Slide guitar is a bit of a lost art. You don’t see too many players out there using a slide to play their guitars any more.
Or, if they do, it's for a little flavor and not much else.
This, in part, is because playing with a slide is hard. You must use the right technique. You must be able to mute strings effectively and be exact with the placement of your slide.
But once you get the hang of it, it can be a lot of fun, and it can also add a lot to the music you play.
A slide is often seen as a device used specifically for country and blues music, but in reality, you can use it on just about any genre imaginable.
So, let’s talk about how to play slide guitar and master it.
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What Slide Is Right For Me And My Guitar?
Slides are made from a variety of different materials and everyday objects (like beer or painkiller bottles) can be – and sometimes are – used in place of a formal slide.
Duane Allman, arguably one of the best slide players of all time, used a Coricidin bottle as a slide. And, he was a natural at it.
You can find steel, brass, glass, and even carbon fiber slides (among other materials) of varying sizes, shapes and weights. They each have a different tone and may require slightly different technique to use.
While steel and brass slides are widespread and tend to have a nice, thick tone to them, they can also be harder to control and play with due to their weight. Only skilled players can effectively cover unwanted noises and artifacts with their technique.
Because of this, I recommend beginners buy and practice with a glass slide (slides are not expensive, so you can also buy a steel or brass slide at the same time).
Although you would never want to drop a glass slide onto concrete (I've done this) from the third floor of your apartment building, they also aren’t as delicate as you might be inclined to believe, so if you’re worried about that, don’t be. You can also get thicker glass slides that are less breakable.
In addition, glass slides are a little more forgiving of undeveloped technique, and they can be used on guitars with varying levels of action. In theory, if you’re going to be playing slide, you want the action on your guitar to be as high as possible.
But this is rarely how it works in practice. Many players prefer their guitars to be playable (not just with a slide), so they must settle for a happy medium of action and playability. Fortunately, the lighter the slide is, the easier it is to use on a variety of different guitars.
Skilled players can work with just about anything, regardless of action.
Getting Your Guitar Set Up For Slide
Many serious slide players have multiple guitars, and they’ll set aside one or more axes specifically for playing slide. There are other reasons for this, and I’ll talk more about that a little later.
But let’s say you don’t have two guitars. If you have a standard steel-string acoustic guitar, then you probably won’t have to make any adjustments to it. The action should be high enough, and the strings thick enough, that you could use it with a slide as-is.
Classical guitars are not ideal for slide, though this doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work at all.
But if a classical guitar is all you have, you will likely want to purchase or even borrow a separate guitar for use with a slide. Fortunately, there are plenty of inexpensive acoustic guitars out there that you could pick up for a nominal fee.
And, most electric guitars are set up to be as playable as possible, meaning they aren’t necessarily ideal for slide either.
The good news is that you can take your axe to a guitar tech and have it set up with higher action and heavier strings (i.e. tell them you would like to be able to play slide with your guitar). This is a relatively low-cost way to deal with the problem of action that’s too low.
Just keep in mind that once you’ve had your guitar adjusted, it will be harder to play all your standard chords, scales, licks, and so on. Therefore, it’s best to have more than one guitar if you’re serious about learning to play with a slide.
How Do I Use A Guitar Slide?
The slide goes on your fretting hand, which means your picking hand technique won’t change that much, but your fretting hand technique will.
The first decision you have to make is which finger to place your slide on. Most players put the slide on their middle, ring, or pinky fingers. It’s partly a matter of preference, and partly a matter of how important it is to you to be able to use your other fingers.
Using your pinky frees up your other fingers, which is why it’s advantageous, but it makes it hard to control the slide and to mute strings effectively.
The middle finger offers quite a bit of strength and balance, and muting is made easier, but it can make it difficult to move your other fingers out of the way when you need to – particularly your pinky.
To me, the ideal finger to use a slide on is the ring finger. It may not have the strength and balance of your middle finger, but it gives you the most control, and muting is made easier since you can squeeze the slide between your middle finger and pinky.
But this is not a rule by any means.
