Roy Rogers is a bona fide slide maestro who has been a big cat on the blues and roots scene since the early ’80s, when he started working with John Lee Hooker. He has since garnered eight Grammy nominations, and produced Grammy-winning tracks with Hooker and Bonnie Raitt. Other collaborative credits include Béla Fleck, Sammy Hagar, Carlos Santana, and Ray Manzarek of the Doors. Rogers’ signature Delta slide sound can be heard on the original soundtrack for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as well as on the soundtrack for The Hot Spot with Hooker, Miles Davis, and Taj Mahal. Rogers continues to tour the world leading his longstanding Delta Rhythm Kings, and he’s also working on a new project called “StringShot—Blues & Latin” with Badi Assad on guitar and vocals, and Carlos Reyes on violin and stringed harp. Their album is due in the fall.
While some slide aces are primarily electric slingers—think Duane Allman—and others such as Leo Kottke are strictly acoustic cats, Rogers is equally at home on either side of the equation. As we’ve usually focused more on his electric playing in GP, we figured this slide-themed issue was a good time to let Rogers hold court about his acoustic side. Take it away, Roy!
IT’S ALL ABOUT RHYTHM
It’s especially important for acoustic playing that your overall approach include playing rhythm with the slide. A lot of players tend to use the slide just for leads and melody, but it can also be an integral aspect of defining the groove.
What slide you choose is really about comfort. Use what you like best. Metal slides have more tonal bite to my ears. When I first started playing slide after seeing Muddy Waters perform, I used a short metal one like him. Now, I prefer a shorter glass slide—a Dunlop 212—because a lighter slide works well for my particular style. I often play horn-like riffs at a fast tempo, and a larger slide would be cumbersome for performing those parts. I suggest that players try a few different slides, and then decide. The same applies to which finger to use. I prefer the little finger so I can fret chords more easily than using, say, the third finger. But, remember, there is no right way or wrong way. Players have to figure it out for themselves.
Play what is comfortable to hold, stand, and sit with, and, most of all, what sounds good to you. Listen to how different woods sound, and how the intonation of each instrument makes you feel. I have always liked small-bodied acoustics, as a dreadnought was always too big and uncomfortable for me to play. Get to know as many guitars in various shapes and sizes as possible before you make a decision about buying one. For many years, my main acoustic has been a Martin 0-16NY acoustic. It’s a parlor guitar with great tone and a rather wide neck—which I like for playing slide.
Playing slide on a resonator guitar is something all players should try, because it is a truly unique sound. I am the proud owner of a 1931 National Duolian, and it scares me every time I play it! That instrument takes me to another time and place, and I find myself trying new things just from hearing that sound. My style is based on Delta blues, so I have never played lap-style at all—although I did see Bukka White play lap-style on a National steel guitar many years ago.
How much coloration do you want? Go for piezo pickups if you want less of a tonal change from what you hear acoustically. In the studio, I like a combination of acoustic and electric tones so that I can dial in subtleties as needed. Live performance is a different story. The rather unique setup I use on my Martin 0-16NY is a vintage DeArmond humbucking pickup from the ’60s in the soundhole—which definitely adds tonal coloration. It allows me to play at significant volume with a small acoustic guitar. It delivers a great tone from the acoustic, but it also packs the kind of punch I want without feeding back. A guitar with a larger body would not work. I have had a great many guitar players ask me, “How can a little acoustic guitar sound like that?”
A player should use heavier strings for playing slide, because heavier strings deliver stronger tone, and tone is king. Of course, the strings have to feel comfortable to the player, as well. I use D’Addario strings, and I make sure to change them often. On my Martin 0-16NY, I use D’Addario’s Silk and Steel set, except that I substitute heavier strings—a .013 and a .016—for the first and second strings. I use a medium set of bronze strings on my 12-string Dobro, and I use heavy strings on my National. The gauges are .016 to .056.
I prefer thick picks—again for tone—and because I pick hard. I generally play with a Clayton .80mm or a Gibson medium, and I’ve just started to use a Herco thumbpick—which is very cool. I sometimes play using a combination of fingers and picks.
I constantly use a capo onstage to change keys in open tunings. I use Shubb capos, because I find them to be simply the best and most reliable.
Many acoustic players simply go through a direct box to the mixing board, and hear themselves through the stage monitors. I have always preferred some kind of amp behind me when playing acoustically, because it’s something I can control. My main amp is a late ’70s Boogie Mark II 100-watt 1x12 combo, with a Motion Sound rotary speaker for a Leslie effect. My slide can cut through just about any mix with that amp setup.
I prefer to get a natural sound from the amp. However, I have used an Arion stereo chorus for years. In addition to a great chorus sound, it gives me a slight gain boost that I find very effective.
The player’s fretting hand should always be somewhat loose—not rigid. Vibrato is essential to good slide guitar, which means using a more fluid motion to get the feel of that foreign object on your finger. Have a solid intention of exactly how you want to play each note—whether you’re going to slide up or down to the note, hammer-on to it, or hit the note straight-on. It’s very important to slide directly over the fret for good intonation.
Whether I’m using a plectrum, fingerpicking, or both, I most often use the palm of my right hand to dampen the other strings for a cleaner tone on the slide note. I’m constantly motioning on and off the strings with my palm while playing. It has become automatic.
On most of my recordings, I use a combination of acoustic and electric guitars to create a “combo plate” sound. A variety of amped-up electric tone from clean sustain to searing distortion can be combined very well with acoustic tones. The headroom of the acoustics is so important, and voicings in open tunings cover a lot of musical space. In conjunction with using a slide, you can create a huge sound. Another great thing about open-tunings is that you can play a similar part with a standard-tuned guitar, and there generally will be no conflict because of the different chordal characters.
Listen to all kinds of music from around the world—not just from the U.S., and not just from guitar players. Whatever your likes and dislikes, there is so much music to be heard, and there is always something new to be learned that will all go into your mix, and become what you play at some point.
There are three songs I’d recommend as essential listening for gaining invaluable insights on playing acoustic slide: “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson; “Death Letter” by Son House; and “Preachin’ Blues” by Robert Johnson—who comes to mind above all others regarding slide guitar. So much has been written and talked about regarding all aspects of Johnson’s guitar playing, but listening to his slide playing is especially amazing. There’s a reason he influenced so many of us!