How to Play Slide Guitar

Often when we play the guitar, we press our fingers down at the appropriate frets, but slide guitar requires none of that. In the slide technique we are using a glass or metal tube on top of the strings to simply glide across. In this article we will go over the essential pointers of playing great slide guitar.

What is slide guitar?

Slide is like glissando which means to glide across the notes, although it is sometimes more closely aligned with portamento. Despite the technicality of the term the entire point is to obviously slide along the notes. While this can provide a great effect, it does limit us on certain playing styles.

Different Slide Guitars

You can use a slide on any guitar if the action is high enough. Some musicians keep a slide on their finger for embellishment along with picking, while other players use only a bar. Basic acoustic blues slide guitar often incorporates both styles.

Dobro's, resonators, and lap steels are often played flat with just a bar and have higher action. With these you can slide and play a lot of vibrato, but you cannot bend notes. The pedal steel uses a pedal pulley system to allow note bending. It is the most expensive route and best if you really want to pursue serious slide guitar.

However, it also works just as well to find an old solid wood acoustic guitar with bad action and just lay it on your lap and play. You don't have to get too complicated to play some slide guitar.

And your technique will only differ a little between playing on your lap or just incorporating it into regular upright guitar playing.

If you decide to play an electric style lap, be sure to pay attention to the pickups. The action and neck bow don't matter for lap steels, but a good pickup can be all the difference between a great twang and just garbage. Sometimes you can take cheap lap steel and swap out for better pickups.... it has been done before!

Slide guitars can be very expensive and complicated or the easiest thing in the world, it all depends on the style of music you are into.

Slides and Bars

set of slide for guitar

After you have your guitar picked out, you will need to find a slide. They come in different metal bars, glass, and even small mini slides to just strap on the end of your finger. Lap and pedal steel players use a heavier bar that can get quite expensive, basic models starting at $25 a bar!

You can also take an old wine bottle and make one yourself like most blues guitarists back in the day. If you are careful and get rid of sharp edges it makes a fine slide. The term "bottleneck" was applied to many slide players of the past as that was the style of slide that they all used.

If you use one that wraps around your finger your placement may vary besides the pinky or ring finger. If you use it on your middle finger it allows for the other two to potentially add more notes in while playing.

Slides are more expensive than picks, but it is smart to try new ones out, you may find glass is better than metal, etc. Or you could also just use a cigarette lighter or pocket knife as a slide if you use it correctly.

How to Play Slide Guitar

Whether you incorporate a little slide into regular finger picking or play a lap or dobro, most of your major techniques will be the same. The sound difference will come in the tunings and chord progressions used.

Tunings

For blues guitarists open tunings will be the most common. Yes, some guitarists use regular tuning and that is just fine. But as a beginner it will help to have the strings tuned to a specific open chord.

Hawaiian lap steel is often tuned to C6 like a ukulele and other pedal tunings are E9, E13, and B11 which has a haunting Hawaiian sound. Pedal lap steels can have up to 8 or more strings, so it is easy to get a tuning of E13 and they are common in country hits. But if you only have a 6-string guitar you will have to leave some scale degrees out.

If you have turned an old acoustic into a lap steel be mindful of the gauges you use and don't over tune. If you want an odd and specific tuning, you can usually find it at large string retailers, or the sizes are easy to find online.

If you play in regular EADGBE tuning you will have to pay much closer attention to the notes you are picking, otherwise you are just playing avant-garde jazz!

Here are some common 6 string tunings (also available on our online scale finder), of course if you have more strings your options are greater. For a bigger list this alternate tunings list.

  • Open G D G D G B D
  • Open D. D A D F# A D
  • Open E E B E G# B E
  • Open A E A C# E A E
  • C6 C G E G A E

Muting the back strings

One of the most important aspects of the slide technique is to mute the strings behind the slide. Whether you play it on your lap or like normal we can't just let the slide move across the string. It will make squeaks and sound horrible. You need to use the finger behind the slide to mute the bad sounds. This is the main pointer behind playing slide guitar.

You don't want to press the bar or slide too hard, but enough pressure to hit all the strings necessary. If the action is too low, you will have to be careful not to hit the frets or the fretboard. From there it is simply a matter of moving the slide to the right chords, but without that muting of the back strings, it will not sound correct.

Picking Hand

guitar picking hand It is common to see slide players with metal picks like banjo players. Especially when playing lap, you are limited with what notes the slide can hit, so you add those in with most of your picking hand. If you use open tunings, you have a lot more freedom in picking all the strings as long as the chord progression works (say a 1-4-5).

With most complicated tunings we have to be more selective of the notes we choose, a lap or especially pedal steel may use extended chords that require memorizing patterns. An open tuning is perfect for a beginner and gives more room for error.

If you are finger picking and slide playing blues together you will want to use a lot of bends and vibrato at the same time.

Slide Vibrato and Slant

Regardless of the genre, you are going to use a lot of string vibrato, that is quickly shaking the slide back and forth. Well, not always quickly, B.B. King was incredible at simple yet perfect vibrato. In this video he is using his finger to provide the vibrato, but our bar or slide will be doing the same movement.

Another unwanted squeak that may occur is as we move up and down the fretboard as we slide. We don't always keep the slide on the strings, sometimes it needs to be lifted. This is controlled again by proper muting with the back fingers and by lightly lifting the slide up and down when necessary. If you are getting squawks and bad sounds you may need to be gentler with the bar.

It is a finesse that comes with practice. It is eventually possible to do hammer-ons and pull offs with a slide on your finger. You must time the muting of your back fingers and letting go just right, but it gives a great bluesy twang.

And the technique of holding your slide at a slight angle can often provide a two-note interval, allowing movement from major to minor if you can get the slant just right. This is especially common in music like country and other styles to provide a nice chromatic movement with only one or two strings.

Effects Pedals

In my experience of playing slide on electric guitar, I've found that a decent quality compressor pedal can be invaluable to give that extra little sustain to the notes, and also "smooth out" the changes in volume when going from the lower and thicker strings to the higher thin ones. (words by my friend Sean O'Connor, pro guitarist from Ireland)

Because the slide does limit us in what we can play, musicians look for other ways to make it more interesting. For blues we would want grittier pedals like overdrive, while country would use more reverb and delay.

If your guitar can be plugged in, then your most affordable route is to buy software plugins and an interface. These apps and devices allow you to plug a guitar into a phone with thousands of digital effects and amp simulations. Once you have your slide hand down and some basic picking it is great to play around with new sounds and effects.

All in all, basic slide guitar is about as complicated as you want to make it. If you stick to open tunings and blues progressions, you will have an easier time catching on as long as you keep the back strings muted correctly.

But with time you should have no trouble advancing into more complicated tunings and finger picking patterns. Either way your guitar case should always have a slide, it is an easy tool that makes great music.

Well, hope that this article has sparked some interested for slide guitar in you. Stay updated on new content here.

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