How To Play Slide Guitar

Even if you don't quite know what a slide guitar looks like, you've almost certainly heard one -- the surreal, almost wistful sound of slide guitar is hard to forget. And if you're interested in learning this beautiful and classic guitar technique, there are a few styles of slide playing to choose from. Two involve using a specialized guitar, one involves modifying a standard steel string. Here's how to play slide guitar.

How to Play Slide Guitar

1. Get Your Guitar Ready

If you're hoping to join the ranks of slide players the world over, you'll probably want to first try out the sound on a guitar you have already (later on in the list, we'll go over dobros and Weissenborn slide guitars). Using a standard guitar to play slide is sometimes called bottleneck slide guitar playing since the earliest players often used the neck of a glass bottle as a guitar slide.

One such early player was Blind Willie Johnson, whose song "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" was part of a collection of audio files attached to the Voyager 1 and launched into space in 1977. You can listen to this haunting song here (below - left).

Setting a guitar up for slide playing is different from your usual setup. You'll want the action to be fairly high. That's because you don't want the slide or the strings to touch the frets. A quick and easy way to do this is through the use of an extension nut. This is a nut that fits over your existing nut to raise the action. A well-made extension nut like the Grover Perfect nut won't interfere with intonation. If you need to raise the action at the saddle on an acoustic guitar, a shim is typically enough to do so.

Heavier strings are also helpful. Usually, 0.010's or 0.011's are a good choice, but you can even go heavier if you'd like. For some visual guidance on setting up your guitar for slide, check out this helpful video (above Right).

It's technically possible to play slide on a guitar with lower action, and lighter strings. But if you're just starting out, it's likely going to be frustrating. On the flip side, you can technically play normal guitar on an instrument with higher action, but that's likely to be frustrating as well. That's why it's ideal to have a dedicated guitar for a slide if at all possible.

2. Choose A Tuning

Once you've adjusted the action and set up your guitar with different strings, you'll need to pick a tuning. You can play slide guitar in standard tuning, but most newer players find it easiest to start out in an open tuning. If you're unfamiliar with open tunings, this just means that your guitar is tuned in such a way that when you strum the strings open, it plays a chord. In open D tuning (DADF#AD), playing all strings open results in a D major chord.

With an open tuning, you can play chords simply by moving the slide to a different fret. In open D, you can play a D# chord by moving the slide to the first fret, an F chord by moving it to the second fret, etc. Open D is also the tuning of choice on many classic blues songs, making it a good tuning to select if you're a new slide player.

But you don't necessarily have to use open D or any other open tuning. If you want to take a look at some of your options, this video shows you 10 possible tunings for slide guitar.

3. Select A Slide (And A Finger)

Before you begin, you'll need to select your bottleneck guitar slide. But what you choose depends on your guitar. As a general rule of thumb, acoustic guitars sound better with thicker, heavier slides. These slides help give you ample volume and sustain. Since electric guitars tend to have lighter-gauge strings (and you can more easily adjust volume and brightness), they tend to do better with lighter slides. And as a general rule of thumb, heavy strings tend to do better with a heavier slide.

The beautiful thing about slide guitar is that you can use almost anything as a slide. After all, Jimi Hendrix used a cigarette lighter as a slide on "All Along the Watchtower." But if you're looking for a traditional slide, here are the three most common slide materials:

  • Glass -- This classic material gives you a warm, smooth tone similar to that of the original bottleneck slide players. Glass slides also come in a variety of thicknesses.
  • Brass -- This is a heavier material with great sustain. The treble end is particularly bright and chiming.
  • Ceramic -- Ceramic is a mid-weight slide material whose tone is right between bright and warm.

To hear a sound sample from each slide material, check out this entertaining video.

You'll also need to choose which finger on your fretting hand to use for the slide. If you want to be able to switch between using the slide and playing fretted notes, your pinky finger is a good choice -- you can easily move it out of the way if need be, and it leaves more fingers free for fretting. Putting the slide on your ring finger is also a popular choice. This finger can support a fairly heavy slide, which is preferable if you're looking for a warm, fat tone. Using a slide on your middle finger is less common, but it's how Bonnie Raitt plays slide guitar.

4. Find The Sweet Spot

Before you jump into learning a song by Derek Trucks or the Allman Brothers Band, make sure you understand the right technique. Playing slide guitar is a lot different from standard playing in that you don't want the strings to actually touch the frets. Doing so will result in the buzzing and unwanted sound.

Instead, use roughly the same amount of pressure you would use to play a natural harmonic on a regular guitar. The goal is to press the string down with the slide, but not so far down that it touches the fret. It takes some getting used to, but with practice, it will become muscle memory.

The other thing to keep in mind is the placement of the slide relative to the fret. When playing with a slide, make sure to position it directly over the fret wire itself. So if you're playing a note at the fifth fret, you'd place the slide right over the wire dividing fret five and six. For a visual demonstration and some pointers, check out this video lesson designed for players who are brand new to slide guitar.

