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How Learning Slide Guitar Will Improve You as a Player

Slide guitar’s most associated with blues and country music. Consequently, if these genres don’t appeal to you, learning it might seem like a waste of time.

There are also misconceptions, such as:

  • You have to use an open tuning
  • You must have a high action on your guitar
  • You must have a guitar that’s only for slide playing

Yes, slide gets used a lot in blues and country. Yes, open tunings among slide players are popular. Yes, a dedicated guitar and a high action can make playing easier.

However, none of these are absolutes. Slide can be played in any style, in any tuning, on any guitar.  

I aim to make the case that you should learn slide, because I believe it’ll improve all of your playing.

Let’s look at what slide guitar is, and why it can initially be difficult.

Slide Guitar Explained

Creating fretted notes is achieved traditionally by pressing the string down onto the required fret. As long as there’s contact between string and fret, there’s sound.

In slide guitar, a tube worn on one of your fretting fingers is used instead. Think of it as a moveable fret, touching the string on the topside rather than underneath.

Early Issues

When I first attempted slide I was horrified by the clatter of noise I produced. It took time and observation of great slide players for me to understand where I was going wrong. If you follow my suggestions, it may well save you from similar experiences.

The Right Tool

My first slide was a traditional bottleneck, which, unsurprisingly, is the neck of a glass bottle. This is great for heavy strings, a high action on your guitar and an experienced player.

However, it’s an appalling choice for beginners playing on thin strings and a low action. The strings don’t support the weight of the slide and, being close to the frets, crashing into them’s inevitable. Couple this with inexperience and disaster is guaranteed.

The choice of slide is like your pick, amp, or guitar, in that it’s totally personal. 

Slides come in a variety of different materials, such as glass, ceramic and metal, as well as lengths and thicknesses. What you choose is up to you, but as a general rule of thumb, the lighter the string the lighter the slide.

I abandoned the bottleneck for a Pyrex knuckle slide. Being significantly smaller and lighter it was easier to manage on an electric guitar. I can now play most kinds of slides on lightly-strung guitars, but that’s down to a far improved technique.

Damping

Crashing into the frets aside, I was getting extraneous noise, which drowned out what I was trying to play.

Whenever I’m struggling with something, I watch players who are good at it in order to spot what they’re doing that I’m not. Or indeed, what they’re not doing that I clearly am in error.

In the case of slide, I turned to Rory Gallagher . He’d always play slide at some point in his shows, and watching him gave me the answer to my problems. 

In short, playing slide is as much about removing sound as it is about creating it.

If you’re using a full-size slide, you can cover most or all the strings at once. That’s fine if you’re playing all of them, but what if you want to hear a single string? Every time you move you’ll agitate all the strings, creating unwanted noise.

The answer is damping. The fingers that aren’t being used on either hand must be employed to deaden the strings you don’t want to hear.

Damping behind the slide on your fretting hand’s particularly important. Unlike traditional fretting, notes can ring out either side of the fret. As you usually only want to hear notes forward of the slide—towards the bridge—damping has to occur. This’ll make a huge difference to the clarity of the playing.

Targeting Notes

Producing single notes, as well as transitioning from one string to another, can be tricky for slide players. Asides from the aforementioned issue of noise, the intonation has to be excellent.

When fretting notes with your fingers, each fret provides intonation—you choose the correct fret and, provided the guitar’s set up properly, out comes an in-tune note.

Playing slide is akin to playing any fretless instrument, so where it comes to rest on the string’s critical. Rather than stopping just behind the fret as you would do normally, now you must stop directly above the middle of the fret. 

Doing this slowly isn’t difficult, but at speed in the middle of a song takes practice. This is why some players adopt a wide, almost drunken vibrato as it covers up imprecise intonation.

How Learning Slide Benefits Playing

If you think about what we’ve covered here, a lot of it’s applicable to all aspects of playing guitar.

Damping

Every player will benefit from tidying up the extraneous noise they create.

Intonation

Fretted instruments allow an imprecise approach, but the best results are still achieved by getting as close to the frets as you can. The precision required for slide will hone your attention to intonation.

Targeting And Transitions

Whether you’re playing slide or not, the ability to move seamlessly from note-to-note and string-to-string is highly desirable. Playing slide makes you focus on achieving that.

Broadening Your Appeal

I was at a jam night. A group of us were playing, taking turns for a solo. One guitarist was shredding away, doing his best Van Halen impression. Rather than compete, I played slide when my turn came around.

When Mr Van Halen played, only the guitarists in the room nodded their approval.

When I played slide, everyone nodded their approval. Except Mr Van Halen, who didn’t like his thunder being stolen.

Conclusion

I hope I’ve demonstrated that learning slide’s about more than just an extra skill set. I encourage you to try it, and to persevere, as it’s not easy. However, it’s worth it because:

  • It’ll tidy up all of your playing
  • It draws attention to your intonation
  • It’ll make moving around the fretboard seem more intuitive
  • The more styles you can play, the greater your appeal