Slide guitar

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Example of a bottleneck slide, with fingerpicks and a resonator guitar made of metal.

Slide guitar is a particular technique for playing the guitar that is often used in blues-style music. The technique involves placing an object against the strings while playing to create glissando effects and deep vibratos that make the music emotionally expressive, it typically involves playing the guitar in the traditional position (flat against the body) with the use of a tubular "slide" fitted on one of the guitarist's fingers. The slide may be a metal or glass tube like the neck of a bottle, the term "bottleneck" was historically used to describe this type of playing. The strings are typically plucked while the slide is moved over the strings to change the pitch, the guitar may also be placed on the player's lap and played with a hand-held bar and is then referred to as "lap slide guitar" or "lap steel guitar".

The playing style has been traced back to use on primitive stringed instruments in Africa and also is prominent in Hawaiian music which became popular in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Early American blues musicians used this style, heard in recordings from the 1920s by Sylvester Weaver and Blind Willie Johnson; in the 1950s Elmore James popularized the electric blues genre, and influenced later slide guitar in the rock genre including The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder and Duane Allman.


The technique of using a hard object against a plucked string goes back a one-stringed African instrument called a "Diddley bow".[1] When sailors from Europe introduced the Spanish guitar to Hawaii in the latter nineteenth century, the Hawaiians slackened some of the strings from the standard tuning to make a chord— this became known as "slack-key" guitar, today referred to as an open tuning,[2] with the "slack-key" the Hawaiians found it easy to play a three-chord song by moving a piece of metal along the fretboard and began to play the instrument across the lap. Joseph Kekuku was a Hawaiian who became proficient using a steel bar called a "steel" against guitar strings in this method around the end of the nineteenth century and popularized it— some sources claim he invented it.[3] He moved to the United States and became a vaudeville performer; in the first half of the twentieth century, the so-called "Hawaiian guitar" style of playing spread to the United States.[4] Most players of blues slide guitar were from the southern United States, particularly the Mississippi Delta, and their music was likely from African origin from relating to African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the fields,[5] the Hawaiian influence, if any, on their playing style is not clear. A commemorative marker in Tutwiler, Mississippi quotes W. C. Handy on his first hearing of slide guitar when a blues player performed in the local train station. Handy said, "As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars, the effect was unforgettable."[6]

In the early twentieth century, steel guitar playing divided up into two streams: bottleneck-style, performed on a traditional Spanish guitar; and lap-style, performed on an instrument specifically designed for the purpose of being played on the performer's lap.[7] The bottleneck-style was typically associated with blues music and was popularized by African-American blues artists,[7] the Mississippi Delta was the home of Son House, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and other blues pioneers.[8] Many of the early blues artists used a bottleneck around their finger but some held a slide in their left (fretting) hand,[8] the first known recording of the bottleneck style was in 1923 by Sylvester Weaver, who recorded two songs, "Guitar Blues" and "Guitar Rag".[9] Some of the blues artists who most prominently used the slide include gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson and Casey Bill Weldon.

Influential early electric slide guitarists[edit]

When the guitar was electrified in the 1930s, it allowed solos on the instrument to be more audible, and 1940s players like Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker popularized electric slide playing in standard tuning.[8] Chicago-based Robert Nighthawk's real name was McCollum; he recorded under various last names, finally deciding on "Nighthawk" which was the title one of his first records, "Prowlin' Nighthawk". He was considered a teacher of Muddy Waters and Earl Hooker and he was a performer who helped move music from the Delta to the Chicago blues style.[10] Earl Hooker, cousin of Detroit-based John Lee Hooker, was born in Mississippi, but his family moved to Chicago when he was young, as a teenager, he sought out Robert Nighthawk who became his mentor on slide guitar. Hooker did not sing due to a speech impediment (stuttering), but his skill on slide was prodigious, especially his clean blocking technique with single note runs. By playing in standard tuning, he could slip back into traditional guitar readily.[11]

Possibly the most influential electric blues slide guitarist was Elmore James, who gained prominence with a his 1951 song "Dust My Broom", a remake of Robert Johnson's 1936 song, "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom".[12]

This song featured James' playing a series of triplets throughout the song which Rolling Stone called "one immortal lick" in blues music and is heard in many blues songs to this day.[13] James created the lick on a guitar with an open E tuning, raking the strings with a pick while shivering the slide over the first four (treble) strings at the 12th fret,[14] his slide and bottleneck guitar techniques were widely adopted by blues and rock guitarists.[15]

Blues singer, harmonica player, and guitarist Muddy Waters was the leading figure in 1950s Chicago blues style,[16] his influence on blues music cannot be overstated. He took the music he had heard on Stovall's Plantation in Mississippi and brought it to Chicago,[17] his first hit on Chess Records was "Rollin' Stone", which later spawned the name for "The Rolling Stones" band. In the 1950s, many top blues players of the era passed through Waters' band.[16] Texas blues musician Johnny Winter honed his already-established style through years of touring with Waters.[18]

Slide guitar in rock music[edit]

The sound of the slide guitar spread to rock music in the 1960s, popularized by British rockers like the Rolling Stones,[8] the Stones featured a slide guitar in their recording of "I Wanna Be Your Man" as far back as 1963.[19] The Stones' Brian Jones was one of the first British guitarists to play slide guitar, his performance on their 1964 single "Little Red Rooster" may have been the first slide guitar song to reach number one on the British charts.[20][21] Jones' successor playing slide in the Stones was Mick Taylor, a 20 year old virtuoso who played slide on Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street,[22] the album Let It Bleed features Keith Richards on slide guitar for the majority of the album.

