The Benefits of Slide Guitar

Guitar Slides

I’ll admit it: As a musician, there are some things I used to pointedly avoid. Mainly, because I was lazy. And I know I’m not alone. After all, after listening to Page rip his way through the pentatonic scale on a classic like Good Times Bad Times or Since I’ve Been Loving You, you can’t tell me you want to run for your electric and Marshalls to practice some jazz theory. Hell no! You want to rip it up! And the best part is, you just need five notes (six, tops) and your good to go.

For at least a while. Then reality hits. Hard. Because, whether you’ve barely completed your first run up the pentatonic scale or are a certified scorcher who has scuttle-butted his way to fret board freedom, its undeniable that at some point every – every – guitarist has felt restricted by their ability to move around the neck of the guitar within a solo. You’re trapped in those once-lovable box positions, you’re up to your eyeballs with those same old licks, and, worst of all, you have no idea how to really fix things.

Well, aside from regular practice methods, one of the best ways to break free from the confines of scale patterns is by using a slide. The reason for this is simple: it forces you to, effectively, use a single finger to solo. In turn, the lateral motion necessary will cause you to think across the neck, not up and down it. Soon, you’ll have learned to recognize scale intervals across the neck, allowing you to break free from those confounded box patterns. Yes, it is that simple. Well, sort of. Like all things musical, it takes time.

So, while slide guitar is a sure-fire way to break out of the box, it also tackles other extremely important aspects of your playing. Two, specifically, but they are related. First, it forces you to slow down and think about how you want to approach a solo in terms of individual phrases; remember, you’re effectively playing with one finger, so you won’t be able to cruise around like before, firing off licks in an uninterrupted stream; Consequently, you’ll develop an increased sense of timing and melody (master slide guitarist Sonny Landreth said in the June 2005 issue of Guitar One thathe eventually learned to approach slide guitar like he did the trumpet, thinking in terms of “breaths” or the spaces between notes, not just the notes themselves, which in turn fleshed out his regular playing).

Second, it forces your ear to develop, since if you land on the wrong note, you and everyone listening will be quite certain that it is indeed the wrong note. One of the biggest things that has held me back and probably holds a lot of beginners back in their soloing is that after really spending a lot of time on my pentatonic and blues chops, I tended to try to play fast when I soloed. In a moderate blues, for example, I’d strive for that SRV “stream of consciousness” flow of notes. It didn’t always happen (ok, it rarely happened) but that’s how I played, and still play a fair amount of the time. The downside in all this is that you tend to use a lot of “outside” notes and/or passing tones, which is fine as long as you don’t pause on one for too long

With slide, all bets are off; if you rest on a passing tone or outside note, its going to sound odd. Not necessarily bad, but definitely different. Sometimes, it will sound bad. Of course, that’s the beauty of it; you’ll have no choice but you learn your chord tones and arpeggios inside out to be able to maneuver efficiently. So you see, the slide approach to guitar, while a beautiful sound in and of itself, can also double as a laziness detector, which is something I have found quite useful as I try to improve my playing.

Enough chat, lets play something! For a quick rundown of basic slide techniques such as choice of materials and how to position and execute slide notes, I recommend Rick Payne’s great article, Acoustic Slide Guitar, on this website. That’ll get you going on the what’s what in slide playing. Note: Be sure to crank up the action a bit, so you can mute and play more easily and aggressively. But before we start…

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Basic Slide Accompaniment

I’m going to attempt to cover variety of approaches which you can take to playing slide. The first is as a complement to a standard blues vamp a la Robert Johnson. Johnson often used a hybrid of blues chords, licks and slide moves to construct his songs, and they can be very, very difficult play. Ramblin’ On My Mind is one of the more “basic” ones, and uses the slide to create a “call and response” motif with the basic blues shuffle; the shuffle is the call, and the slide lick is the response. The following is based off of that idea, but it’s not the original lick. But first, tune your guitar to Open E (low to high: EBEG#BE). You can also tune to Open D (DADF#AD) and place a capo on the second fret:

Example 1

The toughest part about this little groove is switching from the shuffle to slide bit while staying in tempo and keeping everything clean. Remember to position the slide directly over the frets, not behind them as when fretting normally. Also remember to dampen with strings with your fret hand by “dragging” the fingers which are not occupied by the slide (slide players usually place the slide on the ring finger in order to have the middle and index fingers ready for “dragging duty,” but the pinky finger is also common). This is where the high action comes in; if your action is just a bit higher than normal on an acoustic, you’ll be able to mute and vibrato much more easily without the strings fretting out. An electric might require a bit more adjustment.

This sort of slide playing is a good introduction to the style since it is not too specific in exactly how the notes are played; the groove is what rules the roost here. My example is one approach, but the slide riff in this song can (and has) been played using countless approaches, as is the case for many blues standards (for a great version of this tune, pick up Eric Clapton’s Sessions for Robert Johnson DVD/CD). Don’t be afraid to be a bit aggressive when attempting the above lick. Use wide, singing vibratos, and add a note here and there. In other words, experiment with things. Even try using the slide to fret notes; you’ll get an odd, scratchy sound which can be very flavorful when used correctly, especially in a blues setting. Other times it can completely ruin everything, but, hey, its fun! That’s one of the best things about slide, especially unplugged; a sloppy approach (within reason) can in fact yield pleasant results. Play around with it.

