Sonny Landreth: String Guarding

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. In this installment, the Louisiana slide deity reminds us that while it’s the slide hand that gets all the glory, none of the slide magic would be possible without a great plucking hand.

How did you first become hooked on slide?
The vocal quality of the sound, and the seemingly infinite possibilities for tone and emulation of sound just pulled me in. When you really get into slide and begin to get some control, you get sense of what you can do, and it opens up the door for different ways of tackling tracks in the studio, songwriting, performing, and everything else.

Was there a certain recording that made you want to play slide?
For me it was the Delta cats, particularly Robert Johnson. It was helpful that I had already learned the Chet Atkins plucking-hand approach. Putting that style together with slide worked perfectly.

How crucial is learning to mute strings when playing slide?
Very. The first and most obvious thing you need to learn to do is place a full but gentle chokehold on the neck behind the slide with your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers to mute the strings. Let these fingers trail behind the slide with just enough string pressure to cut out the unwanted noise behind the glass. What I’ve done over the years is learn to use mostly the 3rd finger as a muter right up against the slide, which is on the pinky finger. Think of the slide and the 3rd finger as being inseparable; as being one unit.

What about muting in front of the slide?
I call that string guarding. In addition to controlling noise in front of the glass, it allows you to control which notes ring and for how long. It involves using the plucking hand’s ring, middle, and index fingers and thumb to not only pluck individual strings, but to mute them as well. Generally speaking, the ring finger handles the plucking and muting of the first string, the middle the second, the index the third, and the thumb the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings. It may seem like a barely relevant thing to do in a slide lesson, but take your slide hand off the neck and try just plucking each string in open-E tuning this way [Ex. 1]. When each new string is plucked, mute the previous string with its corresponding finger. The palm and heel of the thumb are naturally angled to help mute any or all of the lowest three strings when needed.

Next, try alternating between two different strings, again muting the current ringing string when the new one is plucked [Ex. 2]. You can do this on other string pairs, too [Examples 3 and 4]. Also try applying the process to two strings at a time [Ex. 5]. Pluck the first and third strings simultaneously, then mute them as you pluck the second and fourth strings. All this string guarding keeps the notes from overlapping. Otherwise you’ll have every string ringing out of control. Eventually, when you put this approach into the context of actual music, you won’t be thinking about it anymore. It’ll become second nature.

You’re known for sounding notes behind the slide as well.
When you first start playing slide, you’ll hear a lot of noise from behind the slide if you don’t mute back there. But I’d like beginners to know that there are other sounds back there that are wonderful, including notes fretted by the muting fingers. And there are cool harmonics behind the glass, particularly when you’re holding the slide at the 12th, 7th, or 5th frets and aren’t muting behind the slide. When you learn to control the ghost notes on the other side, the sound possibilities will amaze you and change how you play.