Notes: learn about the history of Slide guitars, the bottleneck technique and how to play slide guitar.

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Learning Slide Guitar - An online beginners guide.


A Brief History

Over ninety years ago , W.C. Handy wrote in his autobiography, Father Of The Blues, of being awakened in the Tutwiler, Mississippi, trainstation by the sound of a guitarist: "As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by the Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly: 'Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog'. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard."

This description of a slide player is one of the earliest references to blues music on record. Blues slide guitar originated in the Mississippi Delta region in the early 1900's where it was popularised by players such Willy Brown, Son House, Johnny Shines and the legendary Robert Johnson. Mostly unrecorded, playing on street corners and at House parties, these early players evolved slide guitar into a highly-polished art form of many rhythmically differing styles, which reached it's zenith in the late 1930's.

In the 1940's three things happened which had a profound effect on blues guitar playing. Firstly, the invention of the mechanised cotton picker and increasingly sophisticated farm machinery added greatly to the already bad unemployment problem in the Delta area. Secondly, up north in Chicago, World War II was creating plenty of jobs in the industrial sector. This lead to an exodus of unemployed black people from the Mississippi area to Chicago. Thirdly, an event happened that changed not only blues music, but all popular music. In the late 40's the electric guitar was born. Blues musicians took to the new instrument with a vengeance. Players such as Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters and others created whole new styles of playing slide guitar, adapting and transcending the Mississippi Delta style and creating the roots of Rock and Roll using fat, distorted tones and aggressive, rhythmic playing styles. The music created during this time is still being mimicked by many bands today.

Today slide guitar is represented by a whole new crop of talented players. People such as Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Roy Rogers, George Thorogood, Jeff Healey, Keb' Mo' and too many others to name in America have kept traditional blues slide guitar alive and vibrant. On the Australian blues scene we are blessed to have such excellent players as Dave Hole, Kevin Borich, Matt Taylor, Phil Manning and many others. 
Slide guitar, like the blues itself, is still alive and well! The object of this course is to give you the basic skills needed to express yourself musically using a piece of metal (or glass) moved across some strings, not to teach you to be a great slide guitar player. Only you can teach yourself that.

Slide guitar playing is comprised of one tenth technique and nine tenths emotion.

resonatorChoosing a guitar for playing slide

You can play slide on just about any guitar, but some instruments are definitely more suitable for the purpose.

Acoustic guitars

For acoustic slide playing, the instrument of choice is the resonator guitar. These instruments, commonly known by the trade name of Dobro, where originally manufactured during the 1920's by two companies, Dobro and they are distinctive for their metallic, haunting, tone. This unique sound is the result of having a metal cone (sometimes more than one) inside the body of the guitar which was originally designed to increase the volume of the guitar. This is usually concealed by a round metallic plate on the front of the guitar. Dobro and National guitars are produced both with timber and metal bodies. The wooden-bodied models generally have a warmer tone. These guitars, both vintage and new models, are expensive to buy. However a number of companies in Asia have been producing affordable copies for a number of years, of varying quality. Some of these companies include: Regal, Epiphone, Samick, Sakura and several other brands. These Asian copies are sometimes very hard to fault, although many suffer from having poor tonal characteristics due to their use of unseasoned timbers. Many of these guitars will improve tonally with age though.

Non-resonator guitars can make excellent slide instruments. Generally speaking, acoustic guitars with smaller bodies, as opposed to 'Jumbo' and 'Super-Jumbo' sized folk guitars have a tone more suited to slide playing.Also, as mentioned above, the age of the instrument's timber is an important factor in it's tonal quality. It is always important to remember that an instruments suitability for slide playing is completely unrelated to it's price! Hound Dog Taylor became a phenomenal slide player playing on guitars that probably cost him less than twenty dollars. Some very cheap guitars, both acoustic and electric, are excellent for the purpose. Another important fact is that a guitar used primarily for playing slide should have an action (The distance between the strings and the fingerboard) higher than what would be regarded as ideal for normal playing. This is because when playing slide the strings are not pressed onto the fingerboard of the guitar.

