Playing Slide Guitar in Standard Tuning

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of different guitars, and I’ve used a lot of different tunings to play slide. Open D, open G, DADGAD – I’ve tried them all (and others) at various times. Kept one guitar in standard tuning, had others in different tunings.

These days, I use two guitars 99% of the time – a Telecaster and an SPT acoustic. But if you’re out somewhere jamming with friends and someone shouts out “Stuck In The Middle” or “Happy” or even “let’s do a 12-bar blues in A,” it’s not really practical to re-tune between songs, especially if you’re tuning by ear. It’s not very practical, either, to take numerous guitars everywhere. So I decided, as an experiment, to try playing slide in standard tuning.

To begin with, let’s look at a map of the fretboard:

Fretboard Map

Then let’s look at one of the most popular open tunings, Open G, and compare it, from low to high strings, to standard tuning:

Standard Tuning: E A D G B E
Open G Tuning: D G D G B D

Notice the D, G and B strings are exactly the same in both tunings. How convenient. What’s even more convenient is that these three strings are a G major triad – the notes G (root) B (third) and D (fifth) make up a G major chord.

In fact, just looking at the open strings, you’ll see there are plenty of combinations of notes. And it only takes three notes to make a chord, or even two (the root and the fifth) to make up a power chord. Let’s group the strings together in sets and look at the chords we can form. We’ll stick to the most basic chords because you’ll see in the very first example we can name all sorts of chords with four notes, so imagine how many possibilities there are with three or two notes! Here we go:

Four String Sets:

Using the first four strings (again, from low to high),D G B E, gives you G6 OR Em7

Three String Sets:

The three highest strings are G, B and E – that can be Em or part of G6, Cmaj7 and even A9 (or Am9) or Fmaj9 if you’d like.

The second through fourth strings are D G B which is an inversion of the G chord or could be part of Em7 and numerous other chord

Other groupings would include:

E A D Asus4 (inv) OR Dsus2 (inv)
A D G Dsus4 (inv) OR Gsus2 (inv)
A B E Esus4 (inv) OR Asus2

Two String Sets:

E A A5 powerchord (inv)
A D D5 powerchord (inv)
D G G5 powerchord (inv)

All well and good so far, but how does this fit in with playing slide? Well, those chords give us plenty of scope for rhythm guitar, and of course we can slide them up and down the fretboard – they’re all movable shapes.

Before we actually move on to the mechanics of playing slide guitar, I’d like to introduce a couple more very useful chord shapes, again just using the D G and B strings. Think of those strings as the HOME position, or 0 0 0. Now add one finger to the B string, one fret higher than the home position, and another finger to the D string two frets higher than the home position. You’re now playing E G and C, which is a C major triad. Slide that shape up two frets and it becomes a D major triad – F#, A and D.

D G B

0 0 0 – G triad
2 0 1 – C triad
4 2 3 – D triad

(NOTE – the fingers you use here will depend on which finger you wear a slide on. Some people prefer the ring finger, others like the pinky. If the slide’s on your ring finger (like me) you’ll use your middle finger on the B string and your pinky on the D string; if the slide’s on your pinky you’ll use the middle finger on the B string and the ring finger on the D string. It’ll take a bit of practise to get used to, but believe me, it’s well worth the effort.)

That’s a quick and easy way to play a I – IV – V progression, and you can do it in any key – just think of the D G and B strings as “HOME,” and you can play those shapes anywhere. E, A and B? The “HOME” position would be the 9th fret, meaning 9 9 9 would be an E major triad, 11 9 10 would be A, and 13 11 12 would be B. To add the vi (or the relative minor of I, which some would call “VIm”) to your I – IV – V progression, you’d simply drop back down to the home position and play 0 0 0 on the G B and E strings. You can use the I – IV – V and vi chords in literally hundreds of songs. Think G, C, D and Em…..

Another very useful chord is shaped very similarly to this last one you learned, but instead of using your ring or pinky on the D string, add it to G string in the same position, ie 0 2 1. Instead of, say, D G and B, we’ve now got D A and C. I usually think of this shape as a 6/9 shape – with C as the root, A would be the 6th and D the 9th in that scale. Here’s a little experiment – try playing 0 0 0 (on the D G and B strings, of course) then 0 2 1 then 2 0 1 then 0 0 0 again. Ring any musical bells? It’s actually the chorus progression for “Happy” by the Rolling Stones, a song which is played in open G tuning by Keith. Although Keef uses a capo on the fourth fret for this particular song, so the song’s in the key of B, and the chorus chords are played around the 9th fret making them variations on an E chord.

One last point before moving on – don’t forget your E- and A-shaped powerchords. The A-shaped powerchords are especially useful, if you play the root with your index finger and the fifth with your ring finger or pinky, you’ll find your slide is ready to use near the “HOME” position for that key.

So, onto the dynamics of soloing with your slide. Remember to think of the D G and B strings as “HOME.”

Diagram 2

Quite simply, this diagram shows the relationship between the notes played to the root note of whatever key you’re playing in. Obviously, it won’t work if you’re playing in G or Ab, unless you’re up at the 12th or 13th frets – but for any other key, it’ll work fine. You can see that the whole scale is available to you within a three-fret stretch of the home strings. Once you’ve learned the relationships of the various notes, you’ll find it fairly easy to put a solo together. As with any other genre or method of guitar playing, the main thing is to experiment – try various combinations of strings, remember what sounds good, remember what doesn’t sound so good. For instance, there’s a nice double stop on the B and E strings three frets up from the home position, where the fifth and root are repeated, but an octave higher than on the D and G strings.

This is by no means an exhaustive guide to playing slide in standard tuning; these are just a few tips and pointers to get you started. I haven’t delved into the actual mechanics of playing slide guitar because, for the most part, the techniques are pretty much the same as for playing slide in any tuning. I’ve found that, more and more these days, playing slide in standard is my default setting, especially for playing the blues. I’ve also found that writing this article has helped me immensely – instead of playing by feel, I’ve actually had to sit down and THINK about what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I’ve actually learned something, and hopefully you might gain something too. Perhaps you may be tempted to explore the further possibilities of playing slide in standard – in which case there’s a gentleman called Kirk Lorange who’s well known to us all at Guitarnoise as an excellent slide guitarist, especially in Standard and Drop-D tunings, who comes highly recommended. You can read a review of his teaching methods here.

And finally, a couple of examples of my own playing. The first one, “Mother Carey’s Chickens,” is slide guitar played in standard tuning over a pre-recorded backing track in the key of E.

The second one’s a Guitar Noise collaboration – five of us jamming over another pre-recorded backing track. My part’s the last section – from 4:10 to the end.

I don’t consider myself much of a lead guitarist – I think I’m a lot happier on rhythm. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to spread your wings and fly a little. Playing slide gives me a little more freedom in my playing – and playing slide in standard means I don’t have to retune every time I pick up a guitar!