Slide guitar is a form of guitar music that has a pedigree that has some of its roots from African slaves who used to hit fence wire with a stick while sliding a bottle or other object on the wire to change the tone. This would be accompanied by ‘field hollers’, singing in rhythm to the slide from the fence. The music finds itself in many genres from Hawaiian music to country and from blues to rock music, to name a few.
For me it started at the age of 13, when I bought a National Diplomat Dobro resonator guitar on hire-purchase, paid for by giving guitar lessons to other kids. It was my pride and joy. It was acoustic electric and I bought a 10 Watt practice amp to go with it. As a blues fan I’d be playing Elmore James’ Dust My Broom and being the early 70s I’d then plug in, and be playing Led Zeppelin Shake Em On Down. I was also able to play fingerstyle as it was a reasonably good guitar and get that sweet banjo sound playing country blues that you might have heard on albums by people like Keb Mo and Taj Mahal.
In this article I’m going to tell you a bit about the types of guitars suited for slide, what sort of things do people use as slides, how to tune a guitar for slide music, and how to get started.
What Sort of Guitar Do You Need to Play Slide Guitar for Beginners?
I am dead against beginner guitars when it comes to playing any guitar where you have to shape chords. A lot of cheap guitars are hard to play. Why?
- Often you have to push down hard on the strings;
- The strings will buzz on the frets if you can’t push them hard enough;
- Cheap guitars are hard to play bar chords on;
- It hurts soft fingertips when you play them for any length of time;
- The sound is average, often dull instead of the crisp sounds we hear other people playing; and
- This often results in people giving up.
But, take that average steel string guitar, put a reasonably high gauge (thicker) set of guitar strings on it, and you could have a pretty good slide guitar. In my early years I was given a Tex Morton original country guitar with a picture of a cowboy on a horse with a lasso. It came with a country songbook, in a leather case with a Tex Morton slide. It was almost impossible to play as an ordinary guitar, the ‘action’ was terrible and the sound was dull. I tuned it to ‘Open A’ and it was a halfway decent slide guitar.
Later I would put an acoustic pickup on it and play electric slide, in a pub and club band I used to play in when we were taking a break from covers, doing blues and rock jams that people could dance to. I don’t play that one anymore as I have a great resonator and I also play slide on a Fender Squier Stratocaster which otherwise is a pretty average guitar. You see the guitar doesn’t have to be good at all to play slide, if you are not also fingering chords.
What Sort of Slide Should a Beginner Use?
People have been playing slide guitar with just about anything you can imagine as long as it has a straight edge. I’ve heard stories of old-school blues players in the South using the back of a knife (don’t try this at home) and the straight edge of a whiskey bottle has also been popular, a.k.a. a bottleneck. I’ve used everything from marmite jars to hollow slides made of brass and other materials. The material and type impacts a lot on the type of music you want to play, the characteristics of the instrument, and whether it is an acoustic or electric guitar. To play slide guitar for beginners, I’d probably be recommending a slide that you can put on one of your non picking hand’s fingers. That way you can play chords as well as use the slide, without having to take the slide off your finger
What Sorts of Slides Can You Get?
Would you like one of these solid steel slides delivered to your door for next to nothing? Click this link and be amazed. I was.
As I mentioned there are lots of slides available and to play slide guitar for beginners, I would be recommending buying one that is easy to use. If you have some success straight away, you are probably going to stay with it and enjoy adding it to your music kit. I am going to assume you can already play some level of guitar, so you will understand some basics about chord types and music types like 12 bar blues.
Here are some of your commercial options:
- A glass bottleneck. The ones you will find in music shops aren’t really bottlenecks but the principle is the same. They tend to be lighter than a real bottleneck. They will also be guaranteed to be straight which is not always the case with a real bottleneck. Cheap guitars are light and particularly well suited for electric guitar. There is no audible resonance in glass so the sound is very clean and clear. For a great deal on a glass bottleneck, check out this crazy deal.
- There are a variety of brass slides that you can fit on your finger like a bottleneck. Some are light, some are heavy. They tend to produce a resonance, in some cases quite raspy, which is great if you want a gritty sound. They usually cover all 6 strings, but you can also get them that only cover about 3 strings which can be very useful for an experienced electric lead guitarist who doesn’t want to change the tuning and wants to be able to finger chords as well. Check out this ridiculous deal and yes it is for real! Someone left a comment asking for one for bass. Guess
what, we can help there too. Try this for size. It’s a twofer, with different thicknesses.
- One of my favorites is made of solid stainless steel. It’s heavy and you would normally only use it with the guitar lying flat on your lap. Mine is highly polished and allows you to crank up some serious volume without the rasp of the brass. It also has a round dome at one end that looks like half a metal marble. I can use that to place the slide neatly across 2 strings up and down the neck of the guitar while playing the other strings as open. This makes it more versatile.
- Another favorite is the steel that came with my Tex Morton guitar. It’s around 80 years old and still plays like new after many hundreds of hours of use. It’s designed to be played both on a lap guitar and in normal guitar position and I usually hold it between my ring and middle fingers. I’m not sure what Tex would make of the music I play with it, but hopefully he wouldn’t cringe. He played mostly originals, at rodeo’s and other events around Australia and New Zealand in the late 1930s and early 1940s. You might be able to find the odd video of him on YouTube.
To Play Slide Guitars For Beginners, How Do You Tune the Guitar?
The most popular tunings are A, D and G. My preference is A, but that’s just me. It’s what I learned first. Basically you tune the guitar as if you were playing an A chord. From bottom to top instead of EADGBE, you tune the guitar to EAEAC#E. Because 3 of the strings are E, you only have to tune the D string up to sound the same as the top and bottom E strings, the G-string to sound the same as the A or 5th string and then the B string up 2 tones to C#. The easiest way is of course to use a guitar tuner. If you have one that mounts on the head of your guitar, you can quickly check between songs.
Now unless you buy resonator strings (strings pre-tensioned for a specific open tuning), the normal strings in the music store were designed to be in standard tuning. That means that if you keep re tuning the strings to open tuning and back to normal, they will often start going out of key while you are playing and that’s not a good look. The easiest solution to that, if you can’t afford a slide guitar, is to buy a second hand or low cost steel string guitar. (nylon strings aren’t suitable sorry) and keep it in the open tuning you prefer. Then it is more likely to stay in tune.
This article was about how to play slide guitar for beginners 101. Even though it is a relatively short article, it should help you get started in thinking about adding this dimension to your guitar playing. I outlined that a guitar that does not play well can often be a good guitar for playing slide. You can often get a bargain on eBay, your local auction site or even on Facebook. Sometimes they call them learner guitars, but what they actually mean is that they are not very good for normal playing.
I talked about types of slides and my recommendation is that as a beginner, you would probably find a slide that you can wear on your finger. I mentioned that glass is good for electric guitars and metal is better for acoustic instruments.
Would you like one that you can slip on your finger but not sure what material you would like? Have I got a deal for you. How about a glass slide AND a stainless steel slide for under $5! Think I’m crazy? Not as crazy happy as you’ll be with this bundle.
Finally we talked about tuning and I gave you one of the keys that I like to use for slide guitar. A tuning is very easy to play in and doesn’t stretch ordinary strings to breaking point which some other open tunings can do, and guitar strings are not that cheap.
I hope you found this information useful. I will be sharing more about slide guitar in future articles. Feel free to add your comments.