GUITAR PLAYER MAGAZINE
Slide Guitar Basics:
Developing Clean Technique
By BOB BROZMAN
While the majority of slide manuals deal with playing songs and blues licks, few devote a large amount of text to developing the technical facility necessary to play noiselessly with optimal tone. Bob Brozman's recommendations and exercises will go a long way toward filling this gap. And although Basic Slide is geared for guitarists who hold the instrument in the conventional manner, lap-style dobroists and Hawaiian steel players can also benefit from its instruction and advice.
ALMOST EVERY GUITARIST I HAVE met has been fascinated by the sound of bottleneck slide. However, to many players the techniques involved with this unique style remain a mystery. The following guidelines and exercises are essential in developing the ability to execute clean, accurate, and agile phrases with the slide, and will help you avoid the inefficient method of trial and error.
Why Play Bottleneck?
With the exception of string bending, there is no other way to play the notes "between" the frets. And there is absolutely no other way to get that voice-like singing tone, vibrato, and sustain characteristic of the slide style. Of course, closely linked to these sounds is the kind of bottleneck you use.
Slide gallery: (L-R) A commercial, thick brass slide; a Coricidin bottle (Duane Allman's was the longer type); a 3/4" chrome-plated spark-plug socket; a commercial glass slide; a handmade green glass bottleneck; a commercial metal side.
Although there are acceptable commercial slides available, I prefer ones made from a wine bottle (at least 1/8" thick, because they are inert from vibration and have a smooth surface, resulting in a lot less string noise. Although certain players wear their slide on various left-hand fingers, I recommend using the pinky. This keeps your other three fingers available for fretted notes and free to dampen string noise (more on this later). Fifth-size Mateus wine bottles make the best slides. Mateus isn't the greatest wine ever made, but its bottle has one of the few necks long and straight enough (with no flare) to use for playing the guitar. There are also commercial glass slides that work all right, but they aren't as heavy and consequently are harder to use (a heavy slide produces the best tone and is easy to control).
The tricky part about making a good glass slide is cutting the neck off - sometimes you just have to break it free. A glass cutter or a hacksaw can be used to score the neck before breaking, while rough edges can be trimmed with diagonal cutters. (Caution: When cutting glass, always protect your eyes from flying fragments with goggles.)
Once the neck is free of the bottle (good luck; be prepared to go through a few fifths), the cut must be ground smooth. Since this process usually takes a few hours, some of you might be able to use the wine. A grinding wheel equipped with a water trough works best for final smoothing, but remember you must use a trough of water to minimize friction and keep the glass from shattering. The important thing is to get the playing edge (where the cut was made) rounded and smooth.
Once you've finished making a satisfactory bottleneck, try it on for size. (I prefer a slide that covers the entire length of the pinky.) The bottleneck will be a loose fit, so you'll have to hold it on by crooking the little finger, which helps get the hand into the proper semi-circular position for left-hand damping illustrated by Fig. 1.
Contacting The Strings
About 80% of bottleneck playing uses only the first string, so let's start there. With your hand in a semi-circular position, place the slide on the first string, 5th fret. (Remember, in order to play in tune, you position the bottleneck directly over the fret; if you stop to consider how notes are made, you'll see that the frets determine string length and pitch, not your finger.) Once you have located the right note, let the slide contact the string. Don't press down! At the same time, let the flesh of the bottom half of your left-hand index finger lightly touch the string behind the slide. This damps the strings and cuts down on extraneous noise, enabling you to get a clean rattle-free tone.
Fig. 1: Top View of Hand Position
Fig. 2: Cutaway View of Neck Looking Towards Headstock
Starting To Play
The first thing to do once you're positioned at the 5th fret is to lazily slide up and down the string. Listen to the sound you are getting and maximize its smoothness and tone by adjusting your hand position. It's important to know that your slide hand must be extremely relaxed! Also, take note of how the picking hand influences the tone, depending on how close to the bridge or neck you strike the string. After getting comfortable with this slow, lazy up and down sliding, you can start some simple exercises.
Since the following material uses the first string only, it applies to any tuning. In addition, I recommend using an instrument strung with medium gauge treble strings, and with action no lower than 1/8" at the 12th fret. Otherwise you will suffer from rattles, missed notes, and a poor "signal-to-noise ratio." Here are some common tunings you might want to experiment with: For electric playing I recommend A tuning (E A E A C# E, low to high) and E tuning (E B E G# B E, low to high), because these keys are used extensively for rock and blues. For acoustic playing I recommend G tuning (D G D G B D, low to high) and D tuning (D A D F# A D, low to high). Personally, I use the lower tunings, because adjusting strings above concert pitch can put undue tension on an instrument's top and neck. Since open G is so widely used and facilitates many of the licks associated with country blues, it generally works best for acoustic music.
From Sounds To Music
In slide playing, sound and tone are the important things; hot licks come later. The following exercises are designed to develop good tone and accurate pitch. Although only the first string (D) is used, ultra control can be learned by doing these drills on the remaining five strings as well.
