a real bottle neck or metal tube, cut long enough to be slightly longer than the pinkie.
Glass or metal?
Glass is great for smooth, long sustain – Paris Texas type stuff. The heavier glass the better. Avoid manufactured glass slides as they tend to lack sustain and brightness – use real bottle glass. Ry Cooder is said to use a Fighting Cock Kentucky Bourbon bottle!
Metal is good for more attack, especially electric. Experiment with heavy or light metal – both produce different sounds. Think Muddy Waters, light. Lowell George( Little Feat ) heavy.
For both glass and metal, think:
Heavy – better for sustain, more accuracy, good for long slow notes
Light – Thin sound, but faster, harder to keep accurate, less volume and sustain
This is a personal choice, as with most aspects of slide playing. Many well known players have used different combinations. I’ve always found the slide best suited to the pinkie. This allows me more opportunity to finger chords, and play regular fretted notes as well as play the slide. Anyway, if it’s good enough for Robert Johnson or Ry Cooder it’s good enough for me.
How do I stop all that scratching and buzzing?
Sometimes the extraneous noises can be used to great effect – listen to Blind Willie Johnson. For the purpose of improving technique, try and play cleanly and smoothly. Lose all those noises by dampening the strings behind the slide. When you release the fingers behind the slide – notice the difference.
Action and set-up
Use a guitar set-up with a slightly higher action, so there is less chance of the slide banging against the frets. It helps to minimise those extraneous noises we talked about earlier. However, if the action is too high, it will be harder to finger the chords when needed.
A personal choice again, but I believe the best sound is achieved by using the thickest you can manage – at least a 0013 on the top. Bob Brozman once told me that he used a 0017 on his National – now, there’s a real slide man for you!
What about guitars?
Acoustic or electric, who cares. I like the rootsy flavor of an acoustic for instant feel. My favorites are small bodied acoustics and resonators. I love all those junk shop guitars with bowed necks and impossible actions. Check them out. Slide players can pick up some real winners. In fact all the exercises in the Acoustic Guitar Workshop’s slide course were recorded with an old, small body Hofner, that I found in Denmark for 20 pounds.
For electric players, the fenders have great natural sustain. Check out that early Ry Cooder sound. With added compression, like the old purple pecker, or rack effects, the slide sounds great. On his later albums, Ry used the pick up from an old lap steel, for that real slide sound and phenomenal sustain. The trick is don’t be afraid to experiment.
Vibrato – the soul of slide
This is a crucial aspect of slide playing.
There are two main reasons for this:
1. Think of the slide ( bottleneck, or whatever you decide to use ) as a moving fret which by careful handling will maintain the pitch of the note you are trying to play. If you are new to slide playing you will fast realise how difficult this is. Vibrato with the slide means you play a compromise between an in and out of tune note – somewhere in the middle is the correct pitch. To keep good pitch, keep the slide at right angles to the fret at all times.
A violinist uses the same effect on the fretboard ( fretless of course ) to maintain steady pitch. Witness the intense movement of the fingers as they ensure the right notes are achieved.
This is especially so for the slide, when reaching the end of a phrase or riff; the final note sounds dull or sharp or flat unless vibrato is used. There are many different styles of vibrato. Listen to the intense movement of the slide on Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was The Night, or the almost non existent vibrato on Tampa Red’s Denver Blues. This leads me to my next main point.
2. Vibrato gives your slide playing a personal touch which can reflect the intensity of your mood or your feeling for the blues. Once you feel comfortable with the slide, experiment with different amounts of vibrato – light or heavy. Listen to as many players as you can and gauge the amount used which distinguishes their playing.
The slide can be held tight against a finger to produce a very controlled movement or loose for a more carefree result.
Careful though, as they tend to fly off your finger!
I’ve noticed that some players use lack of vibrato to produce quarter tones, which are carefully placed, and give an eerie effect against the proper pitched note. Once again, listen to Blind Willie Johnson or Ry Cooder ( Vigilante Man is a good example ) to hear these notes. More about these mysterious quarter tones elsewhere in the Acoustic Guitar Workshop slide course.
About the author:
Rick Payne has also written Origins of the Pentatonic and Relevance to the Blues and History and Origin of the Slide Guitar in the Blues