The sound of electric slide spread to American bands including Paul Butterfield. Butterfield, a harmonica player and Chicago native, frequented clubs there in the late 1950s where he was encouraged by established artists Muddy Waters and Little Walter who allowed him to sit in on jam sessions.[23] Guitarists in Butterfield's band included MIke Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop who were among the performers in the early 1960s who merged rock music with blues using slide guitar.[24] George Harrison performed on slide guitar with the Beatles in the 1965 songs "Drive My Car", and "Run For Your Life". Harrison also used slide in his solo career on songs such as "My Sweet Lord" and he played slide in the Traveling Wilburys as well as on The Beatles' 1995 and 1996 reunion singles "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love".

Duane Allman played a role in bringing slide guitar into Southern rock with The Allman Brothers Band, and with Eric Clapton's Derek and the Dominos on the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album.[8] Allman, who died at age 24, was referred to by NPR's Nick Morrison as "the most inventive slide guitarist of his era",[17] he extended the role of the slide guitar by mimicking the harmonica effects of Sonny Boy Williamson II, most clearly in the Allman Brothers' cover version of Sonny Boy's "One Way Out", recorded live at the Fillmore East and heard on their album Eat a Peach.[25]

Ry Cooder is another influential slide guitarist in rock music. At age 15, Cooder began working on bottleneck guitar techniques, learning the songs of Robert Johnson, and was called a teen prodigy in the 1960's[26][27] He was named by Rolling Stone in 2003 as number eight on their list of the "100 Greatist Guitarists of All Time", he collaborated with the Rolling Stones on recording sessions and is credited with showing their guitarist, Keith Richards, the open G tuning which Richards then adopted in songs such as “Gimme Shelter,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Start Me Up,” and “Brown Sugar.”[27][28]

Slide guitar technique[edit]

The slide guitar, according to music educator Keith Wyatt, can be thought of as a "one-finger fretless guitar",[29] the slide functions as a finger, and is a hollow tube usually fitted over the ring or little finger.[30] The slide is pressed lightly against the strings to avoid hitting against the frets, and is kept parallel with them,[31] the frets are used only as a visual reference, and playing in tune without them requires additional skill.[31] In this playing technique the player's remaining fingers and thumb still have access to the frets, and may be used for playing rhythmic accompaniment or reaching additional notes,[32] the guitar itself may be tuned in the traditional tuning, or may be tuned to make a chord, called "open tuning". Most early blues players used open tunings, but in the 1940's, players like Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker began using standard tuning, and most modern slide players use both,[8] the major limitation of slide playing is that only one chord shape is easily available and that is dictated by how the guitar is originally tuned. Two-note intervals can be played by angling the slide on certain notes (see photo).

The notes of A–D–G–B–E were adopted as a tuning for guitar-like instruments in the sixteenth century, and the low E was added later to make E–A–D–G–B–E as the standard guitar tuning;[33] in open tuning, the strings are tuned to sound a chord when not fretted, and is most often major.[34] Open tunings commonly used with slide guitar include "open D'" or Vestapol tuning: D–A–D–F–A–D; and open G or Spanish tuning: D–G–D–G–B–D. The latter is the tuning introduced to Keith Richards by Ry Cooder.[28] Open E and open A, formed by raising each of those tunings a whole tone, are also common. Other tunings are also used, in particular the "drop D" tuning (low E string tuned down to D) is used by many slide players, this tuning allows for power chords, which contain root, fifth and eighth (octave) notes in the bass strings and conventional tuning for the rest of the strings.[35]

Lap slide guitar[edit]

The lap slide guitar is not a specific instrument, but refers to a style of playing, usually blues or rock music, with the instrument on the performer's lap. There are various instruments specifically made to play in this manner, including:

Wooden resonator guitar played with a steel, angled to form a chord unavailable from straight open tuning.

