How To Play Slide Guitar

Learning how to play slide guitar has been said to help with fingerpicking. This is because, in playing slide, fretting is not necessary. It, therefore, becomes easier to focus on picking the strings. It doesn’t stop here. Because of the precision required in playing slide, it helps to hone the guitarist’s attention to intonation.

How To Play Slide Guitar
Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

About The Slide Guitar

A slide guitar is additionally known as the bottleneck guitar. The name is quite deceptive as this is not a different type of guitar, rather it is a style or technique of playing on the guitar strings. This type of technique involves the pressing of solid or hard objects against the guitar string to produce sound. 

These objects can be a thin glass tube (that is similar to the neck of a bottle), a steel bar, or a steel tube. The slide technique works by wearing any of these objects over a finger and pressing them against the strings while sliding them along the fingerboard to produce a soulful sound. 

The slide technique has been traced to the African civilization but is mostly associated with blues music. This technique has a similar counterpart and has been compared to the steel guitar which was developed in Hawaii. The steel guitar used a sliding method but with steel.

The slide guitar became prevalent in North America in the early 20th century. The slide technique functions in the same manner that a guitarist would press his fingers against the fretboard, the pressing of the slide against the strings determines the pitch of the guitar. The beauty of this technique is how it reproduces the human singing tone.

How To Choose A Slide

These slides are made from different materials, with glass and steel as the prevalent choices. In modern times, slides have been made out of ceramics and porcelain. These are however more delicate than glass and metal and are vulnerable to chipping or cracking easily. 

These materials and their different textures contribute to the loudness or timbre of the guitar tone. The use of glass slides tends to produce a smoother and softer sound. However, the choice of size and shape of a slide is completely dependent on personal preference. 

In choosing a slide, apart from the tonal tendencies, the weight and comfortability are factors to be put into consideration. A thick and heavy slide will produce a better tone with a higher sustain than a light slide. The use of shorter slides enables the guitarist to maintain the ability to fret with his fingers. On the other hand, this ability is completely erased when it comes to longer slides since it is able to go over the guitar strings in a full sweep.

A slide is worn over a finger. The appropriate guitar slide will take into consideration the fit, the length, the material and the width of the slide. The slide has to be fit in order for the guitar to produce the appropriate tone. 

This means that the slide must be snug, but not tight. It should not restrict the movement of your fingers, and neither should it fall off your fingers while playing. In the latter scenario, it will give you less control over the strings which will give you less precision over the notes.

The thickness, or otherwise, of the guitar slides affects the weight which has a direct impact on the guitar’s sustain. You may want to consult a guitar slide sizing chart to ascertain the perfect fit for you.

Over time, guitarists have found other materials as a substitute for slides, a lighter, a lipstick or even a whammy bar.

The Slide Guitar Technique

The fingers used in the slide technique alternates between the pinkie finger, the middle finger or the ring finger. Each of these fingers has its pros and cons. 

The use of the pinkie fingers frees up the other fingers, but it is difficult to mute strings using the pinkie finger. The middle finger is stronger, it offers more stability and precision, but it can make it difficult to navigate the other fingers as well. The ring finger does not provide as much stability and balance as the middle finger, but it does give more control and also makes the muting of strings easier.

In the slide guitar technique, the guitar can be tuned in the standard tuning or in the opening tuning. This tuning is used by a lot of guitarists, usually on a six-string guitar. It consists of these notes: E2–A2–D3–G3–B3–e4. Which represents three intervals of a perfect fourth, accompanied by a major third and culminates on another fourth.

Tuning The Slide Guitar

The standard tuning is more versatile and pragmatic as it makes allowance for guitarists to transition between chords. It also minimizes the hand to fret movement. The sequence of this tuning denotes a movement from the lowest to the highest, which is done by moving from the thickest string to the thinnest string.

In this tuning, the chords cannot be shifted around the fretboard. This is because, there is an interval of a major third between the second and the third strings, while all the other intervals are fourths.

Open tuning is an alternative tuning. Here, the strings do not follow the sequence of the standard tuning. Rather, the guitar is tuned in such a way that strumming with no fretting produces a major or minor chord. 

Open tunings are common to blues music or the slide guitar. An open tuning can be chordal as well as modal. A number of slide guitar players use open tunings as opposed to the standard tuning, especially on acoustic guitars when used for the backing.

The open tuning for the slide technique is more suited to the acoustic guitar. This is because of sound projection. The sound produced by the acoustic guitar resonates throughout its body and this further amplifies the sound. This resonance effect is what makes it an ideal choice for the slide guitar playing. 

