By Jay Hale
Guitarists who get hit with the ‘shred’ tag due to the someone gymnastic nature of some of the playing techniques get used to memorization. Sure, you need to play melodically, but a lot of it is about scales and patterns, if you think about it. So attempting to play slide guitar can be alien and daunting. All those patterns you learned? Throw them out the window. Will that be glass, copper or brass? What’s a Coricidin bottle? Oh, and you might not need or want to use two of the fingers on your fretting hand. Wait, what?
Face it, slide guitar is a completely different animal. All that finger-training you’ve done to be an athlete on the fretboard? Not really relevant. With slide guitar you’re not fretting the notes. You’re actually over the fret/note you need kind of hovering with the slide; not between frets like you’re used to. Therefore one has to quickly develop a concept of ear-training, because you need to be on pitch or you will sound awful: pitchy slide guitar can sound like cats fighting. And you can’t really rely on your eyes. You need to hear the note you’re shooting for and slide up or down to it, not behind or past it.
It’s a different approach, one that takes some getting used to. One of the best pieces of advice I was given by a friend was to not even look at the fretboard if you can help it… “Just close your eyes and feel the note you want.” It helped! Another interesting benefit: once you get it down, you’ll find you’re really only limited by your imagination. You’re not even completely limited by the fretboard, as you are now capable of reaching notes past your instrument’s highest fret! Give it a try!
The first step is to decide which slide material, type and size you prefer. I’d suggest heading to your local music store to see and feel a variety of them. There are different thicknesses and lengths as well. Most decent stores have a sample display with multiple versions be the glass, brass or copper. People debate the tonal merits of each material, but glass (or pyrex these days for less chance of breakage/glass shards in fingers) seems most popular.
My personal favorite is a Dunlop 215, but occasionally I’ll use a reissue Coricidin bottle which is a remake of a pill bottle from back in the days before readily available plastic bottles. Early slide players favored them because they easily fit on your pinky or ring finger, and where else were you gonna get a tiny glass bottle back then? They were once sought-after after production of them ceased, but fortunately Dunlop reissued them, now marketed as the “Blues Bottle.” They’re now available in different colors, too… ah, technology.
You’ll also want to decide which of your fretting hand fingers you want to wear the slide on. Other than to say you’ll probably want to use your index finger to mute unwanted string noise, there’s no one “correct” way to do it. You have to decide for yourself. You may want to wear it on your pinky to allow you the option to fret notes with your other three fingers. Or perhaps it feels more comfortable on your ring or middle finger. Find what’s right for you.
One callout: If you’re one of those players that have a shred-stick guitar with super-low-almost-touching-the-fretboard string action…you may have to raise it just a hair to avoid fret clunks when moving up and down the fretboard. The horror! Small price to pay, you’ll find – though you may have to work just a tad to “shred” after – notes, and open chords especially, will benefit from a slight raise in your action. Try it!
Of course, there are a ton of resources out there one can listen to in order to find one’s slide voice. Want to start with an easy-ish line? Learn the opening bit from “Freebird.” Some great examples outside of the rock realm would be – anything – by Ry Cooder. His work is especially interesting in the way he sometimes combines slide and fretted notes, on acoustic and electric. Take for example “Vigilante Man.”
Derek Trucks is an awesome slide player, so he’s definitely worth checking out, too. His vocal slide style is worthy of aspiring to apply in any genre. Check out this tour-de-force compilation of his amazing solo work (also featuring examples of him adding in fretted notes:
One of my all-time personal favorites to play is Jimmy Page’s classic, haunting slide solo on Led Zeppelin II’s “What Is And What Should Never Be,” is just amazing. Phrasing, melody… it’s got it all.
Other notable mentions: Jeff Beck does some mind-blowing things with a slide (that he then immediately also does with the tremolo bar because he feels like it, but that’s Jeff Beck) on tunes like “Nadia”. Also, you could grab pretty much anything from Duane-era Allman Brothers (think of his soaring parts in “Layla”). Dickey Betts is no slouch either.
For a deep dig reference, Jake E. Lee (a big fan of the JB, by the way) put down one of the meanest-sounding rock slide solos ever on the hard-to-find Badlands first album’s “The Streets Cry Freedom.” He is just on fire on that tune. Slap that puppy on, and if you must, fast-forward to 4:28, then prepare to be blown away. It is echo-drenched, spacey and plaintive sounding.
If you start with those foundations, you’ll soon be thinking less like a shredder and more like a slide player once you’re comfortable with the basic techniques. You can then also experiment with alternate tunings. Heck, you may like it so much that you set up one of your guitars as your designated slide guitar! It could happen!