Instruments made specifically for the use of a steel are played horizontally, on the player's lap or otherwise supported. Proper terminology for the hand-held bar used is "steel" or "tone bar" rather than "slide".[3] Nevertheless, the term "lap slide" coexists with "lap steel" and this is often a source of confusion.[36] "Slide" usually connotes blues or rock music. The steel is held in the non-dominant hand and pressed against the strings and moved horizontally to change the pitch, the ring and little finger usually rest on the strings to block unwanted overtones.[2] The instruments are designed with the strings relatively high off the fingerboard to prevent the steel from hitting against the frets. Actual frets may not exist on these instruments, only visual markers where the frets would normally be, the guitars have reinforced necks, often square, to withstand high tunings that would destroy the neck of a traditional guitar.[37] The steel chosen may be in many different shapes and styles and is a matter of personal preference of the performer,[38] the most common steel is a solid metal cylinder with one end rounded into a bullet shape, about 78 inch (2.2 centimetres) in diameter and 3 38 inches (8.6 centimetres) in length.[39] Some lap slide guitar players choose a steel with a deep indentation or groove on each side so it can be held firmly (see photo), and may have squared-off ends, the better grip facilitates playing the quaking vibratos in blues music.[40] This design, often used by resonator guitar players, allows the player to pick up one end of the bar while playing and tilt the tip slightly downward between strings to focus on single notes, he may also pull its edge over a string to create a "pull-off" sound. It also allows tapping a string with the edge to make a "hammer-on",[36] the lap instrument are typically plucked with the dominant hand, with or without finger picks. On occasion, an artist may use a flat pick, the picking fingers have another important function—to dampen or mute unwanted strings and to stop notes in staccato passages to prevent notes from running together.[41]

The "resophonic" or resonator guitar, invented in the late 1920s, has often been employed for slide playing and is known as the "Dobro" after its inventors, the Dopyera brothers. "Dobro" is an acronym of DOpyera and BROthers.[2] The invention predated the electric guitar, and its purpose was to make the guitar louder. A resonator guitar features a large metal cone, resembling a loudspeaker, attached under the bridge of the guitar to increase its volume.[42] Delta blues pioneer, Son House, played a resonator guitar on many songs including the classic, "Death Letter".[42] A resonator guitar with a metal body was played by Bukka White ("Parchman Farm Blues"), who often used a open E minor tuning.[22] Nashvillian Jerry Douglas, called by Music Aficionado as the "world's preeminent resonator and lap steel virtuoso", has spanned several genres of music has performed on over 1600 albums.[22]

In the 1920's, Hermann Weissenborn manufactured an acoustic lap guitar which bears his name, it has a hollow neck which creates a larger resonant chamber and therefore more volume.[2] The Weissenborn is coveted by some acoustic lap steel enthusiasts who believe it has a superior tone.[43]


A collection of various guitar slides. On the left is a "steel" used in lap playing, the next two are Coricidin medicine bottles from the late 1960s; followed by a polycarbonate tube and three metal tubes

A slide can be made with any type of smooth hard material that allows tones to resonate. Different materials cause subtle differences in sustain, timbre, and loudness. Metal slides such as stainless steel, chrome and aluminium cause a bright sound and are often chosen for rock music.[44]

Improvised slides are common, including pipes, rings, spoons, and even stones. Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett was fond of using a Zippo lighter as a slide, but this was largely for special effects.[45] Glass bottles, such as beer bottles, are common, and Duane Allman (Derek and the Dominos, Allman Brothers Band) used a glass Coricidin medicine bottle.[46] Blues guitarist CeDell Davis used a butterknife.[47]

Nick Manoloff patented the "bakelite tone bar" in 1937, made of a plastic-like substance, no longer used, but these have become a collector's item.[48] Necks cut from bottles, segments of copper or PVC plumbing pipe, and even deep length wrench sockets have been used by those who do not choose to use a commercial product, some artists have used a commonly available disposable cigarette lighter, oval in shape, as a slide. With the actual lighter mechanism sawed off, the remaining barrel is called a "fireslide"which has been produced commercially.[49]

Double slide guitar system[edit]

Double slide technique

An experiment in expanding the capabilities of slide guitar is the system of using more than one slide, adopted by Canadian slide player Brian Cober,[50] the technique uses the thumb to reach some notes and chords that were not accessible with the traditional bottleneck slide. An example is placing a slide on the middle finger which is used as a holder for a modified steel bar that can be guided by the index finger (see photo), and another short slide on the thumb which is sufficient to cover two bass strings.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Payne, Rick. "History and Origin of the Slide Guitar in the Blues". Lessons. Guitar Noise. Retrieved 3 March 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d Ross, Michael (February 17, 2015). "Pedal to the Metal: A Short History of the Pedal Steel Guitar". Retrieved October 5, 2017. 
  3. ^ a b Ruymar, Lorene. "The History of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar". Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association. Retrieved October 12, 2017. 
  4. ^ Ruymar, Lorene (1996). "The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and It's Great Hawaiian Musicians/ Hawaiian Music's Conquest of America/ The Steel Guitar Did It". Centerstream. p. 48. Retrieved September 12, 2017. 
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  6. ^ "W.C. Handy Encounters the Blues". Mississippi Blues Commission. Retrieved October 10, 2017. 
  7. ^ a b Volk, Andy (2003). Lap steel guitar. Anaheim, CA: Centerstream Publications. p. 9. ASIN 1574241346. ISBN 1-57424-134-6. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Sokolow, Fred (1996). Slide Guitar for the Rock Guitarist. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay. p. 3. ISBN 9781610655637. Retrieved October 8, 2017. 
  9. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. 
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  50. ^ Cober, Brian (June 17, 2008). "Double slide Guitar, virtuoso". Brian Cober. Retrieved October 18, 2017. 

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