Slide guitar is a fascinating guitar style – and, for some people, a well-kept secret to getting the coolest sounds out of your guitar! If you’re looking to master that classic, voice-like “sliding” sound unique to this style of play, read on!
What Is Slide Guitar?
“Slide guitar” refers to a specific type of guitar play. However, the slide guitar style play isn’t limited to just guitars. In theory, it can be used with any type of stringed instrument with a neck.
Consider some other fretless stringed instruments, for example, like violins and cellos. While playing these instruments, you can freely slide your hand up and down the neck of the instrument (even in the middle of a note) to change its pitch.
Slide guitar imitates this style of play by changing the way your guitar strings interact with the neck of your guitar. We’ll talk about this more below.
Before You Get Started
Does the idea of playing slide guitar have you hooked? If so, there are some things you’ll need to get and some considerations for you to make before you can play. We’ll go over these essential things in this section.
Guitar Slides and How to Use Them
Of course, the term “slide guitar” comes from using distinct slides to produce this style’s unmistakable effect. A guitar slide is a tube made from one of several materials, and it’s designed to fit over your finger for use.
Guitar slides can be made of virtually anything, but the material you use will affect the sound of your slide play. Electric guitars sound best with lighter, thinner materials like metal, while acoustic guitars sound better with thicker slides made of glass or porcelain.
This is because electric guitars can be amplified to boost the softer sound made by a thin slide, but acoustic guitars need the help of a thicker, heavier slide to produce the same sound. A heavier slide also produces a warmer sound that many acoustic players favor.
However, it’s always important to play around with different slides and materials to find the one that sounds best to you.
Guitar Slide Materials
You don’t have to buy a guitar slide if you don’t want to. Almost anything can “become” a guitar slide, as it’s relatively easy to make an impromptu slide out of everyday items. Duane Allman of Allman Brothers Band used a glass medicine bottle for a slide, and Jimi Hendrix used a cigarette lighter in one of his performances.
Which Finger Do You Put the Slide on?
The guitar slide is meant to fit over your second, third, or fourth playing finger. Which finger you use is entirely up to you as the player, but it also impacts how you’ll be able to control both the slide and your guitar. For example, while wearing the slide on your fourth finger gives you the freest fingers to dampen individual notes, it also gives you less stability.
Your third guitar finger is often considered the “sweet spot” for holding your slide. This offers a compromise between securing your slide and keeping two fingers free for refined play. However, if you have trouble manipulating your third finger, you can always use your second for even greater control.
I can’t stress enough to use whichever strategy works best for you, as different slide guitar masters throughout history have used each finger with success. If you need some inspiration, a few examples of this are:
- Tom Petty’s Mike Campbell using his fourth finger
- ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons using his second finger
- Duane Allman using his third finger
The Extension Nut
There are only two things that are absolutely necessary to play slide guitar: a guitar and something to use as a slide. However, some players find that an optional item called an extension nut also comes in handy. An extension nut is an accessory designed explicitly for slide guitars that raises the strings higher above your frets, giving you what’s called a “high action.”
Why is this important? Well, with a slide guitar, the goal is to avoid pushing your strings flush with the frets on your guitar. It can pull strings out of key or cause them to make an unpleasant buzzing sound against the frets if you do.
While slide guitar can play just as well without an extension nut, some beginners may find that the accessory makes playing slide guitar much more forgiving. An extension nut is also ideal for guitars exclusively used for slide play. However, note that an extension nut lifts the strings so much that it makes fretting individual notes as you play next to impossible.
Do keep in mind, though, that it’s always a good idea to practice (or learn) slide guitar on a guitar with an ordinary action. Not only will this let you transition between normal and slide guitar quickly, but it’ll make playing with a high extension feel like a piece of cake, too.
Chords and Tuning
Before you start playing your slide guitar, you’ll have to tune it! Most people play slide guitar with “open tuning,” which means that each of the six strings on your guitar makes up one note in a chord. This means that, without having to use your fingers to fret any notes, each string will be in harmony with the others. On a normal guitar, the strings aren’t all in harmony – if you play them all together, it will sound slightly discordant.
It’s a good idea to practice slide guitar under normal tuning conditions, too – or, how you would normally tune a standard guitar. Not only will this help you understand how the sound of a slide guitar compares to a regular guitar, but it’ll help you build your finger strength and technique, as well.
Additionally, if you can play slide guitar under normal tuning conditions, you’ll eventually have the skill to add “spontaneous” slide solos into your favorite songs! You don’t have to use the slide for the whole song, after all – you can just as easily remove it and switch to normal guitar mid-performance.
One of the most beautiful aspects of slide guitar is that you can easily adjust the key and tone you play any song in, just by moving your slide to change the pitch. This means you can experiment with different sets and chords to find one that personifies you and your style. For example, if your favorite song is pitched too high for you to sing well, simply tune your guitar in a lower key or use your slide to lower the pitch as you play.
