In this post I’ll give a short introduction to basic slide guitar technique, tuning and phrasing. There’s a YouTube video further down that shows some examples. As always, I’d love to hear from you, so don’t be shy – leave a comment.
I usually play slide guitar in one of two open tunings, open G and open A. They’re basically the same tuning, but all the notes are raised a whole step in A. I use open G on acoustic guitar, and open A on electric. The reason for open A is that it gives more string tension, and that makes the slide skip on top of the strings easier. If the strings are too loose the slide crashes into the neck – and we can’t have that!
You tune your guitar to open A like this:
- Leave your low E, your high E and the A string as they are
- Tune the D string up a whole step to E
- Tune the G string up a whole step to A
- Tune the B string up a whole step to C#
On the acoustic, you tune to open G like this:
- Tune both your E strings down a whole step to D
- Tune the A string down a whole step to G
- Leave the D, G and B strings as they are
Adjusting the guitar
I have a guitar set up exclusively for slide playing. It’s an old Chandler strat copy, but I think most guitars can be successfully set up like this. What I’ve done is I’ve raised the strings high above the fretboard by adjusting the bridge (if you don’t know how to do this, get a tech to help you. I’ll be writing about basic guitar maintenance and adjustment at some point, but I don’t know when, exactly).
You probably have to raise the pickups as well. I’ve also put a full set of springs on the tremolo system, and screwed the bridge as far down as possible.. This basically turns it into a non-tremolo guitar. The reason for doing this, is that it makes the guitar sustain easier, and you’ll be needing all the sustain you can get when playing slide.
There are two main concerns when playing slide guitar – playing in tune, and muting unwanted string noise.
Playing in tune
To play in tune, you need to place the slide where the fret is, not a little behind it, as you would if you were playing without a slide. The reason for this is that when you play slide, the slide effectively becomes the fret. If you position it where you’d usually place your finger, the notes will be flat.
It’s important to keep the slide perpendicular to the neck so that it lies straight over the width of the neck. If you don’t do this, it will sound out of tune when you play two or more notes at the same time.
Slide playing is a potentially noisy endeavour, so muting is key! It’s a good idea to let the fingers behind the slide drag lightly over the strings. In this way you deaden the part of the string that’s behind the slide, and this prevent so-called ghost notes to ring when you’re moving the slide around. This is less of an issue on acoustic guitar, but on an electric with overdrive it can give an almost seasick out-of-tune quality that is an acquired taste, to say the least.
The right hand has to mute every note that’s not played, or else the whole thing will unravel. The best way to accomplish this, in my mind, is to lose the pick for now, and play fingerstyle. What I do is that I let my right hand clamp down on the strings like a half-closed fist, with my thumb extended. This assigns each of the four other fingers to a string – effectively muting them – and the thumb is placed between the low E and A strings, muting both of them. When playing, I try to deviate as little as possible from this position, and use whatever finger is closest to the string I need to playing at the time, to actually play. The rest are muted.
The basic premise that it should be musical, obviously applies to slide playing as well. It’s a good idea to learn some simple melodies (you’ll hear me have my way with Amazing Grace in the video below), and practise them until people don’t leave the room when you play. Seriously, it’ll take some time before your intonation is steady, but you’ll get there. It can be helpful to play in a key that gives you at least one open string, so that you can check back at various intervals to see if the pitch has drifted.
The movie adaptation
What? You’ve read this far only to find out it’s all easily explained in a video? Well, no. This is just me making some noise – enjoy: