Playing slide on a standard guitar with low action and skinny strings isn’t the optimal way to enjoy the slide experience, however, making a guitar more slide friendly is a pretty easy process for anyone with even minimal DIY skills. Here are some things to consider if you want to optimize a guitar for slide.
An inexpensive acoustic or electric guitar is ideal for converting to slide, and you may find that you’ll get more use out it than you would by keeping it in standard configuration. Also, a cheap ax will often sound rawer and more lo-fi as a result of its construction and pickups, which can actually be a benefit when it comes to slide tone. Just think of what electric blues players had at their disposal back in the 1950s!
Raising the action is the first order of business if you are making a dedicated slide guitar, but it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of height increase to keep the slide from rattling against the frets. On an electric guitar you can adjust the bridge and/or the saddle to get the strings high enough off the deck for a clear slide sound, while still keeping the action comfortable for playing with fingers. Raising the action on an acoustic or electric can also be done by using an inexpensive nut raiser, which slips over the stock nut to elevate the strings. Choices here include Grover’s GP1103 Perfect Guitar Nut Height Extender ($5.99 street) and the Golden Gate Resonator Guitar Extension Nut ($7.95 street).
The general wisdom says that bigger strings equal bigger sound, but there are no rules regarding string gauge for slide guitar. Use what feels right, and if a lighter-gauge set suits your preference you’re in good company. For example, slide master Derek Trucks strings both his Gibson SG and his resonator guitars with the same custom gauge DR nickel-wound set, which runs 011, .014, .017, .026, .036, and .046. ’Nuff said!
Open tunings are where it’s at when it comes to slide, and the most popular tunings for blues and rock are E, D, G, and A. Derek Trucks plays almost exclusively in open E (E, B, E, G#, B, E low to high), while Sonny Landreth often bottlenecks in open G (D, G, D, G, B, D low to high). The legendary Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson used open G tuning for many of his greatest songs, such as “Crossroad Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues,” and “Come On in My Kitchen.”
There are no definites about pickups when it comes to slide either. Bonnie Raitt gets a beautiful tone via her stock Strat pickups, and so does George Thorogood with the P-90s in his Gibson ES-125. Johnny Winter famously used a Gibson Firebird with mini humbuckers, as well as an Erlewine Lazer guitar with a humbucker in the bridge position and a single-coil in the neck. With so many aftermarket pickups available from Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Jason Lollar, Lindy Fralin, TV Jones, and others, it certainly behooves one to try different types and see what sounds best through your rig.