Sonny Landreth: Part Four: The Ghostly Drone of Sympathetic Vibration

From Delta blues to modern electric slide to his trademark “behind the glass” technique of playing fretted pitches and slide notes simultaneously, Sonny Landreth has a near supernatural ability to infuse his music with the most exciting and soulful aspects from every era of slide guitar. In this installment, the Louisiana slide deity shares ways to take advantage of the phenomenon known as sympathetic vibration.
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Other than being a whole-step apart in pitch, open-E and open-D tunings are exactly the same. Why do many players tend to gravitate to one more than the other?
The interval structure is indeed exactly the same for both, so the fingerings are identical. However, the feel of each tuning is quite different. Open D [D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high] has a lot less string tension, which gives it more of that slack key sound. I actually prefer the sound of D—it’s more blues; more Elmore James “Dust My Broom.” Plus, D is easier to get into from standard on most guitars because you’re dropping strings, as opposed to raising them for open E [E, B, E, G#, B, E]. But, because of open E’s extra string tension, I find that complicated riffs and approaches are easier to execute, because there’s less elasticity.
Mostly, it depends on the song—and the guitar. If you’re going to be throwing different tunings and string gauges at your guitar, it’s really important to have an instrument that has stability in the neck, body, and [in the case of hollowbodies] bracing. For instance, I love the sound of old Danelectros, and they’re quite well suited to lowered keys such as open D, but I never really got them to work for me up in open E. Overall, I’d say the main reason I use E is I’m more comfortable singing up there than in D.

In the April ’07 installment of “Slide Seminar,” you shared ways to practice string guarding—muting unused strings with your plucking-hand fingers and palm. In the next issue you demonstrated some approaches to single-string melodies. Any other techniques players should learn before moving on to more complex slide licks?
One thing I do a lot is use open strings against slide notes, because it creates such a rich sound. Raise your plucking-hand off the strings so they’re not muted, and play a melody on the highest string [Ex. 1], angling the slide away from the fretboard so it’s really only touching the first string. Thanks to sympathetic vibration, the other five strings should start ringing spontaneously. What I often do when I’m playing a melody on the first string is mute the second and third strings while letting the lowest three strings ring sympathetically in the background. The result will be a subtle, E5 drone that complements the melody and tends to ring more dramatically when the volume is higher.
You can really work those droning strings, even to the point of feedback. Sometimes it gets to be a little ugly [laughs], and that’s where string guarding comes in. You’ll soon learn where the sweet spots are with your rig, and that’s the fun part, because we’re all using different types of pickups, guitars, amps, speakers, and all that, so not only will you come across different combinations of notes and phrasing, but you’ll discover cool gear combinations in your signal chain as well.

Do you ever literally pluck open strings while playing a slide melody?
Sure—that’s another way to create those layered textures. For instance, I might pluck the second string once every four beats against a first-string slide lick [Ex. 2]. It really creates that singing sound—with just two strings! Then, you can work up to building multiples of that with other strings. Once you get everything vibrating, you can really get some mojo working. I’ve shared two short, simple licks here, but the concepts behind them are huge. The fun part is that everyone takes their own path with this stuff. Try it out, and you’re sure to come up with some unique sounds.