How can a beginning slide player learn to play single-note melodies?
Well, the most positive approach is, of course, to listen to other people’s solos and try to emulate some of what you hear. That’ll help you learn where the notes are. What I would do is work on a simple melody like this [Ex. 1]. This pretty little phrase takes place entirely on the first string, and all the plucking is done with the ring finger [a].
It makes a good exercise because it combines a few different techniques. For one, we’re string-guarding—we’re muting the five unused strings. The lowest three strings are muted by the plucking hand thumb [and thumb heel/palm], the third string by the index finger, and the second string by the middle finger. By the way, it’s important to know that if it suits the lick you are playing, you can shift your entire string-guarding stance down a string, so that your ring finger will handle the second string, the middle the third string, and so on. When I’m in this stance, I occasionally use my pinky to guard [and pluck] the first string since it’s sitting right there.
You’re applying vibrato to two notes in the phrase.
Yes, our melody also introduces the idea of target positions within a lick—in this case, the notes held at the 7th and 12th frets. At each target note, hold the pitch and make it sing by applying vibrato. It gives the phrase a sense of melodic emphasis. Try also playing the melody on the second string, the third string [Ex. 2], and so on, plucking with the corresponding fingers, muting the other five strings with the other fingers, and adjusting the intervals as necessary to remain diatonic to the E major scale [as in Ex. 2].
How does one develop a strong vibrato?
It’s important to remember that vibrato is a separate movement you’re going to have to work on by itself. For me, vibrato is a back and forth movement of the slide above and below the pitch—never more than two cents sharp or flat, because that’s about the maximum my ear will accept. Keep the thumb anchored behind the neck and let the slide swing like a pendulum. Imagine the energy going through your thumb to your palm to your 4th finger, which is holding the slide. You should be able to feel this energy go all the way through your elbow to your shoulder. For sweet melodies, I keep the vibrato fairly shallow. I let it get wider when I’m playing something more dramatic. Either way, you’re oscillating, massaging that pitch to get the vibrato effect and increased sustain.
When you’re in an open-E tuning, do you tune the 3 [the open, third-string G#] to the even-tempered pitch electronic tuners and pianos provide, or do you tune it slightly flat to the “pure” 3 that soul singers, Delta blues players, and other musicians intuitively hit—the just 3 that’s in tune with the overtone series?
Interesting question! The quick answer is that yes, beginners should be aware that whatever tuning you’re in, if it has an open-string major 3, electronic tuners won’t provide that pure, bluesy third that our ears love. You have to rely on your ears a bit [to drop that 3 slightly] so it sits in the sweet spot.
I learned about pure intervals of thirds and sevenths the hard way. See, my first instrument was the trumpet, which I learned to play by myself. Using just my ears I had all these sweet, perfect intervals happening until the day I finally played with a piano—which is an even-tempered instrument—and then all hell broke loose. Every notion of pitch I had went out the window. I had to learn to adjust things to match the piano.
The frets on the guitar are even-tempered too.
That’s why many of us gravitate to slide—we want to get that vocal sound, and that vocal sound often lies between the frets. It takes time to learn how all this stuff works—for example, I do have to make small adjustments when I’m playing with a keyboard player so we don’t clash. But the more you play slide, the more you learn how to manipulate things to get that singing sound. The fact that the slide is floating gives us access to every possible sweet spot imaginable.