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Slide Guitar Primer

So you're stuck in a rut. Playing the same old tired songs over and over again that you've been playing for years now with no discernible progress. Stagnation is one of the most common complaints guitarists make. Most of us, even the best players, have felt like we're spinning our wheels at one time or another. The danger in staying stuck is that the frustration and discouragement in thinking that you've stopped growing as a musician can cause some to pack up their guitar for good.

You might try working your way out of that rut by experimenting with the different sounds you can get from your guitar. Playing with a slide is one of them. A hollow tube and a few basic licks can give you a fresh tone to work with and instantly inject some new energy and direction into your playing.

Slide guitar refers to the technique of using a tube on one finger to slide along the strings. Some still call it "bottleneck" guitar for the early players who made their slides from the necks of beer and wine bottles. With slide guitar you play the strings, not the frets, gliding up and down the fretboard without lifting off the strings, which creates continuous transitions in pitch. Slide is popular in Hawaiian, blues, blues-rock and country guitar, and can also be heard in other types of music like pop, rock and fusion.

The use of a slide on a string has been traced to one-stringed African instruments. The first musician to be recorded using a slide was Sylvester Weaver in 1923. However, it's blues pioneer W.C. Handy who is often credited for one of the earliest references to slide guitar on record. In his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues, Handy wrote of being awakened in a Mississippi train station by the sound of a guitarist: "As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized 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."

Slide soon became a staple of the blues. Willy Brown, Son House, Johnny Shines and Robert Johnson all played slide on acoustics. By the 1940s, and with the advent of the electric guitar, slide had come into its own. Players like Hound Dog Taylor, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James, dubbed the King of Slide Guitar for his "Dust My Broom," created whole new styles of playing slide, and ultimately planted the seeds of what was to become rock 'n' roll.

As rock 'n' roll took off, many guitarists picked up a slide. The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones ("Little Red Rooster") and his successors Mick Taylor ("Love in Vain") and Ronnie Wood ("Stay with Me") all used one. Taylor, notably, played slide in standard tuning, which is more of a challenge than playing in an open tuning, as most slide players do.

Duane Allman is a seminal figure of slide guitar. Allman, who used a Coricidin medicine bottle as a slide, mostly played in open E and open G tuning but, like Mick Taylor, he often played in standard tuning as well. Allman used his fingers instead of a pick when playing slide, and was an expert at muting unneeded strings with the pads of his fingers. The Allman Brothers' epic "Mountain Jam" highlights Duane's brilliance as a slide guitarist.

Danny Gatton, who's been called The World's Greatest Unknown Guitarist, was famous for using a half-full beer bottle or mug as a slide, with no regard to spillage. During a 1991 performance on Austin City Limits [beer bottle comes in at 4:00], he followed his slide work by wiping the guitar neck with a rag, then holding the rag between his fingers and the frets, all the while playing flawlessly. In the March 1989 issue of Guitar Player magazine, Gatton said he preferred to use an Alka-Seltzer bottle or long 6L6 vacuum tube as a slide, but that audiences liked the beer bottle. It's interesting to note Gatton's overhand slide, which was a result of his earlier training in steel guitar.

Some other slide players of note that you might want to give a listen to are Lowell George, Derek Trucks, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, George Thorogood, Jeff Healey, Johnny Winter, Keb' Mo', Dave Hole, Rory Gallagher, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, George Harrison, and Sonny Sharrock, just to name a few.

So how to get started playing slide? Well, first off, there's the matter of choosing your slide. Like pick choice, selecting a slide is a matter of personal preference. Slides are made from a broad range of materials and come in a wide variety of lengths, diameters, cuts, and thicknesses, although the vast majority will be tubular in shape to fit comfortably on your finger of choice. Speaking of, there is no single correct finger on which to wear a slide, but the most common by far is on the pinky finger. This frees up your other three fingers for fretting. It also makes it easier to fret chords while keeping the slide out of the way. There are several notable musicians, however, who play with their slide on a different finger. The ring finger is also a pretty common finger for a slide.

You want a slide that fits snugly enough on your finger so that if you hold your hand relaxed at your side, it won't fall off. You also need it to be stable on your finger without having to use a second finger to prevent it from wiggling loosely against the strings.

As for weight, a heavy slide will move along the strings with less resistance. You don't want a slide that's too heavy though or it may require more than one finger to steady above the frets. Conversely, thinner, lighter slides must be pushed down harder against the strings to get good sounds.

When it comes to material choice, different materials offer different sounds. Plenty of legendary slide players have used just about anything you can conceive of on their digits. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd used a cigarette lighter. Ronnie Wood uses copper pipe. Joe Gore, when playing with P.J. Harvey, used a knife. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have used drumsticks as slides. Mississippi Fred McDowell used hollowed bone. Duane Allman, Rory Gallagher, Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Derek Trucks have all used Coricidin bottles, Lowell George of Little Feat used an 11/16" socket from a socket-wrench set, Bonnie Raitt uses a slide cut from the neck of a wine bottle, and Delta blues man CeDell Davis uses the handle end of a table knife.

Slides can be had in a variety of materials including bronze, brass, stainless steel, copper, aluminum, glass, porcelain and ceramic. When selecting a slide, the general rule of thumb is that metal, especially those slides made from brass, are heavier and will give you a bold, bright, crisp sound with better sustain than glass and ceramic, which are lighter and produce smoother, warmer, mellower tones. Experiment with a variety of slides in different weights, thicknesses and materials to find the one that's right for the sound you're after.

When you've selected a slide that suits you, you're ready to put it to use. But first, a few things to keep in mind before you begin: a) Higher strings are easier to play than bass strings, b) Slide notes should be sounded with the slide directly above the fret of the note you want to produce verses in front of that fret, where your finger would normally land when playing conventionally, and c) You don't have to throw your guitar into an open tuning in order to dabble in slide. Plenty of great players have used standard tuning, which gives them easy access to the traditional range of chords and lead scales when they're not doing slide work. But open tunings can be fun to use, and can give you a whole new perspective on the fretboard, so don't shy away from them. (For more information on open tunings, check out An Introduction to Alternate Tunings.)

To begin sliding, rest the slide on the strings, directly over the fret wire. Do not press down. Again, you need to be very accurate about where the slide stops in order to play the right note. There is really only one very specific point on the string where the correct pitch can be found, and that point is where the string touches the fret wire in normal playing. So the slide, which is just resting on the strings, needs to wind up directly above the fret wire for any given note to sound right, not behind it as you do when fretting. Good intonation, or "in-tuneness," is a must if you want to play slide as is good tone, or having the right pressure to produce rattle-free sustain. These will come in time, with practice.

Now, simply glide the slide along the strings to produce a smooth, continuous change in pitch. Because the slide can only play notes that line up across the fretboard, the easiest way to play chords without all kinds of unwanted notes ringing out is to use open tuning. Muting is another way around this problem. You can place your unused left-hand fingers lightly on the strings behind the slide (toward the nut) or use right-hand palm muting to help improve your sound.

Although slide is a relatively simple technique, the challenge is getting it down so that the music you play is exact and pleasing to the ear. If you decide to make the leap into slide guitar, you might take your instrument to a guitar store and try a range of slides on for size. You'll know the right slide when you feel and hear it. Also remember to try common household objects as they can yield some interesting results. Try as many different slides as you can. Experiment.

Rut? What rut.

For a tutorial on slide guitar, try GT Instructor Anders Mouridsen's Blues Slide Guitar Techniques.

Image Source - Author: Lubos Bena Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fingandslide.jpg Slide-Guitar, 2006

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