Slide Strategies of the Masters

Hopefully, these ten quick tips will inspire you whether you're just considering learning to play slide, or have been sliding for years.
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In more than five decades of publishing, Guitar Player has covered a lot of slide players, as well as dedicated a smattering of issues as slide-guitar specials. For our slide theme this year, we figured, “Why keep all of those great tips in the back-issue archives?”

So here’s some knowledge from the ’90s—culled from the GP staff’s wonderful slide extravaganzas of November 1992, August 1994, and March 1999, and via interviews by Jas Obrecht, Chris Gill, Andy Ellis, and Dave Whitehill. We’ve also included a tidbit from Bonnie Raitt’s first GP cover story in May 1977 by Patricia Brody. Hopefully, these ten quick tips will inspire you whether you’re just considering learning to play slide, or have been sliding for years. Now, let’s meet the maestros…

Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder


“Consider the beauty of the hands. What we’ve got here is an amazing tool. Flatpick—throw it away. Thumbpick—I’d say throw it away, because every time you hit the string, you are, in effect, stopping it, as well. Learn to feel the string with your skin. Gabby Pahinui played so caressingly you could hear his pores. I swear it. With Son House, it’s a dynamic thing. A matter of drama.”

Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter


“Glass definitely has a real nice sound. For a while, I was using a test tube that was cut off, but it wasn’t quite thick enough to get a good sustain. Metal, of course, sounds more metallic, and, most of the time, I like that better. The glass sound is a little bit mellower, but I like that harsh metal sound. That’s why I like National guitars—the more metal, the better.”


“I play single strings mostly. I can’t make the guitar say as much as my voice, but I try to get it as close as I can. Me and my guitar—we have a conversation together. I’m no hell of a guitar player, but the feeling that I put into my guitar—a lot of players can’t get there. One note of mine will say something the other guy can’t say. The tone I lay in there—the other guy can’t get it out with 12 notes.”

Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt


“With slide, you can really move the vibrato around according to your emotion—the same way you do with your voice. When I first heard the blues guys who played slide that I love—Muddy Waters, Son House, and Fred McDowell—they would get so emotional that they couldn’t sing anymore. They would tilt their head back and take over on the slide. That’s where I saw how slide guitar was able to extend what they were already feeling, and take it to an even higher level.”


“The acoustic guitar will tell you a lot of information. The electric will give you less. The truth of the matter is only an acoustic will really reflect what you’re up to. You can hear yourself at work. You can hear your mind in there. ‘Oh, I’m tense today. I’m tired. Too much coffee.’ And when you begin to hear all of that, try to imagine the guy in front of his shack in a bean field in Mississippi. Think how different his mind is from yours. That’s why his sound is so interesting—funny, far away, and lonesome. Everybody is a conduit of sorts.”

Lil’ Ed Williams

Lil’ Ed Williams


“My uncle, J.B. Hutto, gave me tips—like it’s mostly in the left wrist and holding the slide steady. With shaking the slide, you have to vibrate the little finger, so you have to stiffen the wrist to keep it shaking, and then wiggle the arm a little bit. Whatever I seen him do, I do.”

Will Ray

Will Ray


“Experimenting with different techniques, tunings, and slides is creatively inspiring, and it will keep your mind and fingers from falling into predictable patterns. You know, hop on the merry-go-round, and then go play on the swings. For example, I used to have maybe three slides, but now I have glass, stainless steel, brass, ceramic, and aluminum, and they all sound different. On really bright guitars, I use a silver slide coated with acrylic to tone down the highs. Ceramic seems to warm the slide sound more than any other material.”


John Hammond told me to use the finger to the left of your slide to damp, so that when you’re coming up the neck, the note will ring clearer. But I had already learned to damp with just my palm, and I couldn’t change it. I use the palm of my right hand to kind of muffle the sound when I pick with my thumb, and I use my thumb to get that thumpy kind of bass. I also use all three fingers when I pick. I sort of precariously balance my slide, so putting it on my middle finger wasn’t the best choice, because when you go to chord, you have to learn how to keep the bottleneck from falling off.


“It’s a mistake to think you can play cool-sounding slide with a regular action. You tend to press down too hard with the slide—especially when you’re playing live and the adrenalin gets pumping. You get all kinds of nasty squawks and rattles against the fretboard. You have to raise up the action as high as you can take it. I bring it down a little on the bass-string side for playing rhythm, but the rest of the strings are up really high. You should also use heavier-gauge strings.”


“It’s all about using your ears and remembering what you did when it sounded right.”