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Sonny Landreth Master Class

October 17, 2008

LIKE THOSE FAMOUS FICTIONAL KIDS who discover the gateway to Narnia in the back of a magical wardrobe, Sonny Landreth, too, has stumbled on a portal to another world—not one of lions and witches, but one of inspiring new riffs, approaches, and sounds. And for years this boundless world was hiding in plain sight in back of the slide—a vast timbral frontier that legions of electric slide players before him never thought to explore. You may have heard of some of the new techniques and textures the Louisiana guitarist has pioneered since then—such as ghost notes, ghost harmonics, reverse vibrato, fretted notes, hammer-ons, and pull-offs sounded behind the slide—but if you have never tried them, you’re probably guessing these radical approaches are complex and difficult.

They’re not.

In fact, they couldn’t be more simple— no theory, sight-reading, or Herculean guitar chops required. Like the act of playing slide itself, each of these approaches is a classic example of a physical task that takes a moment to learn but a lifetime to master. All you need to excel at these techniques is a love for cool sounds, and your ears will lead you the rest of the way. And if you also want to brush up on bottleneck basics, we’ve got you covered there too, because before this lesson hops over the glass to the “wild side” of the slide (as Landreth likes to call it), we’ll briefly flash back to Landreth’s insightful series of GP Slide Seminars, as well as his July 2003 Master Class, for a quick crash course on every other aspect of slide playing.

“I always tell people, whichever slide you decide on, you’ve got to have the right balance between the weight of the slide and the gauge of the strings,” says Landreth. “Personally, I like heavier strings—.013-.056 D’Addarios—because they give you more tension to work with. The type of slide is important, too. I started out using metal, which has a harder and brighter sound that many people prefer, but the first time I tried glass, I was hooked. I instantly loved the smoothness of it and noticed a difference in the harmonics and the overall feel.

“Bottlenecks have a great vibe and a lot of character, and the blues cats really hit on something with that, because that flair on top gives you a much bigger, wider vibrato than other slides and really pushes some air. But it’s hard to play multiple parts at the same time with a bottleneck and maintain proper intonation. I use Dunlop Pyrex glass slides because they’re very exact and perfectly uniform, and their shape enables me to cover all six strings at the 12th fret and beyond, which is crucial for the stuff I play.

“A thumbpick gives you a lot of power,” says Landreth. “I use a heavy Dunlop Herco combination thumbpick/flat pick a majority of the time. And while I used to use fingerpicks as well—which can give you a big, powerful, machine-gun fast sound—I actually prefer the sound of the fingertips. The combination of fingernail and flesh opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of tone and nuance.”

Many a great slide part has been performed in standard tuning, but most slide masters take advantage of the wondrously full sound achieved by tuning all six strings to an open chord. But before you start throwing different tunings and heavy string gauges at your guitar, a word of caution: “It’s really important to have an instrument that has stability in the neck, body, and [in the case of hollowbodies] bracing,” says Landreth. “For instance, I love the sound of old Danelectros, and they’re quite well suited to lowered keys, such as open D, but I never really got them to work for me up in open E.”

For all but the last example in this seminar, we’ll use Landreth’s go-to tuning, Open-E [E, B, E,G#, B, E, low to high], which, from standard, is achieved by raising the fifth string a whole-step to B, the fourth string a whole-step to E, and the third string a halfstep to G#. “The beauty of open tunings is that they really open up the sound of the guitar, especially in regard to harmonics and overtones,” says Landreth. “When you master one of these tunings, that vocal quality we all love about slide starts to emerge.”

Open E is the same as open D, intervalwise, so the fingerings are identical. “But because open D has a lot less string tension, it has more of that slack key sound,” adds Landreth. “I actually prefer the sound of D—it’s more blues, more Elmore James ‘Dust My Broom.’ But, with E’s extra string tension, I find that more complicated approaches are easier to execute, because there’s less elasticity. Also, E is more suited to my vocal range. Strum all six strings in this tuning, and you have an open E chord [Ex. 1a]. This tuning gives you two low roots—the sixth and fourth strings—that will come in handy as bass notes, whether you’ve got the slide at the 12th fret [Ex. 1b] or anywhere else on the neck.”

