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Playing Slide Guitar

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Slide Techniques

When playing with the fingers, notes are sounded by placing a finger behind the fret that you want to sound the note on. When playing slide, the note is sounded by placing the slide directly above the fret.
When playing slide, the two most important words to remember are tension and anticipation. When a guitar is played in "normal" fashion, the notes are struck with a sharp attack and then the note gradually decays. With a slide, the attack becomes much longer, producing an almost horn-like tone.
What makes the sound of slide guitar so poignant is that the notes are "squeezed" out of the guitar, rather than "struck" out of the guitar. 

Here's some examples of important basic techniques (All following examples are using open G )...

Example 1, Sliding up.

Place the slide over the 12th fret, then strike the 2nd and 1st strings in rapid succession. Now try this. Place the slide over the 10th fret, strike the 2nd string and slowly and gently move the slide up to the 12th fret. When you get to the 12th fret, immediately strike the 1st string, which the slide should now also be touching at the 12th fret. Remember, don't push the strings down onto the neck with the slide, just move the slide lightly over the strings.
How you arrive at the note you play is just as important as what note you play. Above all, don't rush it! 

Example 2, Vibrato.

Vibrato is a term used to describe rapidly raising and lowering the pitch of a note in small increments. Whether done with the fingers or a slide, is an important technique in all blues playing. Indeed, blues artists such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters and many others, have made this technique a "trademark" of their playing styles.
Once you've practiced example 1 enough times to be familiar with it, try this. Play exactly what you've been playing in example1, but when you strike the note on the 1st string, move the slide up and down the neck in small, rapid movements. Keep your wrist very relaxed to produce this effect smoothly.

Example 3, Hammer-on.

This is a technique that is fundamental to all styles of guitar playing. Simply put, it is the technique of playing a second note by rapidly pushing an already vibrating string onto the neck of the guitar. Try this: Hit the 5th string open - this produces the note G. While the note is still sounding, rapidly bring your 2nd finger down onto the string at the 2nd fret, producing the note A. 

Example 4, Pull-off.

No, it's not what you think! A pull off is exactly the reverse of the Hammer-on. Try this: While holding the 5th string down at the 2nd fret, hit the string, producing the note A. As soon as you sound the note, rapidly pull your finger off the string. A second note, G, will now be sounding. Combining the hammer-on and pull-off in rapid succession is what as known as a "Trill".
Both the hammer-on and pull-off can be done with either your finger or the slide. 

Example 5, Slide-lift and mute.

Repeat what you practiced in example 1, but when you've brought the slide up to the 12th fret on the 2nd string, immediately lift it off the string, allowing the other fingers off your left hand to touch the strings, muting them, before striking the 1st string. This technique can be used to produce a sharp, staccato, rhythmic effect. 

Example 6, Arpeggios.

Arpeggios are an important tool in slide playing. An arpeggio is simply when a chord is played by sounding some or all of it's notes individually.
Holding the slide across all of the strings at the 5th fret, pick each string individually, downwards from the 6th string to the 1st string.

Some other important stuff 

An important consideration when switching between the D and G tunings is that any riff or lick played in the open G tuning can also be played in open D by moving the same pattern down one string. For instance if the riff starts on the 1st string at the 12th fret in open G, it can be played by starting on the 2nd string at the 12th fret in open D.

Remember that if your guitar is tuned to an open major chord, when you hold the slide across all the strings at one fret, you are playing another major chord. Keeping this in mind, practice sliding whole chords up the neck as well as individual strings. 

Applying vibrato to an entire chord produces a shimmering tone unique to this style of playing. The strings can either be played using a pick, your bare fingers, or using finger and thumb picks. Each method produces a dufferent tone and requires a slightly different playing technique. 

Listening is every bit as important as practicing. If you don't already have a good blues album collection, get one! A good idea is to copy slide guitar pieces that you particularly like or want to learn onto one tape from your records or CDs, and then listen to that tape until you know every note on it. As a staring point, albums I'd suggest listening to are anything by the following artists:
Robert Johnson, Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers, J.B.Hutto, Son House, Robert Nighthawk, Elmore James, Homesick James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Roy Rogers, John Hammond, Leo Kottke, Ry Cooder, Duane Allman, Bonnie Raitt, David Lindley, Jeff Healey, Matt Taylor & Chain, Dave Hole, Kevin Borich, The Ten-cent Shooters (These last four artists are all Australian). 

