So you want to expand your playing, but you’ve never picked up a slide guitar. Here are some Slide Guitar Essentials to get you started.
First thing is to pick a slide that fits you and your style. Slides come in a variety of materials: glass, bottle neck, metal, copper, bone, plastic, ceramic, old pill bottles, and even a Craftsman sparkplug socket. The two most popular types of slides are metal and glass, (aka bottle neck). Each has their own characteristics in tone and feel. Metal slides have a brighter tone, while glass has a warmer tone. The thickness of the slide will affect the tone as well. A thicker slide will produce a bigger fat tone, while a thin slide gives you a thinner bright tone. There also are different lengths and inside diameters to fit your fingers. A good slide will cost you about the price of a good pack of strings, anywhere from $5 to $30. The fingers used for slide are your pinky, ring, or middle fingers. You really shouldn’t use your index finger for slide because you are going to need it to help mute the strings behind the slide. We’ll talk more about that later.
Choosing a guitar to play slide on really depends on what you want to accomplish. The ideal set-up would be a guitar with medium to high action and heavy gauge strings in the “12” to “13” range. This set-up helps make using open guitar tunings a little more stable, and since you don’t want the slide to touch the frets the higher action prevents that from happening, even if you are a little heavy handed with the slide. Not all of us may have an extra guitar around to set up strictly for slide, or you’re playing style might not call for such a traditional set-up. If you play a guitar with very low action and light gauge strings (you know, the kind that “plays like butter”), you’re most likely going to get some slide rattle on the frets. In this case I’d recommend using a thin, light, glass slide like a “Jim Dunlop 202” and stay in standard tuning. Now, on most of the guitars I own I’ll use “9” or “10” gauge highbred string set with a slightly heavier low “E” and “A” string. The string gauge also depends on the scale length of the guitar; roughly speaking that’s the distance from the bridge to the nut. A Stratocaster style guitar has a 25.5 inch scale length, while a Les Paul style guitar is shorter at 24.75 inches. As a rule of thumb I’ll use “10” gauge strings on my Les Paul and “9” gauge on my Strat. This enables me to cover rhythm and lead along with adding slide parts when needed.
Working on your left hand (fret board) technique; I’ve been using my middle finger more often to play slide, this enables me to have my index, ring finger, and pinky open to play chords and other parts while wearing the slide on my middle finger. (You may find that your ring finger or pinky feels more natural to you) I’ll use my index finger to mute the strings behind the slide and my pinky works as a guide along the side of the neck while muting the high E string when needed (see photo). The most important part of playing slide is playing in tune! It is easy to play sharp or flat notes if you are slightly above or below the fret, so make sure you have the slide centered right over the fret. This is the first thing to master before adding any vibrato, grace notes, or any other techniques or tricks. To help with your intonation of the notes try using a chromatic clip-on tuner attached to the head stock of your guitar for a visual reference of the notes. For your picking hand, just use your pick or thumb for now to play the strings.
In the example below, play the G major scale on the G string up the neck, making sure every note is in tune. In my next article I will add in some opening tunings and right hand techniques to further our adventure into the world of slide guitar.