Guitar Essentials: Unlocking the Mysteries of Slide Guitar

Work through essential techniques and explore fresh approaches to slide guitar that will take your overall playing to a whole new level.
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No other guitar sound is more expressive than that of the bottle­neck slide, which can produce acute microtones, outrageous slurs and complex overtones. And while it’s historically associated with blues, the slide can be used for any style. In this introductory lesson, you’ll work through essential techniques and explore fresh approaches that will take your overall playing to a whole new level.

Start by placing a slide—glass, metal, or plastic—on your fret hand’s 4th finger. (You could also use your 3rd finger, but for this lesson the 4th works best.) Then try some notes. When you play with the slide, place it directly over the fret, without pressing down too hard. Put your other fret-hand fingers behind the slide, lightly covering the strings. Combined with pick-hand muting, these positions will help you produce clear, well-intonated notes and cut out unwanted noise. If you get serious, you’ll want a guitar set up just for slide, with medium-to-high action and strings gauge .011 or higher.

In FIGURE 1A, play beats 1 and 3 with a fret-hand finger and beats 2 and 4 with a slide. This will give you a reference to keep the slide notes in tune. In FIGURES 1B–C, you’ll slide into the Bb from below and above. FIGURE 1D contains one­-octave glissandi (rapid slides through consecu­tive tones). Don’t slide past the target note.


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Finger picking will not only provide you with killer tone but also aid in muting unwanted strings. In these two exercises, you’ll use your thumb (p), index (i), and middle (m) fingers to pick adjacent-string notes. To play FIGURE 2, first rest your thumb, index, and middle fingers on strings 6, 5 and 4, respectively. When you pick each note, make sure that your inactive fingers remain on the strings, to prevent unwanted notes from ringing out. Right after you’ve picked each note, return your pick-­hand finger to the string to silence it.


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In FIGURE 3, return your pick-hand finger to its assigned string only after you’ve played the note on the next string, so that each note will receive its full quarter-note duration. This technique is essential for achieving fluid lines and riffs.


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Check out the ascending/descending C major scale in FIGURE 4. For the grace-note slides that fall on the third pitch of each string, pick the note indicated by the smaller note head/tab number, and then quickly slide to the larger target note, landing squarely on the beat. As you move up and down the scale, be sure to keep your pick hand’s middle finger on the unplayed, higher adjacent string, and your palm on the lower strings, to aid in string muting; you don’t want to hear any unintentional open strings. After the first three notes, which are both picked with the thumb, FIGURE 4 uses strokes that alternate between the index finger and the thumb. Adhere strictly to this pattern, as it will come in handy for playing smooth slide lines at higher tempos.


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Now that you a have handle on finger-D A D F# A D), which make it possible to play full chords with the slide. In FIGURE 5, a conventionally fretted shuffle pattern (use your 1st finger for the 2nd-fret Bs) is offset by F, G, and A chords, which are played simply by placing the slide straight across frets 3, 5, and 7, respectively.


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FIGURE 6 contains a Ry Cooder–influenced lick in open D. Carefully follow the finger-picking indications, which will allow you to play this lick without having the notes ring into one another. In order to apply the vibrato found throughout this lick and those to come, simply move the slide back and forth a short distance over the indicated fret. Be careful not to exaggerate the vibrato; if your motions aren’t precise, the notes will sound ridiculously out of tune.


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FIGURE 7 is a fiery lick in A major inspired by Duane Allman. Pick the triplets on strings 2 and 1 with your thumb and index finger, respectively. You needn’t worry about muting the strings this time around. For licks like these, you want the notes to ring together, creating a bluesy mass of sound. For the D-major turnaround of FIGURE 8, be sure to really dig into bar 2’s chromatic series of triads. Also, use the previously described vibrato approach for the A/C# chord, again employing a small, tight motion for better pitch control.


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Cajun guitar monster Sonny Landreth uses a behind-the­-slide fretting technique to access a wide range of chords inaccessible through conventional slide technique. In FIGURE 9, use your first finger behind the slide to depress the 10th-fret E in bar land the 8th-fret D in bar 2. In FIGURE 10, use your 1st finger behind the slide for the 2nd-string notes F and G. Throughout, position your fret-hand’s palm such that your 1st finger is sufficiently arched.


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FIGURE 11’s sweet four-bar progression, reminiscent of the Fifties Santo & Johnny ballad “Sleepwalk,” uses the behind-the-slide technique to produce Bm, Gm and A7 chords. While your first finger has plenty of work to do behind the slide, pay close attention to the placement of your bottleneck. To produce proper intonation, it should lay directly over the fret and remain steady for the duration of one chord per bar. Make sure you follow the picking instructions carefully, so that the arpeggios all sound smoothly connected to each other.


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From advanced harmonic applications to wild outside lines, David Tronzo has written the New Testament on slide guitar. He prefers a special tuning, (low to high) E A D G B D, which is simply standard tuning with the first string tuned down a whole step. This arrangement allows for a wide assortment of intervals between strings at the same fret, as shown in FIGURE 12. Like Landreth, Tronzo often plays behind the slide, as seen in FIGURE 13. For this series of E7 altered chords, use your first finger to fret all the 5th-string notes behind the slide.


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FIGURES 14–15 demonstrate two of Tronzo’s impossibly dense and completely unpredictable chromatic lines. At such brisk tempos, and with wide intervals and a lack of glissandi, it’s especially crucial to have to use as little fret-hand movement as possible and to make precise contact between the slide and the string(s). The suggested finger-picking strokes will aid in both accuracy and articulation. Take both figures very slowly at first, and raise the speed as you get comfortable with the unconventional movement. Fully mastering Tronzo-style bottleneck will take a lot of practice, but this is a great start.


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Keep at it, and good luck.