Slide Guitar
General Techniques and Tips

What to use for a Slide
There have been many objects used to achieve the slide sound. Knives, bottle necks, tubes of all kinds of metals and glass, spark plug sockets, lighters, stone, marble, plastic ... anything! At sometime or other I've used them all but to keep things simple and effective, I use a real bottle neck or metal tube, cut long enough to be slightly longer than the pinkie. 

Glass or metal
Glass is great for smooth, long sustain - Paris Texas type stuff. The heavier glass the better. Avoid manufactured glass slides as they tend to lack sustain and brightness - use real bottle glass. Ry Cooder is said to use a Fighting Cock Kentucky Bourbon bottle! 

Metal is good for more attack, especially electric. Experiment with heavy or light metal - both produce different sounds. Think Muddy Waters, light. Lowell George( Little Feat ) heavy. 

For both glass and metal, think:

  • Heavy - better for sustain, more accuracy, good for long slow notes 
  • Light - Thin sound, but faster, harder to keep accurate, less volume and sustain 

Which Finger
This is a personal choice, as with most aspects of slide playing. Many well known players have used different combinations. I've always found the slide best suited to the pinkie. This allows me more opportunity to finger chords, and play regular fretted notes as well as play the slide. Anyway, if it's good enough for Robert Johnson or Ry Cooder it's good enough for me. 

How to stop all that scratching and buzzing
Sometimes the extraneous noises can be used to great effect - listen to Blind Willie Johnson. For the purpose of improving technique, try and play cleanly and smoothly. When you release the fingers behind the slide - notice
the difference.

  • Action Use a guitar set up with slightly higher action, so there is less chance of the slide banging against the frets. It helps to minimise those extraneous noises we talked about earlier. However, if the action is too high, it will be harder to finger the chords when needed. 
  • Strings
    A personal choice again, but I believe the best sound is achieved by using the thickest you can manage - at least a .0013 on the top. Bob Brozman once told me that he used a .0017 on his National - now, there's a real slide man for you! 

What about guitars?
Acoustic or electric, who cares. I like the rootsy flavor of an acoustic for instant feel. My favorites are small bodied acoustics and resonators. I love all those junk shop guitars with bowed necks and impossible action. Check them out. Slide players can pick up some real winners. In fact all the exercises were recorded with an old, small body Hofner, that I found in Denmark for 20 pounds.

For electric players, the fenders have great natural sustain. Check out that early Ry Cooder sound. With added compression, like the old purple pecker, or rack effects, the slide sounds great. On his later albums, Ry used the pick up from an old lap steel, for that real slide sound and sustain. The trick is don't be afraid to experiment.

Vibrato
This is a crucial aspect of slide playing. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Think of the slide ( bottleneck, or whatever you decide to use ) as a moving fret which by careful handling will maintain the pitch of the note you are trying to play. If you are new to slide playing you will fast realize how difficult this is. Vibrato with the slide means you play a compromise between an in and out of tune note - somewhere in the middle is the correct pitch. To keep good pitch, keep the slide at right angles to the fret at all times. 

A violinist uses the same effect on the fretboard ( fretless of course ) to maintain steady pitch. Witness the intense movement of the fingers as they ensure the right notes are achieved. This is especially so for the slide, when reaching the end of a phrase or riff, as the final note sounds dull or sharp or flat unless vibrato is used

There are many different styles of vibrato. Listen to the intense movement of the slide on Blind Willie Johnson's - "Dark Was The Night", or the almost non existent vibrato on Tampa Red's "Denver Blues". This leads me to my next main point.

  1. Vibrato gives your slide playing a personal touch which can reflect the intensity of your mood or your feeling for the blues. Once you feel comfortable with the slide, experiment with different amounts of vibrato - light or heavy. Listen to as many players as you can and gauge the amount used which distinguishes their playing. The slide can be held tight against a finger to produce a very controlled movement or loose for a more carefree result. 

Careful though, as they tend to fly off your finger!

I've noticed that some players use lack of vibrato to produce quarter tones, which are carefully placed, and give an eerie effect against the proper pitched note. Once again, listen to Blind Willie Johnson or Ry Cooder (Vigilante Man ) to hear these notes.