All Slide All The Time

While the slide is a great tool for adding additional color to an acoustic or electric blues (or any piece of music, for the matter), it can also be used as the sole foundation for a song. Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying,” a tune which uses the slide almost exclusively throughout the eleven-minute track, is a good example of that. The second part of the opening riff (0:27 on the recording) is transcribed below. I took the liberty of adding some wide vibratos at the end of some the phrases to further embellish the slide sound. Note: The recorded version uses open A tuning, but standard will do just fine, since the intervals on the D, G, and B strings (the only ones we are using for this riff) are the same as in open A tuning: E , A, C#. The song will sound a whole step lower, but the transcription can still be followed as shown. To follow the recording, slap a capo on the second fret and there you go – instant open A.

Example 2

This time around we have a little bit more going on in terms of melodic variety. Again, there is a call and response theme present, but it is quite different from the shuffle pattern in Figure #1. Bars one and three form the call, two and four the response. In addition, the final slide lick seems to be a response to the original response in bar two; the b3 note at the end of the fourth measure causes everything to remain “hanging,” whereas the original response lick in bar two resolved back to the root. This resulting tension, which is relieved when the phrases in the first two bars are repeated before a “lead-in” to the verse starting in bar 7 (not shown), is what gives this little melody its character. This character is sweetened up nicely by the use of the slide; try playing the riff normally and see how it sounds. To my ears, its rather bland compared to the original, especially without the vibratos.

Harmonizing Two Guitars With The Slide

Of course, the use of a slide is not at all limited to blues-based material, although it tends to work quite nicely in that setting. In both rock and pop rock, slide guitar is often used to harmonize a free standing guitar part, such as a chord progression. This is similar to the first example, but two guitars are required. Quite easily the most famous and readily accessible example of this motif is none other than everyone’s favorite southern rock hit, Freebird! Either have a friend play the chords for you, or record them on a cassette deck or loop program, then try the following slide theme (the chords to be played, as well as the approximate time intervals, are written in between the tab and notation for the slide part.

Example 3

Example 4

Yeah, ok, so everyone knows Freebird and it’s a cliché to use it as an example, blah, blah, blah. I chose it anyway because its also great for a reason. It’s a solid example of complementing a chord progression in a melodic way that fit’s the music perfectly. Why do you think it sold fifty zillion records? In terms of the music, one aspect which is particularly significant to our little study is the slide part uses the entire fretboard. This is a prime example of breaking out of those pentatonic patterns that can seem so restricting at times. Most of the melody is played on the G string alone!

While present in Freebird, direct harmonization of individual notes is more easily illustrated in another example. This one, with the second guitar arranged for slide, is from a Black Crowes tune entitled By Your Side:

Example 5

Here, the slide guitar part harmonizes the second part of the riff, primarily by the use of fourths. Although traditional harmonization uses thirds, the fourth intervals present here, in conjunction with the phrasing and the slide, lend a kind of “down-home” vibe to the riff (if you want, harmonize the top lick using thirds as a comparison. It gives a noticeably different sound). The original recording uses two standard guitars and a different fingering of the notes, but I substituted a slide on a single string here for the purposes of illustration. Also, this example again reiterates the variety which can be had on even a single string

A Simultaneous Approach

While two guitars can create some great interplay, wouldn’t it be cool of you could add the slide to come of your own playing without constantly switching motifs and phrases? Well, the slide can also be used to spice up an individual chord voicing by using it to sound one of the notes forming a given chord. This is especially useful in open tunings, but you can accomplish this on some of your standard tuning chords and licks as well. Although this can be tricky to get the hang of, it can really add new life to old motifs. For example, lets take a standard blues turnaround in G, with the seventh descending to the fifth. Keep the slide on the G and D notes on the 3rd fret throughout the first bar, then use it to ascend the chords that finish the turnaround:

Example 6

Notice a change in the sound versus if you fret the strings normally? This sort of playing has been developed into an art form by some slide players, including the above mentioned Sonny Landreth, who frets behind the slide as well as picking both in front of and behind it. I won’t try to give you an example of his work, since its quite hard and I can’t come close to using it, but I highly suggest you check out his site In the above mentioned Guitar One issue, he also gives a lesson displaying some of these techniques.

I hope you enjoyed this little presentation on slide guitar and the many benefits it can have toward different aspects of your playing. Even if you only use it as a learning tool rather than a musical one, the slide can help anyone reach a new level of playing and, most importantly, ear training. All that time you spend slowing down and focusing on the notes versus bpm, as hard as this is to do (and believe me, I know how hard it is!), will help make you a better player.

Some Slide References:
Sonny Landreth
Son House
Hound Dog Taylor
Eric Clapton
John Lee Hooker
Led Zeppelin
Robert Johnson
The Black Crowes

About the Author

Matt Desenberg is a guitarist living in southern Maine. He recently graduated with a degree in English and is currently working as a freelance writer. Music is his main love however, with a main focus (for now) on classic rock and blues rock. He is currently a student of virtuoso Tom Hess.