As Jerry Douglas’ shiny tonebar skips and dances across the strings of
his growling resonator, funky blues licks echo through his attic
studio. Built over a two-car garage, it’s a spacious, bright space
filled with custom instruments, including resos built by Tim
Scheerhorn, Paul Beard, and Ivan Guernsey, a Fender Custom Shop
Telecaster lap slide made by Fred Stuart, and a triple-pickup Harmos
lap steel. Here—armed with a Macintosh PowerBook, a Digidesign Pro Tools system, a Chandler TG EMI-style channel strip, Neumann and Royer Labs mics, Yamaha NS-10 and Genelec nearfield monitors, and a small but potent collection of outboard gear—Douglas is putting the final touches on his upcoming solo album. And what a sound: Fans who have followed his illustrious career with the totally acoustic, bluegrass-steeped Alison Krauss and Union Station may be surprised—even shocked—when they hear him riff on electric lap steel, solo with ballsy tones, and interpret a poignant Weather Report tune (Joe Zawinul’s “A Remark You Made”).
“It’s my other side,” explains Douglas, as he lays down his Beard to cue up a track on the laptop. “I’ve wanted to make this record for a long time. Check this out—it’s me and Derek Trucks.” As Douglas’ burly lap steel and Truck’s melismatic bottleneck lines twist and intertwine, the mind boggles at the collective virtuosity. “Derek gave me so many great takes,” chuckles Douglas, “it’s tough to figure out which ones to use. He cut his parts right here. I just miked up his Fender Super Reverb, and he took off.”
Played horizontally with all notes “fretted” using a tonebar, lap slide is beginning to rival traditional bottleneck guitar in popularity. Thanks to David Lindley, Aubrey Ghent and his fellow sacred steelers, Debashish Bhattacharya and other Hindustani slide savants, Ben Harper, Bob Brozman, Kelly Joe Phelps, and Freddie Roulette—who in the ’60s proved that a lap steel sounded superb for Chicago blues—audiences around the world are discovering what Western swing and bluegrass fans have known all along: In terms of raw emotion, it’s hard to top the searing tones produced by skating a heavy chunk of metal along steel strings.
With nine Grammy Awards, more than 1,500 album credits, and scores of TV performances to his name, Douglas is arguably the best known lap slide guitarist ever. He has recorded with such diverse musicians as Earl Scruggs, Ray Charles, Phish, and Bill Frisell. Eric Clapton invited him to play at last year’s Crossroads Festival. In 2004, the NEA awarded Douglas with a National Heritage Fellowship for being “a composer and arranger who has explored musical forms from bluegrass to blues, and from country to classical.”
When we asked Douglas for an introductory lap slide lesson—a primer aimed at GP readers of all stylistic persuasions—he obliged with essential pointers on tunings, phrasing, slant bar positions, and behind-the-bar bending. Logically, he began with tips on how to securely hold the tonebar.
Get a Grip
“I use a grooved bar,” says Douglas, “because it’s easier to grip when moving on and off the strings for hammers and pulls. Pedal-steel bullet bars are just too slippery. My bars are made by Tim Scheerhorn or Ron Tipton. These guys have taken the original Stevens bar to a new level. Tipton was the first to stray away from the Stevens design. He made the side grooves a little deeper, so his bars feel like a suction cup in your hand.
“There are many grooved bars to choose from, but regardless of the design, here’s how you hold it: Lay your index finger in the top groove, put your thumb against the front side, and place your middle finger along the back groove. Park the bar directly above the fret marker, with the center of the bar’s playing surface touching the strings. From the playing perspective, it looks as if you’re lining up the bar’s front edge parallel with the fret. As you move up the neck, that contact point disappears from view, so you have to find your notes by ear. It’s crucial to mute unwanted strings and eliminate the noises and sympathetic vibrations. That’s where your pinky and ring fingers come in handy: Drag them lightly on the strings behind the bar, and they’ll help you keep a clean, punchy tone.
