Arlen Roth's Slide Celebration

Generations of guitarists have learned to play slide from Arlen Roth’s books and Hot Licks videos.

Generations of guitarists have learned to play slide from Arlen Roth’s books and Hot Licks videos. For Slide Guitar Summit [King Mojo/Garage Door], the educator/player assembled nine fellow guitarists—some of whom grew up on his tutorials—to demonstrate the art of moving metal across the strings.

Johnny Winter, Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, Rick Vito, Jimmy Vivino, Jack Pearson, Lee Roy Parnell, Cindy Cashdollar, and Greg Martin duel with Roth on tracks that run the gamut from roadhouse shuffle (Winter on “Rocket 88”) to Hawaiian exotica (Vito on “Paradise Blues”). Roth’s tasteful playing—honed in session work for Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan, among many others—and choice of classy cohorts ensured against indulgent cutting sessions.

On January 20, Vito, Pearson, Parnell, and Martin joined Roth in Nashville for the record release party for Summit and a “making of” documentary screening. The previous day, we sat with the former GP columnist while he explained the fine points of slide guitar, and how this meeting of the masters came together.

What was your original attraction to slide?

It was the first thing I did on the guitar. I would watch Alvino Rey or Santo and Johnny on TV. We had a two-string Stella in the house and I would pick up my mother’s lipstick holder and start to play slide with it. It seemed easy. I took a few classical lessons, which taught me to use three fingers and the thumb, as well as blocking and damping, so the minute I put on a slide I was able to get a clean sound.

At 19, I met with Happy Traum, who asked me to do part of an instruction book for Oak Publications. I walked out of there with a three-book deal covering slide guitar, Nashville guitar, and blues guitar. That slide guitar book is still the standard for books of that type.

How did you choose who would be on this record?

I had the idea, and two weeks later I was in the studio with Johnny Winter. It is one of his last recordings. A lot of folks were friends who had worked with me before. Greg Martin, from the Kentucky Headhunters, had done a video for Hot Licks years ago, as had Lee Roy Parnell. Rick Vito and I had worked together with John Prine. Some, like Cindy Cashdollar, were mutual admiration societies. I had known of her, and we had played on albums together, but had never met. Jimmy Vivino was always a slide lover, so I called him. There were other people I tried to get, but it got to be too much. We ended up with nine players.

How did you learn about Jack Pearson?

Some people were telling me, “You’ve got to get this guy Jack Pearson.” I have to admit I didn’t know much about him at that point—I didn’t know he had been in the Allman Brothers for a few years. I heard him play and spoke to him and he just seemed so nice. He had such a great song to contribute to the album: “Do What’s Right.”

The record really seems to touch on a variety of different styles.

It covers all the styles. It surprised me that Jimmy Vivino, from up north, was the one that brought in the National Steel and wanted to play real Delta-style blues slide guitar. Other than that, you’re dealing with Chicago style and a lot of southern rock, like doing “Dixie Chicken” as a tribute to Lowell George—Lee Roy just nailed it. Cindy Cashdollar brought the western swing lap-steel aspect. I wanted her to do “Stranger on the Shore,” the old Acker Bilk hit. It worked out great as a slide piece. Sonny Landreth and I had worked together on the album I did with Levon Helm. He gets all that “train time” and percussive stuff going on, playing behind the slide and all that. I’m a little bit more traditional so we work well together.

How did you divide up the parts with each person?

I pointed: “You! Me!” In some cases it was discussed a little bit more. We might say, “You take the second verse, I’ll take the opening verses,” but mostly we just trusted each other. When it came time for Greg Martin to take it on “Amazing Grace,” it just felt right. He was the one that really wanted to do that song, so I set it up melodically and all of a sudden he comes in with that raw standard- tuning slide. Standard tuning is always going to present problems, but in his case it had that extra angst, so it just worked out.

What kind of problems does standard tuning present?

I never been an advocate of standard-tuning slide, though I’ve seen some people do a great job with it, and I can too. You have to have incredible right-hand dampening techniques, because you don’t have the box position and chords that you get by tuning to an open chord. What you can play within two to three frets in open E tuning takes seven frets to play in standard. You’ve got all kinds of overtones, so if you don’t hit the strings just right in standard, it’s going to ring out all these discordant notes. When Mick Taylor did a video for me years ago, I couldn’t believe that he was playing in standard tuning with a pick, and it was perfectly clean. The pick limits you as well, you can’t get the two or three notes at a time or the bass that you would with fingerpicking.

Did you use the same amps in different studios?

