Roy Rogers is a slide guru that was included in GP’s hotly debated February 2007 cover story “101 Forgotten Greats & Unsung Heroes.” John Lee Hooker gave Rogers his first big break in 1982. Recently, Rogers and Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek enjoyed a fruitful collaboration from 2008 until Manzarek’s passing in 2013. Rogers’ first solo band CD in five years—Into the Wild Blue [Chops Not Chaps]—is chock full of fabulous bottleneck blues. Wanna play like Roy? Here’s what to do, and what not to do.
Don’t Be Pitchy
Proper pitch is crucial. It’s the first and foremost technical aspect of good slide playing because there are so many ways to approach a note with that little thing on your finger, as opposed to simply pressing down on the string between two frets. Whether you’re sliding up or down to a note or going at it directly, the slide should ultimately be positioned directly over the fret of the desired note. Frankly, being a little flat can occasionally sound cool and “blue,” but sharp is never good. That’s even more important when playing fast licks or riffs, like I often do. I achieve tension on “Last Go-Round” by playing slightly flat or not landing on pitch until the very last moment on a ’58 Les Paul Jr. The playing is manic by design. The instrumental tune “Dackin’” is another good example, but in a different, funky context.
Don’t Look—Listen and Feel
Think of a fretless instrument, say, a violin or a cello or a fretless bass. It’s really not about vision—it’s about feel. The same is true playing slide guitar. You develop a feel, you develop your ear, and then you trust your hand. A doublebass player knows his positions, but he’s not necessarily looking at the neck—he’s feeling his way, and that’s what you want to do. Of course, a beginner will initially rely more on eyesight as he or she learns how to position the slide directly over the fret.
Don’t Ignore Acoustic—Embrace It
You can tell when a player is uncomfortable, and that’s especially easy to hear on an acoustic because you can’t hide behind amplification. I started out on a $25 Stella, and my fingers hurt. My teacher would tell me that if I could play a song on that guitar, I could play it on any guitar. That may sound trite, but it’s true. If you can play something on acoustic, you can definitely play it on electric once you’re used to the extra sustain, but the reverse is not necessarily true—and that goes for slide or non-slide playing. The acoustic guitar is a different animal. You have to play differently on it, and it will give you different textures. Acoustic and electric has always been a combo plate for me. I get my signature round, acoustic-based sound on a 1970 Martin 0-16 New Yorker with a DeArmond pickup. I run it through a Mesa/Boogie Mark IIB and a Motion Sound rotary speaker. You can hear it on the lead to “High Steppin’.”
Thin Is Not In
Thin slides and strings lead to thin tones. Thick slides and thick strings yield thick tones. I use a Jim Dunlop 212 Pyrex slide and a Texas Blues Tube electropolished metal slide. I like the 212 because of its thickness and length. I like a relatively short slide because I have small hands, and I can keep a good grip on the slide if my pinky finger extends beyond it. If not, I couldn’t control the slide, and I might lose it. I put the slide on my pinky so I can fret chords with the other three fingers, but whichever finger you decide to use, get a slide that fits. You don’t need a long slide because you’re generally going to use it on the top four strings anyway.
I’ll use a metal slide if I want a little more grit and bite. I used it on “Dark Angels” and on “Into the Wild Blue.” Electro-polished metal is important to me because its smoothness approaches glass.
Your string set has to start with at least a .012 or .013 in order to get a good slide tone. I use D’Addario’s EJ21 Jazz Light set, but with a .013 on top instead of a .012, so the gauges are .013, .016, .022w—or .024w on a heavier guitar—.032, .042, and .052. On the bottom neck of my Sean Chappell doubleneck guitar, I use the EJ22 Jazz Medium set gauged .013, .017, .026w, .036, .046, .056. That’s pretty heavy. I always use a wound third for more tone. I use Martin Silk & Steel strings for my New Yorker.
Get Your Action As High As You Can
Slide playing requires higher action to get the full ring of the string. If the action is too low, you’ll not only fret out, but there won’t be enough of the string’s surface area hitting the slide to for the pickup’s magnet to pick it up. My action is set as a compromise. It has to be because I jump back and forth between slide and non-slide playing all the time. I’ve given up the facility of fast action on the neck for better slide tone, and now I’m used to playing with higher action. You either have deal with that compromise, or have a designated guitar for slide. Otherwise, you’re not going to get the tone, and tone is everything.
Slide and Rhythm Playing Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Lots of rock bands have two guitar players—one playing rhythm, and one playing strictly lead with a slide. But it doesn’t have to be one way or the other. The slide isn’t reserved for lead playing. I keep it on my finger all the time, and it’s actually an integral part of my rhythm structure. “Love Is History” is a good example, even though the piano is featured. I played my Martin in open E, capoed up to F—Shubb capos never fail me. I like to cover a lot of different ground rhythmically, and I cut the rhythm tracks first on this record. Some people think blues has to be a traditional 12-bar shuffle, but that’s just not so.
Groove Before Cutting Loose
You don’t have anything if you don’t have a groove. I used to have students who would go nuts playing slide riffs with no rhythm. I’d ask them to play a slow, Jimmy Reed kind of blues groove, and then throw a few licks in among the rhythm figure. Some simply couldn’t do it. If you can’t do that with a simple I-IV-V progression, then there’s no way your slide licks will amount to more than wanking. You need a groove first, and only then might you have something to say within that framework.