When you’re playing a chord or a scale on the guitar, the idea is to close the gap between the string and the fretboard with your fingers. When you apply enough pressure, that gap is closed, and you can get a clean sounding note out of the instrument.
When you’re using a slide, you don’t want to apply much pressure at all. In fact, finding the right balance of pressure is often the trickiest part of playing with a slide. The higher the action of the guitar, the more pressure you can get away with.
When using a slide, your finger(s) should be pointed upwards, parallel to the frets on your guitar. Some particularly skilled players can (and do) play at an angle, but for the most part, a slide is not used that way.
Applying pressure in the right places with your slide can also be challenging, but it is important, because you won't get clean-sounding notes if you aren't.
Even if you think you're putting pressure on the third string (instead of another string) with your slide, it doesn't mean it's translating into your technique. This takes some practice.
How Do I Play My Guitar With A Slide?
If you’ve ever played natural harmonics before, you probably have a frame of reference for how to place a slide on your guitar to get the best sound possible.
Your slide gently rests above the strings. Press down too hard and you’ll bang your slide against the neck and the frets. Apply no pressure at all, and you’ll just end up muting the strings.
Also, your slide needs to go directly above the frets, as opposed to in between the frets, as you would with regular fretted notes.
A slide essentially turns a guitar into a fretless instrument. This means you can get all the standard 12 notes in the western scale, plus every little out-of-tune variation in between. And, this is partly what makes slide guitar so difficult – unless you’re positioning is perfect, you’re going to be out of tune (unless, of course, it's intentional).
But as the name would suggest, the idea is to “slide” from one note to another. Let’s say, for example, that you’re starting on the third string, fifth fret (C), and you want to slide into the third string, seventh fret (D). So, you would place your slide directly above the fifth fret (again, something you wouldn’t do with standard fretting technique), pick the note, and then “slide up” to the seventh fret without lifting your hand or picking again.
Once you get the hang of sliding up and down the fretboard into and out of different notes, you’re well on your way to mastering it. There are only a few other techniques that can be applied to playing with a slide – let's have a look.
Here are the basic slide techniques you need to master. Once you’ve learned each of these, you can mix and match as you see fit.
This is exactly what it sounds like. You would place your slide above the fret you want to start at (i.e. third fret of the second string), pick the note, and then slide into another note on the same string (i.e. eighth fret of the second string). Keep an eye on the target note as you are sliding up.
Note that you can slide gradually, or slide quickly into the note, depending on what sounds right for the song.
This is the opposite of sliding up. You would start at a higher fret, and then slide down to a lower fret.
When performing vibratos without a slide, you would simply rotate your wrist or push and pull the string with your fretting finger.
The technique is a little different with a slide – it’s closer to what’s known as tremolo (which is different from tremolo picking).
To perform a vibrato with a slide, you need to move the slide horizontally, left and right, in and around the fret wire.
Playing Multiple Strings
Keep in mind that your slide is pointed upwards, parallel to the frets. So, playing notes on different strings at the same fret is relatively easy. Even in standard tuning, the fourth, third and second strings form a major triad, which is convenient and could become a go-to.
This is where things get a little trickier. You can play any open note, and then “hammer” down at a higher fret on the same string to create a hammer-on like sound.
But unlike a standard hammer-on, you need to be a bit gentler with your approach, because, again, you aren’t trying to close the gap between the string and the fretboard with your slide.
This is essentially a “hammer-on” in reverse, and involves playing a note with your slide, and then “pulling off” to an open note. This is a difficult technique to perfect, so take your time with it.
Also note: If you’re good, you can execute a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs with your slide effortlessly.
Playing Your First Melody
Although I've introduced all the slide techniques available, mastering each of them will take time. Before we can incorporate all of them into our playing, we need to get a good feel for playing with a slide.
Learning to play a simple melody can boost your confidence.
Now, it's going to take some time to do this convincingly, unless you're a natural like Duane Allman. You might even feel like a hack playing with a slide, especially without a backing track (I know I did).
But we must start somewhere.
And, by the way, playing along with a backing track is a good idea, if you know your scales well enough to do it.
