Watching someone play slide on a guitar is always a sight to behold and a treat for the ears. While watching any skillful guitarist go about their business is entertaining, the sight and sound of a slide guitar are quite unique.
From country blues to rock classics, guitarists have been using slides for over a century. Originating with the blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta, glass bottlenecks were used to create this warm, distinct sound.
When done properly, slide guitar playing boasts intricate phrasing along with close attention to tone and pitch. But, to get to such a level takes practice. And lots of it!
But, slide guitar is a very fun technique to learn and can be used in many styles and genres from blues to folk and rock to pop.
Using a slide on a guitar allows you to express yourself differently. It’s a fluid type of playing and will certainly bring a lot more to your songwriting and performances.
However, in the beginning, it can be pretty difficult to master. There are fundamental aspects of slide guitar playing that you need to understand as it’s not like standard guitar playing. That is why we are here to help you.
Continue reading to find out how to play slide guitar. We will guide you through the essentials of this guitar technique and the best tunings to use a slide with. Want to know now? Open tunings such as D-A-D-F#-A-D or E-B-E-G#-B-E (low to high).
Okay, let’s start sliding!
What Finger Should The Slide Be On?
While you can use an old bottleneck for a slide, we recommend purchasing a glass or stainless steel model. These are more comfortable and specially made for the purpose of slide guitar.
As for which finger to wear it on, wear the slide on your third finger (your ring finger). While the second finger can provide great control over the slide and the pinky finger allows you to stretch further up the neck, the third finger is a compromise between the two.
This finger is strong enough to control easily, allows you to reach further up the neck, and leaves your first two fingers free to play the guitar normally.
Experiment and see which is your preference. But, as a beginner, start with the third finger to learn the basics.
Hand And Finger Position On The Fretboard
Most beginners make the same mistake by placing the slide in the middle of the fret. Instead, it should be at the front end of the fret.
In other words, if you’re playing an ‘E’ note on the fifth fret of the B string, the slide should be on the actual fret itself, not right in the middle of the fifth fret. Place the slide directly above that fret bar that divides frets 5 and 6.
The note will just end up sounding flat and out of tune when the slide is in the middle of the fret. By holding the slide a little further forward, it will find the correct pitch. Play around with this and you will find that sweet spot just by hearing the difference.
Apply The Pressure – But Not Too Much
To make your desired sound from the guitar strings, you need to apply a small amount of pressure. This should be equal to the same pressure applied for natural harmonics so a lot less than your fingers when playing regular guitar.
The slide should be in contact with the string but it shouldn’t be pressed down onto the fretboard. If the string is pushed down too much, unwanted buzzing will occur. Just move the slide along the string gently and this should create the correct amount of pressure for a pleasing sound.
Of course, this takes some time to get used to. The strings will buzz on some occasions but with practice, you should be able to find that sweet spot eventually.
Many slide guitarists actually use guitars with higher actions as these models have a wider gap between the fretboard and the strings so, even with a little too much pressure, the strings do not touch the fretboard.
The Correct Tuning
There is no set tuning that is right and wrong. You have an array of fun options here! Nevertheless, most slide guitarists use open tunings where the strings are tuned into an open chord. In other terms, you strum the strings open and they play a certain chord. Moreover, a single barre on any fret also forms a chord.
This makes it easier to play chords with the slide as you slide from one fret to the next. We recommend starting with open E-B-E-G#-B-E (low to high).
If you have an old guitar with a high action, keep this in an open E tuning to practice your slide guitar on. This means you can play at any time without the hassle of re-tuning every time.
Standard tuning may not be the best choice for slide guitar but we encourage you to practice this as much as possible too.
This makes it easier to chuck in a slide solo when playing in standard tuning when you have no time to tune the guitar to an open tuning. This will make you a better guitarist and help you play more linearly than just open tunings.
Muting Open Strings
To complete the slide guitar learning process, you need to practice open string muting. Now you have the guitar tuned to open E, you know where to place your slide on the fretboard, and you’ve finally found that sweet spot of pressure where no buzzing is shooting out from the strings. If buzzing is still present, you may need to work on your muting.
If your slide is over a fret, make sure your first and second fingers are directly behind the third finger with the slide on. These should be parallel and dampening the strings.
Therefore, when a note is played via the slide, it will be the only one you hear. Without this muting, other strings may start to ring out and overpower the desired note resulting in loss of clarity and a messy sound.
Once you have mastered these steps, you can consider yourself a true slide guitarist!