Sonny Landreth(2)

From Delta blues to modern electric slide to his trademark “behind the glass” technique of playing slide notes and fretted pitches simultaneously, Sonny Landreth has a near supernatural ability to infuse his music with the most exciting and soulful aspects of every era of slide guitar. GP is thrilled to present this exclusive series of lessons in which the Lousiana slide deity shares the approaches and philosophies behind his stunning brand of slide guitar.

How should a newbie slide player select the right slide?
There are many to choose from, so I always tell people, whichever one you decide on, you’ve got to have the right balance between the weight of the slide and the gauge of your strings. Personally, I like heavier strings—.013-.056 D’Addarios—because they really open up the sound of the guitar, give you more tension to work with, and deliver a more complex sound. The type of slide is important. I started out using metal, which has a much harder and a brighter sound—and of course there are many people who prefer that sound—but the first time I tried glass I was hooked. I instantly loved the smoothness of it and noticed a difference in the harmonics and the overall feel. Bottlenecks are great—get one of those babies in motion and the flair at the top gives you a much bigger, wider vibrato than other slides—but I actually use Dunlop glass slides because they’re very exact and uniform, and their shape enables me to cover all six strings at the 12th fret and beyond, which is crucial for the stuff I play.

What finger should the slide go on?
There are great players who use the slide on the 3rd or 2nd fingers—strong fingers that give you a real powerful vibrato—but I always suggest people use the slide on the 4th finger. That gives you three fingers to work with behind the slide, and believe me, there’s another world right there alone—starting with playing Delta blues stuff that alternates between fretted riffs and slide parts.

How do you strike the strings?
I use a thumbpick the vast majority of the time, and while I used to use fingerpicks as well—which can give you a big, powerful, machine-gun fast sound—I actually prefer the sound of the fingertips. The combination of fingernail and flesh opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of tone and nuance. You can really change tones and timbres, depending on how and where you pluck the string.

What tuning should a beginner start with?
An open tuning. The beauty of open tunings is that they really open up the sound of the guitar, especially in regard to harmonics and overtones. When you master one of these tunings, that vocal quality we all love about slide starts to emerge. Open E [E, B, E, G#, B, E, low to high] is a good one because three of the strings—the first, second, and sixth—are common to standard tuning. To get into this tuning, you merely have to raise the A [fifth] string a whole-step to B, the D [fourth] string a whole-step to E, and the G [third] string a half-step to G#. Strum all six strings and you have an open E chord [Ex. 1]. This tuning gives you two low roots—the sixth and fourth strings—that will come in handy as bass notes, whether you’ve got the slide at the 12th fret [Ex. 2] or anywhere else on the neck.

What’s the most important thing to master when playing slide?
Well, it’s obvious that you have to master the action of sliding. But the other essential thing at the core of this style is vibrato. Those two elements are at the heart of it all. A simple exercise that’s gets you going with this stuff is to hold a note at the 7th fret with the slide and slide it up the 12th, adding vibrato once you arrive [Ex. 3]. Try it on every string.

Next time: Landreth details the crucial art of “string guarding.”