The open tuning implies that all the strings are tuned in a way that the open string notes belong to two A major (or sometimes A minor) chords. 

Below are the common open tunings

Open A: E-A-C♯-E-A-E

Open B: B-F♯-B-F♯-B-D♯

Open C: C-G-C-G-C-E

Open D: D-A-D-F♯-A-D

Open E: E-B-E-G♯-B-E

Open G tuning – G-D-G-B-D 

The easiest and probably most accurate way of tuning a guitar is to use an electronic tuner. The electronic tuner works by measuring the frequency of the strings as tuning by the ear may be inaccurate, however in the absence of an electronic tuner, you can do so manually by using your ears which in reality, is not as precise as other methods.

Playing The Slide Guitar

Things To Keeping in Mind

The largest percentage of slide guitar playing is on the first string, this should be kept in mind. The slide guitar can be played in any position, but some are more comfortable than others. 

Whether you are strumming notes or you are picking chords, the guitar needs to be stable and the guitarist ought to be comfortable. The picking hand must, therefore, be as relaxed as possible. Both hands must be in sync when playing the slide guitar.

Steps To Be Taken

The first step is to detune your guitar or in the alternative choose a tune for your guitar. Open tunings, such as open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E), open A (E-A-E-A-C#-E) and open G (D-G-D-G-B-D) are preferred by many players of the slide guitar.

  • Detune your guitar into open G, so the notes are: D G D G B D, Playing all 6 six open strings at once gives you a G chord. An open string is one that is played without putting your hands on any frets.
  • Put the slide of your choice on your finger, the slide should not go past the knuckle, this is the appropriate length.
  • Try on different sizes of slides and test them by playing a simple note or chord.
  • Mute the part of the string that is not picked (those from the slide to the headstock), the importance of this is to prevent vibration, and if this is not done it will produce unwanted sound.
  • The handpicking fingerstyle is used to keep the guitar’s strings that you aren’t playing muted. The most common is to play the string with the index finger, while fingers 2/3 mute the thinner strings and the thumb mutes the thicker strings.
  • Muting the unwanted string is done behind the slide to get rid of the notes you probably don’t want to hear
  • Depending on the finger which the slide is on, use the remaining fingers aside and press them gently upon the string, do not apply too much pressure on the strings. The slide is replacing the fret, in this technique, the slide is not pressed down on the strings as this will alter the pitch of the guitar, rather what you want to do with the slide, is to apply a light pressure that ought to produce smooth sounds. The slide is to lightly rest on the strings of the guitar and is not to be pressed too hard. The slide should be exactly parallel to the frets. The slide is to be placed on the fret.
  • Keep the slides straight and parallel to the frets, keep your thumb squarely at the back of the guitar’s neck
  • In playing the slide guitar, press the slide directly above a fret on a string, but don’t press the string on the fretboard.
  • The next step is to pick the string and move the slide slowly up and down. Compare the note of the sound produced using your slide to the fretted note in order to ascertain how close you are. The intonation of your pitch is vital, the fret wires will be helpful as a guide. 
  • If the slide bangs against the frets or fingerboard, then it means that you have applied too much pressure, lighten the pressure of the slide against the strings a little.
  • The correct placement of your picking hand is above the soundhole, with your thumb pointing towards the headstock and your fingers just below it above the strings.

Conclusion

Learning the basics of how to play a slide guitar might not seem too difficult but the playing itself is not a stroll in the park. 

Getting your hand position right and making it as relaxed as possible will go a long way in making slide guitar an enjoyable activity. When playing, it is important for the picking hand to be very controlled as the guitarist won’t just be picking strings with it, but also muting the unwanted strings. 

A simple rule to follow is to keep the heel of your hand on the bridge of the guitar and just slightly on the strings, so they’re all palm muted.

From this position, it will be easier strum across all six-strings with a simple arc-motion from your thumb and all the strings should sound muted.

Play mostly on the first string for the first week and keep practicing. Consistently adjust the pressure of the slides while trying to develop a rich, smooth, and sonorous 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 be stiff in your hand movements- just wiggle your fingers softly over the strings. 

Try all angles of approach to each note. Attempt to slide up or down to each note in several different-sounding ways. Remain relaxed in the left hand and remember to play the pitches in tune (over the fret). 

A lot of patience and practice is required, do not assume to master this style immediately – there are no shortcuts and regardless of your choice of guitar, whether it is acoustic, electrical or a resonance guitar, it is all about the rhythm.