Jason Isbell's Slide Magic

“I was initially attracted to that, because I saw that her hands were about the same size as mine when I started playing slide,” he says.
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If the slide guitar hook that binds “24 Frames,” the jangly first single from Jason Isbell’s fifth album, Something More Than Free [Southeastern Records], sounds a little tricky, that’s exactly what its architect wanted.

“The main riff on that song has a pull-off I do with my pinkie in front of the slide,” says Isbell. “I hit the note and pull off three frets up.”

Isbell figured out the trick after adopting Bonnie Raitt’s habit of wearing a slide on her middle finger when he was learning to play at age 11, which makes his fretting hand more versatile.

“I was initially attracted to that, because I saw that her hands were about the same size as mine when I started playing slide,” he says. “But putting the slide on my middle finger has turned out to be really cool, because I can do little things behind the slide—like flat the third and make a minor out of a barre chord. But I can also do hammer-ons in front of the slide. Sonny Landreth puts the slide on his pinkie and does all kinds of great stuff behind it, but not a lot of guitarists really play in front of the slide like I do.”

Isbell—who won the 2014 Americana Music Association awards for Album, Artist, and Song of the Year—grew up in the Muscle Shoals area of Northwest Alabama, the unlikely setting for scores of hit recordings in the 1970s from the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin, and, later, to bands like the Drive-By Truckers (of which he was a member for six years) and Alabama Shakes. His grandfather, a multi-instrumentalist Pentecostal preacher, first put a mandolin in his hands around age six, and then switched him to guitar for marathon jams. At the end, though, he always rewarded his student with what he really wanted to hear.

“If I would play gospel with him for a few hours, he would play blues guitar for me,” says Isbell. “He would lay the guitar down in his lap, tune it to open E, and play slide with a pocket knife.”

The pastor/reluctant bluesman bought young Isbell a boxed set of Robert Johnson recordings, but took care to dub the songs onto cassettes and exclude the ones he deemed inappropriate. Isbell listened to those songs—as well as guitarists such as Duane Allman, Lowell George, and Ry Cooder—for years before he finally put his own slide to his granddad’s Truetone Western Auto guitar.

“I was just learning the guitar, so playing slide was like learning to drive a car with no brakes,” he says. “But I stuck with it, because the first music that really moved me was delta blues—an Elmore James lick was the first thing I learned to do—and I liked all those seamless microtones you can get with slide.”

After years of playing in open tunings, Isbell went back to standard when he began performing in bands, and then ended up tuning a full-step down when he was with the Drive-By Truckers.

“That was hell on intonation,” he says. “A lot of nights, I knew I was going to be out of tune, but the Truckers was a punk rock band in a lot of ways, and if we would have been in tune, people might have been offended [laughs]. The first thing I did when I left that band was tune everything back to A440, and I haven’t looked back since.”