The soul of slide music lies in two core techniques: vibrato and, of course, the act of sliding from pitch to pitch. “Those two elements are at the heart of it all,” says Landreth. “A simple exercise that gets you going with this stuff is to hold a note at the 7th fret and slide it up to the twelfth position, adding vibrato once you arrive. Try it on every string [Ex. 1c].

“Another big part of slide playing is muting. The first and most obvious thing you need to learn to do is place a full but gentle chokehold on the neck behind the slide with your 1st, 2nd, [and/or] 3rd fingers to mute the strings back there. Let these fingers trail behind the slide with just enough string pressure to cut out the unwanted noise behind the glass. What I’ve done over the years is learn to use mostly the 3rd finger as a muter right up against the slide, which is on the 4th finger. Think of the slide and the 3rd finger as being inseparable, as being one unit.”

Slide players also need to be handy at muting in front of the slide with the plucking hand. “I call that string guarding,” says Landreth. “It allows you to control which notes ring and for how long. It involves using the plucking hand’s ring, middle, and index fingers and thumb to not only pluck individual strings, but to mute them as well. Generally speaking, the ring finger handles the plucking and muting of the first string, the middle the second string, and the index the third string. The thumb handles the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings—plus, the palm and heel of the thumb can help mute any or all of the lowest three strings when needed. Here’s a good string guarding exercise: Take your slide hand off the neck and try just plucking each open string this way [Ex. 2]. When each new string is plucked, mute the previous string with the appropriate finger.

“One thing I do a lot is use open strings against slide notes, because it creates such a rich sound. Raise your plucking-hand off the strings so nothing is muted, and play a melody on the highest string [Ex. 3], angling the slide away from the fretboard so it’s only touching the first string. Thanks to sympathetic vibration, the other five strings should start ringing spontaneously. Actually, what I often do when I’m playing a melody on the first string is mute the second and third strings while letting the lowest three strings ring sympathetically in the background. The result will be a subtle, E5 drone that complements the melody and tends to ring more dramatically when the volume is higher. You can really work those droning strings, even to the point of feedback. Sometimes it gets to be a little ugly [laughs], and that’s where string guarding comes in. You’ll soon learn where the sweet spots are with your rig, and that’s the fun part, because we’re all using different combinations of pickups, guitars, amps, and speakers.”

Now that you’ve patiently gone over the rudiments, you’re ready to learn the secrets of …

Wanna win a bet? Here’s a pretty solid way to do just that while introducing another guitarist to Landreth-style behind-the-slide technique. First, play the simple descending pentatonic-based line in Ex. 4, using your slide to play each note. Now challenge your friend to play the same line without moving the slide away from the twelfth position. When they can’t get past the first note, show them how Landreth would accomplish the feat by playing Ex. 5. Here, while letting a vibrant E chord ring above the 12th fret to add a background E major harmony (this part is optional), Landreth plays an expanded version of the descending line without moving his slide a single micrometer. All twelfth-position notes are handled by the slide, while all other notes (i.e., the tenth- and eleventh-position pitches) are fretted behind the slide. The simple genius of this approach is that as long as your string height isn’t ridiculously low, and your fretboard radius is within a normal to fairly flat range, the fretted string dips below the slide and rings unimpeded. How did Landreth stumble on the technique?

“Years ago, I was playing in a blues band using open-E tuning, and I got frustrated because I couldn’t strum a minor chord,” explained Landreth in the July 2003 GP. “At the 12th fret, for instance, you have an E major chord [Ex. 6a]. I could see the note I needed— Gn on the third string at the 11th fret—right behind the slide. I suddenly realized if I fretted that note, the third string would drop below the glass and I’d have my E minor chord [Ex. 6b]. In this E voicing, three strings float against the glass, and one is fretted. I can use vibrato on the other strings, while holding that Gnote. Coming across this simple move was like finding buried treasure.”

This treasure chest of riff possibilities led Landreth to beautiful chordal moves such as Ex. 7, which features both major and minor chords, as well as phrases in which not one, but two notes are fretted behind the slide simultaneously via a recurring double-stop barre on the 10th fret [Ex. 8].