Electric guitars

Acoustic guitars used for slide can be amplified either by placing a microphone in front of them or by putting a pickup in the body of the guitar. Either of these techniques can be used to amplify the natural acoustic tone of the guitar. The semi-solid or solid-bodied electric guitar is a different animal altogether. The output generated by an electric guitar's pickups can be harnessed to produce tremendous sustain and howling, snarling tones that an acoustic guitar cannot produce. Because of this, electric slide playing styles, although based on acoustic styles, tend to take a different approach. Guitar pickups are usually either single-coil pickups (such as those usually found in Fender guitars) or "humbucker" pickups (as used in the Gibson guitars).

In general, the single-coil pickups are preferred by slide players. The Fender Stratocaster guitar (the electric guitar of choice with players like Buddy Guy, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt and Dave Hole) can produce an amazingly close tone to an acoustic guitar, and the harmonic overtones of this guitar produce a sweet, natural sound very much suited for slide playing. The Fender Telecaster, on the other hand, is famous for it's sharp, biting tone. This, coupled with it's simplicity of design, has made it a favourite instrument with slide players like Muddy Waters, J.B. Hutto and Roy Buchanon. Amongst Gibson's electric guitars, their instruments with single-coil pickups such as the semi-acoustic ES-125 and ES-330 (these guitars were also produced under the Epiphone label as the "Sorrento" and "Casino" ) as well as the solid-bodied "Firebird" are much prized by slide players such as George Thorogood and Johnny Winter. The best way to chose the guitar that is right for you to play slide on is to ask yourself "Who are my favourite slide players, whose sound do I like the best and what guitar are they doing it on?"

Choosing your slide

Opinions differ as to which is the best type of slide. Some players prefer glass slides, claiming they give a smoother, more mellow tone. Other players say that brass slides have more sustain and give a better "tinny" treble sound. As with selecting your guitar, selecting your slide is a matter of personal preference. Slide can be played using a Knife, a broken bottle neck, a beer can (full ones give better sustain !), a cigarette lighter, in fact just about any solid object weighing less than your average car could be used as a slide. However, a tube that fits on the finger you wish to use for slide-playing, that fits well without being too tight, is probably the best choice. Slides can be worn on any finger, it's really a matter of personal choice.

Tuning your guitar for slide playing

Although it is possible to play some slide guitar in the standard tuning (and this is a useful skill), slide guitar is best played in open tunings. Simply put, an open tuning is when your guitar is tuned so that strumming all the strings without holding any of them down on the fretboard will produce a chord. Open D (also known as 'Vastopol') and open G (also known as 'Spanish') are the most commonly used tunings for blues playing. These tunings have two advantages over other open tunings. Firstly, if a Capo (a clamp used to hold all the strings down at one fret-position on the neck) is placed on the neck of the guitar at the second fret, the tuning is changed to E if using the D tuning and A if using the G tuning, which are very common keys for blues music. Secondly, both of these tunings have the string tension lower than in standard tuning, making it easier to fret notes with your fingers. This is a big advantage when playing an instrument which, being suitable for slide playing, has an ction higher than normal.

Some important basic 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

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!

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 insmall, rapid movements. You'll need to have keep your wrist very relaxed to produce this effect smoothly.

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.

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.

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.

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). Ebook - "Easy to learn Blues Guitar"

Learn to play Blues the easy way
This guitar course (about 70 pages) is especially written for people who are quite new to playing guitar.

Here you will find all you need to learn how to play the Blues:

* All beginner lessons are included in this ebook!
* You start from the first 12-bar-Blues to your first Blues solo licks.
* You´ll learn about Blues chords, the Blues scale, bendings, vibratos, slide guitar and much more!
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