Clean staccato. With a regular beat, play a very short, clean note from the 1st to the 12th fret and back. Leave your index finger damping on the string as you lift and return the slide at each fret. The goal is to produce no noise when raising and lowering the bottleneck.
Staccato/open-string combination. Play the same short, clean notes as in the preceding study, but this time lift the slide and your damping finger to include the open first string in between each note. Here you must carefully lift and replace the whole hand (slide and damper), while maintaining a semi-circular hand position. Work on playing in tune while striving to produce no extraneous noise.
Staccato and open-string combination
Sliding scales. This time you must try to be clean, controlled, and accurate. Slide up to each note from the designated starting point and hit the next tone perfectly. Although it helps to keep your eye on your left hand, once you master this technique, not looking will really sharpen your ears. A more difficult twist to this exercise is to descend by sliding down to each note:
Strike and slide. Here you start on G at the 5th fret and slide to the next note. Pay attention to the time values. This study is also very helpful for timing, pitch, and accuracy.
Strike and slide
Long jumps. By spelling out the G7 chord on the first string, you learn to leap your whole left hand considerable distances. This is hard to do cleanly and should be practiced two ways: staccato and by sliding up to each tone. The more ways you practice, the more prepared you'll be for various playing situations.
Vibrato Makes The Slide Sing
Vibrato is a shimmering, sustained singing sound characteristic of slide style. The first string is the best place to learn this important technique. Start by positioning the slide at the 5th fret. Vibrato is achieved by rapidly moving the slide back and forth on a note in a left/right motion. However, in practice you don't consciously tell the hand what to do. Let the weight of your hand and slide hang from the left thumb positioned on the back of the neck. This creates a pivot for the left/right movement. The best way to describe how the vibrato motion works is by comparing it to the way you might wiggle a small dish of Jello in somebody's face to make them nervous. The slide hand must be very smooth, slow, relaxed, and with no added weight on the string. Just bang by your thumb and wiggle the slide loose like a goose. This will take some time to develop, so don't lose patience.
The vibrato ranges from the principal note to more than one-half fret below. If it travels above the note, it won't sound right. The speed of the vibrato is variable, but it should definitely be slow enough to be relaxed. If the muscles in the back of your hand are tense, then your playing will sound tense, too. It takes time to get an even, relaxed vibrato, but without it you might as well just be using your left-hand fingers.
Fig. 3: Same view as in Fig. 2. Playing on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th strings
Fig. 4: Same view as in Fig. 2. Playing on an inside string (3rd in this case)
What About The Other Strings?
Chords for a basic I IV V blues can easily be played in open G tuning (the same as A, only one whole-step lower) by covering three (or more) strings at once. For instance, the first three open strings, as well as the first three strings barred at the 12th fret, yield a G chord (the tonic, or I, chord). The first string is the fifth of the G chord, the second is the third, and the third is the root. At the 5th fret, the same three strings produce a C major (IV), and a D can be played on the 7th fret (V). You can also add the fourth string (fifth of the chord) and the fifth string (root). Literally thousands of blues songs are made up of only the I IV V chords.
To play single notes on other strings besides the first, you have to change the angle of the bottleneck (while still damping). Look at Fig. 1, 2, and 3 for the three angles that allow you to play on the first string only, more than one string at a time (up to all six), and a single inside string, respectively. Moving back and forth between these positions makes damping tricky, but it's still possible. When sliding on several strings, use the whole length of your left index finger for damping. When playing a single inside string, use the tip of your index finger to damp.
I can't stress enough how important it is to learn the fingerboard well in these tunings. And keep in mind that you can use the first (index), second, and third fingers of the left hand to play fretted notes. There are many unique chord voicings that can only be had in these tunings that are certainly worth figuring out. I feel the most interesting open-tuning slide work comes from country blues players such as Robert Johnson, who used fingered notes as much as the slide. Other great bottleneck players you should listen to are Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Son House, Lowell George, Duane Allman, Bo Weavil Jackson, Kokomo Arnold, and Booker White. If you listen so much that the sound starts coming out your ears, then it's a lot easier to get it out of your hands.
To sum up, let me quickly review the main ideas involved in slide playing: Get your hand position right, making it as relaxed as possible. Play mostly on the first string for the first week or so, trying to develop a fat, smooth, noiseless note with no knocks or rattles. Hang the hand from the thumb on the back of the neck and let the weight of your hand and the slide do the work in producing a vibrato. Don't consciously tell your hand to move back and forth; just wiggle it like Jello. Try every angle of approach to each note. Be able to slide up or down to each note in several different-sounding ways. Keep relaxed in the left hand and remember to play the pitches in tune (over the fret). Don't expect to master this style overnight - there are no shortcuts. And play and listen until slide comes as naturally as singing in the shower.
Slide Guitar Basics: Developing Clean Techniquetop
© Bob Brozman 1984, 2004