The next big discovery Landreth made was that if you abruptly release a note fretted behind the slide, when it springs back to its normal height, it clangs against the slide and produces a note, as in the b3-n3 move shown in Ex. 9a. This motion feels identical to pulling off a fretted note to an open string. And yes, you can also hammer on to wild-side fretted notes [Ex. 9b]. Once you get comfortable with these two approaches, you can play a succession of wild side slurs within a multi-string line [Ex. 10].

Earlier, we touched on the importance of muting the strings behind the slide. Now let’s see what happens if we scrap that plan. “That’s how you get what I call ghost notes,” says Landreth, playing Ex. 11a. “When you have the slide over the 12th fret like this, you’re splitting the string into two equal segments, so the note on both sides is identical. If you strike the string with everything unmuted, you’ll hear both notes at once. Now, apply vibrato with your slide. What’s interesting is that the vibrato is exactly opposite for both notes, producing cool chorus- or Leslie-type effects.”

To make the ghost note behind the slide really ring, simply reach your plucking hand back there and strike the string—or, take a tip from Landreth and pluck it using your slide hand’s 1st finger. Next, experiment at other harmonic nodes, such as the one over the 5th fret [Ex. 11b], where the ghost note will chime a whopping octave-and-afifth higher than the standard slide note. Also try the 7th position, where the notes are the same on both sides, but the ghost note is an octave higher [Ex. 11c]. Finally, just rake your thumbpick or fingers across all the strings behind the slide and see what happens. You’ll be rewarded with shimmering ghost chords [Ex. 11d].

(Cool Sonny trick: With the slide over the 12th fret, completely mute the strings in front of the slide with the heel of your plucking hand and then strum ’em hard. The unmuted strings behind the slide will ring, but you may not fully hear them until you release your plucking hand. Now gently reapply your muting hand again, release, and repeat. When you hear a pulsating tremolo effect, you’ve got it down. Trippy!)

In decades gone by there were distinct differences between, say, the Detroit, Nashville, and Chicago sounds. While these disparate regions still have their own musical identities, their flavors have all—perhaps thanks to the Internet (and major label conglomeration)—become significantly more homogenized. One thing that’s refreshing about Sonny Landreth, though, is that you can really hear his deep Louisiana roots in his playing. There’s nothing watered down about this sound.

“I was heavily influenced by the syncopations of New Orleans jazz and zydeco,” says the Lafayette, Louisiana native. “This is my guitar version of the rubboard [Ex. 12], which propels a lot of Zydeco music. It’s a very percussive approach. I’m heavily muting the strings with my palm, but strumming so hard that the notes still sparkle through. This is where a thumbpick comes in really handy.”

And yes, as you probably expected, there are a few wild-side notes included in this lick. “There are even some harmonics coming through somehow,” says Landreth, who also uses the approach on 12/8 blues shuffles.

“There’s an infinite number of licks an to be discovered behind the slide,” says Landreth, who, before we wrap up, would like to remind you to experiment with wild side slide licks in other tunings, such as open G [Ex. 13]. “Experiment, and you’ll find all kinds of sounds. Some will be beautiful, some will be uglier than sin. It’s beauty and the beast.”


“You can’t spend too much time working on vibrato,” says Landreth. “It’s always worth refining. A player’s personality seems to come out more in their vibrato than in any other aspect of slide playing, and everybody has a unique thing theybring to vibrato. Honestly, Idon’t think I have one of the better vibratos. Listen to classic Mick Taylor tracks and you’ll hear the most beautiful, singing vibrato. Same with old Elmore James recordings. Tampa Red amazes me—his vibrato is real fast, real precise, right over the fret. I like some of the younger players, too. Derek Trucks just kills me—beautiful technique reminiscent of Duane [Allman]. He takes that Duane approach to the stratosphere. The master of all has to be Ry Cooder. He gets that windshield-wiper thing going with the slide—you know, the top of his slide has wider arc than the lower part— and it sounds amazing.” —JG

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