In any case, here's a simple melody I've prepared. I've kept the timing simple, but hopefully you know a little bit about note values. It will be a huge help here.
This example is in the key of D. The goal is to practice sliding in and out of notes.
Also note the vibrato. As I mentioned earlier, when playing with a slide, vibratos require a side to side motion.
I talked about the importance of getting your slide positioning right earlier, but when it comes to vibrato you can basically do whatever sounds good to you – tight or wide.
One more thing of note: there's a double stop at the end of the song. Playing multiple notes at the same time with a slide can be tricky but it's doable. Ensure that both strings are getting the right amount of pressure.
All the notes in this example are meant to be played with your slide, so don't use your other fingers. Play the whole example with your slide.
Practice slowly and feel free to try different phrasing too. You don't need to play the example exactly as written to get a feel for this.
Play melodically and with conviction.
Playing Your First Riff
Although slide guitar is often used for solos and lead sections, that doesn't mean it isn't also used to play riffs.
Check out George Thorogood's signature riff in “Bad To The Bone”:
Thorogood makes it look easy but it can take some time to work your way up to his level.
Nevertheless, this is a great skill to have as a slide player. If you're going to have a slide on your fretting hand for the entire duration of a song, it's nice to be able to play along with your band instead of waiting for your turn to play a fill or solo.
So, here's a simple riff you can try:
Note that all notes (except for the open strings) are meant to be played with your slide.
I admit that this can be a challenging riff from a rhythmic perspective. I wanted it to feel bluesy.
But again, if you find it too difficult, you can play it how ever you want to.
Even when you're playing with a slide, you don't need to slide in and out of every note you play. That's another important thing this riff demonstrates.
Have fun with it!
A Crash Course In Open Tunings
We’ve talked about open tunings on the blog before. Refer to previous lessons if you need more information to get started.
Open tunings can make it easier for you to explore the world of slide guitar, and this is another reason many guitarists who play slide have multiple guitars – playing with multiple tunings on a single guitar can get a little crazy. Especially since you would have to retune your guitar between songs (and that can easily result in broken strings).
When you tune your guitar to an open tuning, all strings form a chord together. All you need to do to play chords is barre up and down the fretboard.
Can you see how this would also make it easier to play with a slide? In blues and country, the most common chords are the I, IV, and the V, which you would have easy access to. Plus, you can play them “vertically”, and slide is much easier to play in a straight line than at an angle (though not impossible).
Here are some of the more common and easy-to-use open tunings:
- Open D – D, A, D, F#, A, D.
- Open G – D, G, D, G, B, D.
- Open A – E, A, C#, E, A, E.
- And others. The above two are easy to achieve and won’t put too much strain on your strings or guitar. But if you wanted to play with open C (C, G, C, G, C, E), for example, you would likely need heavier strings, or they would be too loose.
Mastering The Slide
I've given you a few things to work on here, but honestly there is so much more to discover and learn. And, if you want to get good, you're going to need to practice. A lot.
It's time to immerse yourself in the world of slide.
And, if you're going to learn, you may as well learn from the best.
Here are some of the best slide players of all time:
- Derek Trucks.
- Blind Willie Johnson.
- Ry Cooder.
- Elmore James.
- Robert Johnson.
- And others.
My first suggestion would be to listen to their recordings and watch any videos you can find.
My second suggestion would be to find tabs on sites like Ultimate Guitar and Songsterr and try to learn them.
Be sure to take your time as you're learning. You may not be able to pick everything up right away. That's okay. But anyone can learn one note at a time. Don't forget that.
How To Play Slide Guitar, Final Thoughts
Slide guitar can add a lot of flavor to your playing.
One thing I’m often conscious of as a guitar player is making sure that everything I do doesn’t sound the same, especially in live situations.
I change the effects, change my stylistic approach, choose a different pickup setting or even change guitars and instruments to keep the soundscape varied and the audience engaged.
The slide is just one tool you can use to create more variety in your set. And, if you have any blues, country, folk, or bluegrass songs in your repertoire, it's the perfect time to bust out the slide.