“Like most steel and Dobro players,” Douglas continues, “I pluck the strings using a plastic thumbpick and metal picks on my index and middle fingers. I also use the edge of my palm to mute strings near the bridge. Someone pointed out I even use my ring finger to mute the first string when I’m picking melodies on the inside strings, something I’d never realized. It’s hard for me to explain picking-hand fingering. You play so long, you don’t even think about it. But basically, my thumb takes the lead—as if I were holding a flatpick—and the other fingers fill in. My thumb is a free agent—it can go anywhere—but my fingers have stations: The middle finger stays on the top three strings. My index can move across the bass strings, but it usually feels awkward to bring my hand too far back toward my body, because then I feel like I’m losing my pivot-point position on the coverplate palm rest.”
Diving into Open D
If you’re new to lap slide, Douglas suggests starting with open-D tuning (D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high). From standard tuning, drop your first, second, and sixth strings down a whole-step, and lower your third string one half-step. “I think open D is more accessible than other tunings,” Douglas explains, “because it’s so blues oriented. The bluegrass Dobro players never used it, but I find it’s friendly for fiddle players and guitarists. I use open D a lot with Alison.
“To begin with, it’s important to get control of the bar,” says Douglas, “especially lifting it on and off the strings [plays Ex. 1, below]. Use the open strings as pitch references for the bar notes.”
As you slowly work through this bluesy phrase, notice how there are only four picking-hand attacks in each measure. Three of the seven notes are slurred—that is, played with a slide, pull, or hammer. To execute a pull-off (as in beat two), simply lift the tonebar off the string. The hammer (beat three) is equally delicate: Drop the tonebar gently onto the second string above the third fret. Be nimble, and notice how bar 1’s melody is repeated an octave lower in bar 2.
“In open D,” Douglas elaborates, “anything you play on strings one and two is also available down an octave on strings four and five. The tuning is nice for playing chords. I like to combine open strings with bar tones, like this [Ex. 2, below].” The jangly Gadd2 that ends this lick is one of Douglas’ signature voicings. For other impressionistic harmonies, try moving this major chord—played on the lowest four strings—to the 3rd, 7th, and 10th positions, while plucking the top two open strings.
Douglas picks lines like Ex. 3, below, at blinding speed, but even at moderate tempos, they sound sassy. “There’s only one way to get a handle on the bar moves,” he says, “and that’s to play hundreds of variations on such phrases, both ascending and descending.” This example illustrates another Douglas trick, which is to play licks using the same pitch on different strings. In bar 1, for instance, D occurs on the open first string, and then on the second string, 5th fret. They’re the same note, but possess distinct timbres. “I’ll pull off to an open D for a snappy sound,” Douglas elaborates, “or move to a lower string so I can slide into D from below.”
Once you’ve mastered a few single-note lines, it’s time to play some two-string harmony, as in Ex. 4, below. To create the percussive rake that kicks off this four-bar phrase, Douglas quickly drags his thumbpick across muted lower strings as he attacks the first string. It’s a move he frequently uses to accent notes in a phrase. “Mike Auldridge refined this technique,” says Douglas. “His notes seem to explode from the cone.”
By adding vibrato to the Gadd2 (bar 2), you use the tonebar like a bow to sustain the bass notes. The whiskery tones that result from rubbing the wound strings is one of lap slide’s most expressive textures. In measures 3 and 4, descending major sixths create a soulful turnaround against the harmonic backdrop of the ringing top two strings. Lay the tonebar across strings six through three, but keep it from touching the second string, which needs to vibrate freely. To play the concluding flourish (bar 4, beats three and four), tilt your hand so that only the tonebar’s tip contacts the fourth string. To steady your aim, rest your pinky and ring fingers on the bottom strings. As a bonus, you’ll get extra muting. “I’m constantly muting with both hands,” admits Douglas. “That’s key to getting an articulate tone.”
Two-note harmony gets even more challenging when you slant the bar to hit notes over different frets. “I mostly use open-G tuning for slanted bar harmony,” states Douglas. “This is the classic Dobro tuning that all the bluegrass players use.”