That being said, it’s always a good idea to start playing in an established key until you better understand how a slide guitar works. The two most common keys used to tune your slide guitar are Vestapol and Spanish tuning, D–A–D–F♯–A–D and D–G–D–G–B–D, respectively. Some other popular alternatives you can try – besides standard tuning, of course – include:
- Open E
- Open A
- Drop D
- Open G
- Open D
I said earlier in this guide that you can play slide guitar on any type of guitar, and this is still true. However, would you believe that different types of guitars were developed with the help of slide guitar techniques? There are several types beyond the standard acoustic and electric guitars you may want to consider investing in if you’re going to learn how to play slide guitar.
Some of these alternative guitar types include:
- Wooden resonator guitars
- Metal resonator guitars
- Lap steel guitars
Songs for Beginners
If you’re looking to get your feet wet with slide guitar but don’t know where to start, don’t fret! Some songs are more suited to slide guitar techniques than others, and it’s important not to pick something too overwhelming for your first try – otherwise, you might get discouraged. Try playing some of the beginner-friendly songs below; not only are they easy to play, but they’re popular songs that are easy to find guides and tabs for online.
- Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes
- Lookin’ Out My Back Door by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- I Ain’t Superstitious by Jeff Beck
- Sharp Dressed Man by ZZ Top
Not ready for songs? Practice learning guitar tabs, first!
Tips, Tricks, and Techniques You Should Know
Slide guitar isn’t difficult to get into, but it’s a deceptively different playstyle compared to a regular guitar. Now that you have all of the supplies you need, it’s time to learn about the things you’ll need to do differently to master it.
While the slide guitar is relatively easy once you have the basics under control, that doesn’t mean you should use it all willy-nilly. Slide guitar can be refined and even nuanced under the right conditions. Just like with any fretless instrument, the most challenging part of learning slide guitar is understanding where your pure notes are “by ear.”
Of course, with a guitar, you can always look down at the frets if you need to know where your slide should be. This is great for beginners who need extra guidance. However, if you want to master slide guitar, you’ll eventually need to learn the correct position via sound and muscle memory. This requires you mastering holding the guitar and positioning your body and fingers perfectly.
While we’re on the topic of positioning, keep in mind that proper finger placement while playing slide guitar is very particular. Because the strings on your guitar aren’t impacting the bars between frets at all, your goal is to rest the slide right where that contact would typically be – i.e., right above the bar between each fret, but not touching it directly. If you rest your slide in between bars, your notes will come out sounding sharp or flat.
You’ll also have to be mindful of your other fingers’ positions as you play slide guitar. You can use your extra fingers – the ones not piloting the slide – to both dampen your strings and fret individual notes. However, because you have limited availability to fret with your free fingers, you’re more limited in the chords you can play. Be sure to have a proper sized guitar for your frame, so that your ability to play chords isn’t further hindered.
However, if you want to test yourself, you can position your slide at a diagonal instead of perpendicular to the strings. This will give you a more comprehensive range of notes and tones to work with, but it’s a much more advanced technique since you’ll need to be adept at playing by ear.
Plucking and Strumming
Since the fingers on the neck of your guitar are preoccupied with using your slide while playing slide guitar, your strumming hand has much more responsibility. The real test of skill comes in when you use your strumming hand to assist in muting notes. By alternating plucking and muting different strings with one hand as you move your slide with the other, you can create a surprisingly complicated piece of music.
Ensure you can properly hold and use your guitar pick, first.
One of the most compelling functions of a slide guitar is the ability to work with deep, intense vibrato. If you’ve ever listened to a master violin or cello player, you’ve probably seen and heard them move their fretting hand back and forth slightly over the strings as they play their instrument to create this effect. This concept is the same for slide guitar, except you’ll be moving your slide instead.
There are many ways to get the vibrato effect on a standard guitar, but only one real way to do it while playing slide guitar. To do this, move your slide parallel with the strings in a back-and-forth motion to produce different sounds. Many musicians liken the sound of slide guitar vibrato to the human voice because of your freedom of control.
Lap Slide Guitar
If you’d like further to differentiate your slide guitar skills from your normal skills, consider trying lap slide guitar. Sometimes called “Hawaiian style,” lap guitar was popularized by blues musicians in the 1930s and onward.
Lap guitar works the same as slide guitar from a fundamental standpoint. However, because of the way your guitar is positioned on your lap, you have greater freedom with your hands’ movement.
The greater control afforded to you by playing your guitar on your lap gives you more freedom in chord creation, too. With the right slide and the right skills, you can create extreme chords that are nigh impossible to create with a non-lap guitar. If you play lead guitar, then you’ll certainly stand out and take over the stage by using slides, so maybe consider adding this fun style to your repertoire!
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.