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Do The Slide Guitar

Article from Making Music, September 1987

We reckon slide guitar is about to become extraordinarily cool again. Well, we heard the Joshua Tree album, and we heard Sammy Hagar. We also heard Martin Simpson and paid attention when he told us how to glide about.

FOR MY ears, bottleneck or slide guitar is one of the most vocal and evocative sounds in all music. From the dark notes and sombre mood of Ry Cooder's "Paris Texas" soundtrack, to the wild screams of Duane Allman's Les Paul on 'Layla', from the hoarse chords of Elmore James to the sinuous ragas of Brij Bushnan Kabra... a great musical distance, but all this music is linked by one basic technique.

Slide guitar is characterised by the use of what is, in effect, a moving fret. The strings are not pressed down against the finger board, but noted with a tube usually worn on the little finger of the fretting hand. Some players apply the third finger, but the little one leaves the others free for damping or chording.

Slides themselves come in many forms, shapes and sizes. Mississippi Fred McDowell remembered using a dried and polished beef-bone from a steak, Lowell George from Little Feat used a socket wrench, and Duane Allman a pill-bottle.

Traditionally, many blues players used a true bottle-neck, as the name suggests, and Ry Cooder, among others, still does. There, are, however, a number of drawbacks to this. First find yourself a bottle... try wine... with a neck wide enough to allow the passage of your little finger. It should have parallel sides, be long enough to cover all six strings on the guitar and not boast a lip or moulding to get in the way. Some people swear by Mateus Rose, but I prefer something drier.

Having found the bottle in question, I'd suggest you then get another half dozen of the same, in case of accidents. Please leave at least a good night's sleep between the emptying of bottles and the next step.

There are many rather arcane methods recorded for removing necks from bottles, ranging from (a) smashing against the wall, to (b) petrol soaked ropes and (c) boiling water and ice cubes. They all strike me as being elaborately or dangerously inefficient. Carefully scoring the neck around with a good glass cutter and then tapping it off with a ball pein hammer is the best method. Always wear heavy leather gloves when working with glass. Any remaining rough edges can be removed, either by very gentle tapping, or better still by rubbing on a graduated sharpening stone. Start on the rough side, and finish on the smooth. If you have access to a mechanical oil fed stone this is even better. If you don't have any of these, use the pavement.

Unfortunately, apart from the short lived Mighty Mite brass slides, and an earlier plastic coated steel slide, now also unavailable, there are no truly excellent, commercially available slides. Almost all slides on sale in shops seem too light, whether metal or glass. Apart from bottlenecks proper, I have used over the years the end of a venerable bicycle handlebar, the above mentioned off-the-peg slides, and nowadays, custom made chromed brass Roscoe slides, and stainless steel Campbell-Simpson models.

The weight of the slide greatly affects the length of sustain and the quality of vibrato, as well as the general tone and facility of special effects, so try to get the heaviest you can, even if at first try it feels like it will pull your little finger off. Bear in mind the pain you experienced when first pressing down the strings of a guitar, the slide trauma is peanuts by comparison.


Most slide players use open tunings, although when you've learned to control the slide, it's easy and very effective to play breaks and riffs in standard tuning. Mick Taylor did this with the Rolling Stones.

The best tuning to start in is Open D Major — D A D F# A D, the fourth and fifth strings remaining the same, and all the others being lowered. Electric guitarists using light strings can achieve the same intervals, without losing string tension, by tuning up to open E Major — E B E G# B E. Try playing this little tune on the top string. Only the arrowed notes are picked with the right hand.


The real point of this exercise is to achieve accuracy and sustain. Don't press too hard or you'll fret the string and kill its ringing, or get noisy fret-bang. The last two notes — fourth fret to open — are played with a pull-off. Just lift the slide cleanly off the string.