Dobro open G (G, B, D, G, B, D) differs from guitar open G (D, G, D, G, B, D). The change occurs on the lowest two strings, which are pitched considerably higher in the Dobro version. (A squareneck resonator, lap steel, or electric guitar can take the extra tension on strings six and five, but don’t try it on a flat-top.) To enter Dobro open G from open D, crank your sixth string up a fourth (from D to G); your fifth string up a whole-step (A to B); your third string up a half-step (F# to G); and your second string up a whole-step (A to B). Strings one and four remain the same (D).
Ex. 5, below, illustrates how you can use bar slants to outline a I-IV-V progression on strings one and three. We’re in the key of D. A no-brainer, the I chord uses a straight tonebar position. “But moving to the IV chord is tricky,” says Douglas. “the lower note stays the same, while the higher note moves up a whole-step. This is a forward slant; I use my fingers to move the bar, with my thumb acting as a pivot point. The V chord is another forward slant, though not as extreme. Moving from the I chord, the lower note drops a half-step, while the higher note stays the same.”
Here’s the theory: To establish the I chord, D major, we’re playing D and A (the chord’s 1 and 5). For the I-IV shift—D major to G major—the D note stays put (it becomes the 5 of G), while the top note slides up to B (the 3 of G). For the I-V move—D major to A major—the A is common and the lower note drops to C# (the 3 of A).
“You can also play slant bar harmony on strings two and four,” says Douglas, picking Ex. 6, below. “Now I’m using a reverse slant for the G and A chords. For reverse slants—which are my favorite—I move my wrist and keep the bar cupped in my hand.”
The I-IV (D major to G major) reverse slant works like this: Begin by playing A and F#, the I chord’s 5 and 3. The top voice shifts up a half-step to G, while the bottom voice moves up a whole-step to B. Now we’re playing the root and 3 of G major. For A major, the V, simply hold that slant position and slide it up two frets.
Ex. 7, below, puts these various slants to use. Go easy and listen carefully to each voice, making sure it’s in tune. “You’re manually imitating a pedal steel’s push-pull mechanism,” says Douglas, “so be patient. It takes time to master these shifts and figure out how to mute the unused strings.”
Steel Pulls and Banjo Rolls
Another pedal-steel technique involves stretching the second string behind the tonebar while a note is sustaining. “Ah, the cheese slicer,” says Douglas. “After you’ve plucked the second string, pull it toward you using your bar hand’s ring finger. The trick is to keep the string in contact with the tonebar as you raise the note a half-step. This move lets you create sus4 voicings [Ex. 8, below]. For extra support, prop your thumb against the neck as you pull the string. At this point, your index and middle fingers have control of the tonebar.”
As you work out these beautiful harmonies, don’t strain your ring finger. You’re not likely to have used this “pull” muscle much in standard guitar playing, so you’ll need to build strength slowly.
Banjo rolls play an important part in Douglas’ rippling accompaniment. Ex. 9, below, illustrates how he’ll move a line against shimmering open strings, while subdividing a measure’s worth of streaming eighth-notes into an ear-grabbing 3+3+2 pattern. “With practice, this rhythm becomes automatic,” adds Douglas. “At fast tempos it has a driving, hypnotic sound.”
Ex. 10, below, features a chromatically descending bass line, forward slants on the bass strings, chimey ascending arpeggios, and a whining string pull. At all times, strive to maintain solid contact between the bar and the strings. “That’s crucial for good tone,” says Douglas. “If you relax your tonebar pressure even a little, the notes can get twangy. For electric guitar, twang is great, but for slide, twang is not so good. It can sound sloppy, like you’re not making full contact with the note. I’m always striving for a big, round tone.”
Many guitarists find it alien to play horizontally and fret notes with a tonebar—at least at first. But if you give it some time, lap slide can become addictive. Remember that even the greats have to work on intonation. “It’s always a challenge to play fast and in tune,” asserts Douglas, “but when everything comes together—wow, what a thrill. On a really good night, you just sit back and watch your hands go; it’s like you can’t do anything wrong. Of course, you don’t come out and say that, because it would jinx the moment [laughs]. It’s how I wish I could play all the time, but I know I can’t. Those rare occasions are a gift dropped in your lap just to remind you of what’s possible.”