If your ears are drawn to the fat, vocal whine of a lap-slide guitar, today there’s more great music to explore than ever before. Ben Harper, Kelly Joe Phelps, Cindy Cashdollar, Freddie Roulette, David Lindley, Aubrey Ghent, Debashish Bhattacharya, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Sally Van Meter, Bob Brozman, Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas, and Rob Ickes are some of the many players pushing the boundaries of tonebar technique.
Lap-slide guitar originated in Hawaii in 1885, when, as legend has it, an 11-year-old guitarist named Joseph Kekuku ran a railroad spike along his strings and fell in love with the mysterious sound. He made a steel tonebar at his school’s machine shop, raised his flat-top’s strings, and pioneered lap-slide technique. By the 1920s, “Hawaiian” acoustic guitar was entrenched on the mainland, often played on hollowneck instruments like the Weissenborn. Today, you can hear acoustic and electric lap-slide guitar in everything from spacey ambient to ripping rock. In this lesson, we’ll dive into the world of lap slide with a set of phrases you’ll find both fun and challenging. If you’re new to overhand slide, these examples will provide a gateway to novel sounds. If you’re already an adept lap slider, add these passages to your lick library. As you work through them, keep these points in mind:
• Lap slide is played horizontally, with both hands positioned over the strings, palms facing downward.
• All notes are either played as open strings or “fretted” using a tonebar.
• Most acoustic lap-slide guitarists use a grooved tonebar because it’s easier to grip when moving on and off the strings for hammers and pulls.
• Depending on where you’re playing along the neck, the tonebar may appear to be ahead or behind the selected fret (or fret marker), even when you’re spot on. Learn to trust your ears—not your eyes—for bar position.
• Frequently check your bar intonation against open strings, and make micro-adjustments to your positions as necessary.
• In the world of slide guitar, the strings you mute are as important as any you play.
• The following examples are all in open D (D, A, D, F#, A, D), one of the most popular slide tunings. The techniques—such as hammers, pulls, and muting—you’ll learn in this lesson work equally well with any other tuning.
• Most lap sliders play fingerstyle, using either bare tips (Ben Harper, Kelly Joe Phelps) or a plastic thumbpick and metal fingerpicks (Cindy Cashdollar, Jerry Douglas).
• When you stumble across a line that clicks for you, play it 20 or 30 times to burn it into your synapses. Muscle memory is your friend.