How to play slide guitar: Introduction to slide guitar and guitar slides

Posted on December 21, 2021

Anyone who’s ever listened to blues, country or Southern rock genres has most likely heard a particular method of guitar playing in action. That’s the slide guitar. Although playing slide guitar requires some specialized tools to pull off, you can play slide even with a regular guitar. So even if slide guitar may seem intimidating to start with, it’s something that most guitar players can try their hand at without having to purchase a completely new instrument–although that helps in case you’re going to get serious with this playing technique.

If the words “slide guitar” and “guitar slide” don’t ring a bell, then read on as we introduce you to the guitar playing technique known as slide guitar. And even if you’re not going to start learning how to play using a slide or a lap steel guitar, it’s good to be familiar with all the different possibilities that guitar playing has to offer.

 

What is slide guitar?

First things first, what is a slide guitar? When speaking of slide guitars we can refer to either the technique of guitar playing or a specific type of instrument. There are two ways to play slide guitar: holding the guitar against you like you would when playing normally or on your lap. This is known as lap slide guitar or lap steel guitar (as the guitar strings are made of steel). One type of slide guitar is also known as a resonator guitar, notably used in the country, bluegrass and blues genres of music.

Playing slide guitar involves playing the strings with a special tool, such as a guitar slide made from glass or a metal slide. A tool like this allows the guitar player to traverse the strings smoothly by “sliding” on the strings. Unlike with traditional guitar playing you might be familiar with, with slide guitar, instead of pressing down the strings all the way, the slide is only in light contact with the strings. 

After strumming or plucking the strings, the slide guitar player moves the slide up and down on the surface of the strings, creating that iconic and recognizable slide guitar sound. Because of this, slide guitar is played like a fretless instrument. Here also lies the challenge of slide guitar: by not being constrained by the frets of a guitar fretboard, it’s also more difficult to locate where particular notes are found on the guitar fretboard.

Guitar for playing slide

As we already mentioned, you don’t necessarily need a separate guitar for playing slide. However, there are different types of instruments that are especially good for slide guitarists. In case you own an acoustic guitar with guitar strings made of steel, you’re already almost set for playing acoustic slide guitar. 

There’s one thing you can do to make playing slide with a regular steel-string acoustic guitar, though. That’s adjusting the action of your guitar. What this means is that you have to adjust the distance between the strings and fretboard of your guitar. When compared to a regular instrument, a guitar meant for playing slide guitar in particular has its strings a bit further away from the guitar fretboard. This means that the action of the guitar is higher.

In case you want to play electric slide guitar, you might want to make adjustments to its action as the action of electric guitars is often smaller to make playing easier. An easy way to do this is by visiting your local music store and asking the staff to make the necessary adjustments for slide playing.

Guitar slide

Even if you don’t necessarily need a separate instrument for playing slide, such as a resonator guitar with steel strings, there is a single tool that every guitarist needs for slide playing. That is a guitar slide, a tool you place on your finger or hold in your hand when playing. Here are a few things to keep in mind when getting a guitar slide or slider.

Material

When selecting a guitar slide there are a few things to consider before rushing to the actual playing. Probably the most important one is the material your guitar slide is made of. Generally there are three options to choose from. These are:

  • Glass
  • Metal
  • Ceramic

For those just getting into playing slide guitar, we recommend using a glass slide as those can be easier to play with. You can start practicing with a steel or brass slide once you’re comfortable playing with a glass slide first. Ceramic slide is also an option that’s a bit closer to one made from glass.

Other materials

In addition to the materials mentioned above, some slide guitar players have done some pretty creative things when it comes to picking their tools. For example, some players have even used a knife or a cigarette lighter as a guitar slide. The guitarist and founder of the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman, famously used a medicine bottle as his guitar slide. Overall, any tool with a smooth surface that you can slide across the strings can be used as a guitar slide. However, not surprisingly, we recommend getting an actual guitar slide intended for the purpose.

Guitar slide rings

There are also special slide guitar rings that have been designed to play slide guitar. Just like sliders and guitar slides made of glass, for instance, a slide guitar ring is fitted around your finger–not surprisingly–just like a ring. 

Thickness

When getting a slide for your guitar, consider also the slide’s thickness. Again, if you’re a beginner, you’ll want to go with one that is fairly thin, so you’ll have more control over your playing. 

Which finger do I use?

Finally, once you have the guitar slide ready and you’re good to start playing, think which finger you would like to use to play. This comes up to personal preference. However, if you want to play chords or licks for instance, it’s better to use your pinky finger to use the slide. This leaves the other fingers free to play the strings as you normally would. However, using your middle finger or ring finger is a good way to start with. Just remember that the finger you choose depends on your playing style and whatever feels best for you. Make sure that the guitar slide fits your finger and doesn’t feel too loose or tight.

Slide guitar tuning

You might be surprised, but playing slide guitar doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to use some special tuning. The standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning will do just fine. However, there are a number of open tuning options that you might want to consider. An open tuning means that when all six strings are played, they produce a minor or major chord. One such open tuning would be called open E. One other common open tuning is the drop D tuning that differs from the standard guitar tuning only on the lowest E string.

Slide playing guitarists

If you want to start playing slide guitar, it’s good to learn from the legends. Or if you just want to get acquainted with some of the most famous guitar players known for playing slide, then get familiar with at least these four players. We can’t mention all great guitarists who played slide, but get started with these fellows.

Elmore James

One guitar player among famous American blues musicians considered to be one of the pioneers of slide guitar is Elmore James. Elmore, who’s sometimes called the “King of the Slide Guitar”, is known for famous slide guitar pieces such as ‘Dust My Broom’ and ‘The Sky Is Crying’. James Elmore is a slide player who has influenced countless other guitarists, who in turn have made history with their playing.

Duane Allman

Duane Allman–the guitarist known for using a medicine bottle as a guitar slide–is often ranked among the best guitar players in the history of rock and blues music. Although he is famous for his playing in the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman worked together with a number of bands and musicians, such as Eric Clapton.

Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson’s songs have been covered by several other musicians. Unlike Allman and James, Blind Willie Johnson’s genre was more towards gospel music. Still Johnson and his slide guitar playing have left a great mark on the blues genre. Although there aren’t that many recordings of Blind Willie Johnson and his playing, his influence for blues and slide guitar playing can’t be understated.

Muddy Waters

One great popularizer of slide guitar was the blues legend Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters–real name McKinley Morganfield–has influenced musicians spanning the rock, blues, country and folk genres, and the band Rolling Stones even took their name from one of his famous songs, ‘Rollin’ Stone’. One of his songs, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, has even made its way to the National Recording Registry that collects culturally significant recordings from the United States. 

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