Getting Started with Slide Guitar
By Jon Chappell |
It’s not that hard to get started—there’s even an inexpensive, reversible guitar mod that makes it easier
By Jon Chappell
Ry Cooder. Daniel Lanois. Bruce Kaphan. These guitarists have all used slide guitar to create ethereal, ambient textures that have been found in film music and their own musical contemplations. Slide is a great way to expand your sonic palette and approach the guitar in new and challenging ways—and produce new and challenging music in the process. But how do you get started in slide if all you've ever really done is press strings all the way to the fingerboard with your left hand?
The first step is set up a guitar to be "slide ready," and the following discussions suit both electric and acoustic (though I'll use an acoustic here). Although you can play slide on a normal guitar, it's not ideal.
The action on a properly set up guitar—acoustic or electric—is simply too low to endure good slide playing. You get the best, solid, rattle-free tone if you can bear down on the strings some, and doing this with low action usually results in having the slide coming into contact with the fretwire, producing an ungodly rattle—a no-no in most slide situations (although the occasional rattle is authentic-sounding, especially in blues).
NUTS TO YOU
Good slide tone requires a high action, and there's an easy solution that involves no adjustments to your neck or bridge: buy a slide guitar extension nut, like the ones sold by Stewart MacDonald (www.stewmac.com). In one of the last best deals ever, you can buy an extension nut for under $4.00 last time I checked price. It's just an angled hunk of metal with six grooves in it to accommodate the strings (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The extension nut is ingeniously simple, but it works brilliantly.
Just take any guitar (acoustic or electric) loosen the strings, and place the extension nut over your existing nut. When you tune back up, the pressure of the tightened strings will hold the extension nut in place, so you don't need to do anything more permanent to your guitar to keep it set up for slide (see Fig. 2). This means you can reclaim your guitar at any time to resume normal playing.
Fig. 2. The extension nut fits over your existing nut, and is held in place by the tension of the strings bearing downward.
Note that once you have the nut in place, the guitar's action is considerably higher. It's no longer possible to play the guitar in the normal fretted way, so you may want to consider dedicating a spare guitar specifically for playing slide.
Now you're ready to play. If you're really serious about playing acoustic slide, you might consider taking one more step and buying a straight saddle to replace your existing curved one. (You can buy blank saddle stock from Stew-Mac, too.) Before you buy, you have to measure your bridge slot width and then order appropriately. I've done this slide conversion technique on several guitars, and while the saddle replacement helps, I don't find it absolutely necessary, especially if you'll be playing single-note work. (Having the strings all at the same height, which the saddle provides, works well for chordal playing.)
Once you have the extension nut on, and are tuned up, the next step is to decide whether you'd like to play normally (with the waist of the guitar resting on your right leg) or lap style. There are advantages to both, but I recently adopted lap style, as it helped me see the fingerboard a little better, and it forced me out of my usual fretted-playing habits. Also, I found it easier to bear down on the strings with gravity on my side. (Remember, we're talking about getting a good tone by pressing down on the strings more, which the raised action allows.) If you're recording and sitting down, it's a little easier to play lap style than live and standing up, but you can configure your strap to play flat, too, by lengthening it slightly, and tucking your right arm through the strap as Dobro player Chris Stockwell does - the videos on his web site show him in action.
OPENING UP TO DIFFERENT TUNINGS
To get the hang of moving around your guitar with a slide, I suggest staying in standard tuning while you perfect the technique of using the slide - the right-hand fingers to sound notes (slide guitar is rarely played with a pick), and generally trying to get a sound that doesn't sound like sick kittens mewing. Try to play simple chord passages, moving the bar in a I-IV-V fashion by barring the inside three strings (the D, G, and B) and playing a simple right-hand pattern. Then move to simple lead melodies. Use your remaining left hand fingers to mute the strings behind the slide.
Once you can play this new way without sounding really bad, you might consider switching to an open tuning, such as open G (D, G, D, G, B, D, low to high) or open D (D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high). The tunings of open A and open E correspond to these tunings, too, because the relative relationship of the strings remains the same. Since you usually play slide by barring straight across, tuning the guitar to an open chord seems to offer the easiest way to play licks. Certain players, though, like Warren Haynes, try to stay in standard tuning as much as possible, because you don't have to readjust your thinking to play—especially on improvised leads.
IT'S A SLIDE, SLIDE WORLD
I realized that the reason I wasn't inspired to play more slide is because it just sounded so bad on a normal guitar. Then I was messing around with a square-neck Dobro and a Stevens bar in a music store one day, and I sounded better in five minutes than in years of attempts on my normal guitars at home - and the solution cost less than $10 (the price of the extension nut and a glass slide from Dunlop). With these two items, you can be well on your way to creating music you didn't even know you could play.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and Associate Editor at Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).