A little history wouldn't go amiss at this point. Hawaiian guitar, which is the direct antecedent of American folk blues and country slide styles, is reputed to have been performed first in the USA, by Frank Ferera, a Portuguese cowboy. In the years before World War One he played an acoustic guitar open tuned and flat on his lap, with the strings raised by a high nut. The electric lap slide, pedal steel and Dobro are all played in this fashion, and some bluesmen played like this also, occasionally using a pocket knife as a slide.

By the middle 1920s it seems that black guitarists, particularly gospel-singers (the "Guitar Evangelists"), had taken to playing slide in Open D tuning for its vocal qualities. It was like a do it yourself congregation. This was a quite phenomenal spread of an idea. In 15 years from the introduction of Hawaiian guitar to the States, the Guitar Evangelists could be heard from Texas to Chicago, crossing all the regional differences in guitar playing. In this tuning the two bass Ds (the sixth and fourth strings) can be used for a rocking bass, while melodies are played in the octave on the top string, open to 12th fret, and down to the fifth on the open second string. The fourth string was often used to play baritone variations or echoes of the melody. Try this simple version of 'The Saints' as an introduction to open D Gospel slide.


Try finding the melody of 'Baby Please Don't Go' — it's a classic blues tune written purely in the pentatonic blues scale — and works well in D or E... also look out for Blind Willie Johnson's recordings, he was the greatest of the Guitar Evangelists.

It's very interesting to trace the development and the family trees of slide. Robert Johnson, the legendary Mississippi bluesman, was somewhat of a stylistic sponge, incorporating ideas from many other players. His slide playing was much influenced by Son House, a slightly older Mississippi player. Johnson greatly influenced both Muddy Waters and Elmore James, later Chicago based electric players — indeed James named his band the Broomdusters after a Johnson song, and his trademark lick is based on a Johnson figure, which was not played with slide at all.

Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and hundreds of others have recorded Robert Johnson's songs. This lick is a good introduction playing across the 'box' positions rather than up and down one or two strings.


The other most common open tuning for bottleneck is open G, D G D G B D (open A for electric players, E A E A C# E). It is slightly more difficult to approach than Open D, but there are many great riffs from blues in Open G. The root note here is the fifth rather than the sixth string, although Keith Richards, who uses this for rhythm, simply plays a five string guitar with no D bass.


Here is a riff with a Mississippi style slide. Son House used this kind of riff, and it's closely related to Robert Johnson's 'Walking Blues'.

There are many classics of slide playing in Open G, Ry Cooder's 'Dark End of the Street', Robert Johnson's 'Come On In My Kitchen' and Lowell George's superbly subtle 'Long Distance Love' for instance; and all these use the box position around the twelfth fret.

This can serve only as an introduction to slide playing. Nowadays there are many tunings in use from open minor chords to the extremes of musical weirdness, and slide guitar is a-growing. David Lindley can be heard playing lap slide on hits by Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, U2's Edge uses slide in his intense and layered playing, and I've heard Irish airs, Indian classical music and hot jazz played in this style. I hope to be able to cover more in a future article.

In the meantime, look out for any of the people I've mentioned, on record, and watch out for Dave Kelly or Mike Cooper live, or come and see me, and we'll talk about it. Slide's like that.


For those of you who've never met the stuff before, the examples to the left are in guitar tabulation — tab for short. It's a very easy to understand way of writing guitar music, and we'll be getting round to a full explanation in future issues. Don't be fooled into thinking it's a musical stave. In fact each of the grey lines represents a guitar string (bottom E, surprisingly, at the bottom). The numbers are the frets at which they're played and you read from left to right, thus in the London Bridge example you slide from 7th fret, to 9th fret back to 7th to 5th, all on the top E string. Where the marks move across strings, keep reading from left to right and play them in that order. SL signifies Slide, noughts (0) are open strings, notes linked by vertical lines should be played together. Basic tablature can give no indication of rhythm, and is mainly a musical shorthand, but more of this another day.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Sep 1987

Feature by Martin Simpson

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> Sammy Hagar

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> Wood Of The Month

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