I brought my own amps with me when I came to Nashville. It was always my Deluxe Reverb and a Louis Electric amp. Everything was isolated, so when I came back to New York I could repair a bunch of my parts. The important thing in Nashville was getting great takes from everybody else—not being overly concerned with mine. I kept some of what I did, but I wanted better tones. I used to be in the school of “We got that perfect, let’s not touch that.” But you should give yourself the chance to get it even better, because this is recording. You can try different amps and guitars. In the studio, I come with 15 different instruments, maybe three or four different amps. I picture what I want for the songs and will finely home in on the sound I’m looking for.

It sounds like three guitars on a lot of the tunes. Did you do the overdubs when you were doing the fixes?

Some of them—but some we cut with the rhythm track. For example, on “Peach Picking Time in Georgia,” it’s me and Greg Martin playing rhythm guitar, and then we overdubbed the higher slide leads answering each other.

The David Lindley track sounds like it was recorded live at a venue. Why did you take all the solos on that one?

You can’t really hear it on the tape, but in the club David had this larger than life sound. I’m playing this little Gibson lapsteel with the Charlie Christian pickup. I think if he had taken a solo the whole bottom would’ve dropped out. That could have been why he kept saying, “Take another one! Do it again!” We had a great time.

I see you’ve got serious nails. Is that all you use, or do you use a pick and fingers on the slide?

Slide is thumb and three fingers—classical style. That way your thumb can be the dampening tool. Playing standard guitar on a Telecaster, I’ll usually play pick and two fingers, but I’m starting to go back to all fingers on guitar.

How do you keep those nails? Are they real?

Well, these were done at a little nail place. I was getting so tired of them breaking right before a big gig. I can hear on recordings if it was the day my middle fingernail broke off. These are growing out so fast I have to keep on trimming them, but it’s more security.

Do you notice how the nail on the first finger of my right hand is worn so far down? When I play rhythm, or when I’m playing gentle things, it’s fingernail down, pick up. It’s not all pick. I have the pick sort of canted at a slight angle where I can get both. It’s a little bit gentler and I’m less likely to lose the pick that way. If I want to play hard, I grip the pick and start digging in.

Which finger do you put the slide on?

The pinky—and the slide’s got to be long enough so that the tip of the pinky can sense the end of it. If you have it bigger than your finger, you have to use visuals to make sure you have it right. I like brass most of all. Glass is next, but it’s a distant second. It decays earlier. You have to be really scratching at it to sustain it.

Any other tips for playing slide properly?

You should realize that slide is a whole other instrument. It’s not just an appendage of guitar. It’s going to be a new thing. You’re changing your tuning, and dealing with different positions. Most of all try to get a clean sound. Use your fingers to block and damp. Only use as much of the slide as necessary. If you’re playing just the B and E strings, just use that much of the slide.

I like heavy brass, because that way I don’t have to press hard. You might pick up my guitar and say, “No way is that going to work for slide. The action is too low.” If you use heavy brass and let the weight of the slide do the work, you’re fine—there’s no need to press down, so you don’t get fret noise.

But, there’s lots of other ways of getting great slide sounds. When I was playing with Johnny Winter, he never straightened the slide out. He always held it at an angle, which will give you an intonation problem. But that’s how he held it and it worked for him.

Final thoughts?

I think a lot of people don’t realize how much of what they hear on movie and television soundtracks or commercials is slide guitar. The guys who do that music write me and say, “I learned everything I’m doing on Duck Dynasty from you!”


Greg Martin I grew up with Guitar Player; and I feel like I’ve known Arlen for years just from reading his columns in the magazine. Later, I did a Hot Licks video called Kentucky Fried Pickin’. I used my ’58 sunburst Les Paul in standard tuning through a 1968 plexi Marshall head and a basketweave 4x12 Marshall cabinet from the ’60s. The only pedals I’ve got are in my van: a gas pedal and a brake [laughs]. I have my signature slide by Rocky Mountain Slide on my ring finger.

Arlen was doing the Hot Licks videos about the time I was getting rolling in Nashville. He took notice and asked me if I would like to do a video: The Art of Slide Guitar.

For this record I used an oddball tobacco sunburst Les Paul made by Mike McGuire, who started Valley Arts Guitars in California. It weighs about six and a half pounds. He used Paulownia wood for the back and sides. It’s a little bit darker sounding. I have an affinity for 50-watt Marshall heads, and have always loved 4x10 cabinets. I wear the slide on my ring finger and play in open G.

I was asked to do “Dust My Blues,” and said, “Arlen, it’s been done so many times—how about ‘Dixie Chicken?’ I think we did one take.

I know Arlen originally from the Hot Licks videos he did in the ’80s. I first met him when he asked me if I’d do a tune on this record. We did my tune, “Do What’s Right.” I used an old Silvertone in open D through a Fender Blues Junior. It was one take. I think Arlen did some of his fills later.