5. Playing Chords

Before you start playing blues licks, you can get used to the slide by playing some simple chords. To do this, first make sure your guitar is in open G, open D, or another open tuning. Choose a fret, place your slide above it with a slight amount of pressure, and strum downwards. Move your slide over to the adjacent fret, keeping the pressure consistent. You should hear the signature sound of a slide guitar.

Don't be discouraged if you don't get the sound right away, though -- slide technique is a lot different from what you'd use for normal playing. It often helps to have a visual guide -- this video lesson will take you through a beginner slide exercise from one major chord to another.

6. Playing Notes

Most great slide guitar riffs obviously aren't entire chords. But while playing a note on one string sounds good, playing singular notes comes with a challenge -- you'll need to use your picking or strumming hand to mute the strings you aren't using. If you don't, moving the slide across open strings will cause a good bit of noise you don't need.

As this helpful video (below - left) on muting techniques shows you, you can usually rest your thumb on the lower strings to mute them. For the upper strings, resting your fingers on them should work -- Duane Allman used his index and middle fingers to mute higher strings while his thumb played a bassline.

To get the hang of playing single notes, try plucking a single string and moving the slide. Experiment with muting techniques for the other strings. Practicing this way might seem tedious, but it's a good idea to get comfortable playing one note at a time before working on playing entire songs. This video (above - right) shows you a few examples of single-note playing on the slide guitar.

7. Mixing Fretted And Slide Notes

If you have a slide on your fretting hand, that doesn't mean that you can't fret any notes at all. In fact, combining fretted notes with slide notes can sound especially nice.

As this video illustrates, it can be difficult to make a slide sound decent on the second string. In this particular lesson, the player combines fretted notes and slide notes with an alternating bassline.

Of course, if you've just begun slide guitar, you don't need to immediately start combining slide and Travis picking. But if this is something you want to be able to do, it's a good idea to get a slide that will fit on your pinky finger. Practice alternating between fingerpicking a note and playing one with a slide. It's harder than it sounds! But once you master it, you'll be ready to learn more complex pieces of music.

8. Playing With Vibrato

One of the most beautiful things about slide guitar is the vibrato that a skilled player can produce. It's a different tone than what you get with a string-bending vibrato (video below - left), and it's played differently, too.

A slide vibrato is made by rapidly moving the slide back and forth. And as any experienced slide guitarist will tell you, being able to play a vibrato that consistently sounds good is quite the challenge.

Just like with many guitar techniques, mastering the slide guitar vibrato takes some trial and error. This instructional video (above - right) does a good job of talking you through creating a great vibrato, and it's a great example of quality vibrato.

9. Learn The Dobro Guitar

If you like the sound of slide guitar and want to branch out from bottleneck slide, you might like the dobro. The unique-looking dobro is a resonator guitar that's played as it rests across your lap. But the dobro is different from other resonator guitars (like those used in blues music) in that it's a fretless instrument, so learning to play it is a bit of an adjustment. Playing in tune also poses a challenge to new players, so make sure that you're patient with yourself!

As for tuning, the standard tuning for a dobro is GBDGBD, which is sometimes called open G tuning or high-bass G. With this open tuning, you get a major triad in two octaves. Since the treble strings are just higher octaves of what you get with the bass strings, this tuning can make it a little easier to get used to playing the dobro.

The sound of this lap slide guitar is common in bluegrass and country, and you'll likely recognize it as soon as you hear it. These resonator guitars have a powerful sound that works better miked than with a pickup -- dobros with pickups will often run into feedback issues. This video features Jerry Douglas, a world-famous dobro player who has won several Grammy awards.

10. Try The Weissenborn Guitar

If you like the bright sound of koa and appreciate the resonant sound of a good acoustic guitar, you might be interested in learning the Weissenborn guitar. These guitars are played on your lap like a Dobro. However, they have a unique feature that helps support their signature tone -- a hollow neck. You can really appreciate the full-bodied tone of the Weissenborn in this video of a live performance by Ben Harper, a Grammy-winning artist.

If you already like to play fingerstyle acoustic guitar, you'll probably take to the Weissenborn, as it's typically played with the fingers without the use of fingerpicks. This type of slide guitar does well with some of the same tunings you'd use when playing slide on a standard guitar. Open D tuning is a great place to start. And if you prefer a lower, throatier sound, you might like low C Vestapol (CGCEGC). This is basically a lower version of open D.

This video lets you hear the sparkling tone of this unique instrument, and it also offers some advice for new players.

Want to Start Learning?

Being able to play slide guitar well is an impressive feat. But as you already know if you've just started learning or playing, the learning curve between playing a regular electric or acoustic guitar and playing slide guitar is a steep one. That's where expert instruction can come in handy. You don't need to travel to a guitar instructor, either -- thanks to the huge variety of guitar lesson sites, you can learn from a slide guitar master without ever leaving your home.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you're now ready to start playing slide guitar, whether it's with your own acoustic or electric guitar or with a specialized instrument. But what do you think? If you've started playing slide guitar, do you have any suggestions for new players? Let us know in the comments, and please don't forget to like and share if you found our list useful!

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