The Magical Philosophy Of Slide

Time, Touch, and Reverence
The Magical Philosophy Of Slide
Derek Trucks: David McClister.

In ancient Africa, when early man first dragged a flat rock across a string tied to a stick, he couldn’t have known that the sound it produced would become part of the human experience.

Later came the bow – a gourd or piece of wood attached to a curved stick, a string tied to each end. Held close to the body, the string was plucked while a piece of bone or metal was placed along it to change pitch. In the 19th century, a version called the jitterbug made its way to the enslaved people of the American South.

This simple way of creating melodies with the cry and moan like a human voice became thesignature sound of early blues pioneers. Delta blues began by sliding a piece of glass up and down a piece of wire tied to a barn. This later transferred to guitar, where blues musicians like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson informed the musicality of Elmore James, Bukka White, Tampa Red, and Muddy Waters. They, in turn, passed the baton.
When Duane Allman heard Native American guitar virtuoso Jesse Ed Davis play slide on Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” for Taj Mahal’s 1968 debut album, it set forth a shock wave in tandem with black slide specialists like Son House and Black Ace, who performed in semi-obscurity. Alongside contemporaries like Ry Cooder, Johnny Winter, and Lowell George, Allman’s reimagining of Davis’ signature “Statesboro Blues” lines on the Allman Brothers 1971 At The Fillmore East would set the template for generations of future slide players.

Luther Dickinson: Wyatt McSpadden. Sonny Landreth: Marco van Rooijen. Eric Sardinas: Alex Ruffini.

In the modern era, a line can be drawn from those pioneers to high priests like Sonny Landreth, Bonnie Raitt, Derek Trucks, and Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, along with newcomers like Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, Joanna Connor, Eric Sardinas, Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe, Samantha Fish, and Dylan Adams of Smokestack. They and many others have taken the art form and discovered new ways to tap into the heartbeat of the world.

Whether channeling the sitar-like tones of Trucks, the visceral intensity of Robert Nighthawk, or the melodic inventions of George Harrison, slide has evolved with as many concepts and techniques as there are artists. As a result, every guitarist has to find their voice.

“I tell people to listen to Elmore James,” said Trucks. “That’s the starting point for electric slide. All the blocks are there. He’s playing major and minor melodies, there are times when he’s not aggressive, and his tone is always incredible. The intonation between his voice and guitar is the quintessential call-and-response, which started with Delta guys answering their own vocal lines with a slide.”

Sonny Landreth

“For me, early on, it was Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James,” Haynes said. “I’m also a big Son House fan. From a traditional-blues standpoint, Elmore James was a big influence on everybody, but growing up, I dug Duane Allman, Lowell George, David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, and Johnny Winter.”

“I fell in love with slide by listening to Charlie Patton, Bukka White, and Skip James and connecting to that emotion,” said Sardinas. “I grabbed a resonator because of my romance with early players like Tampa Red and Fred McDowell. When slide players like Robert Johnson or Son House would speak on guitar, there was a connection with the human voice. When I play electric, I push the instrument from the Delta to the country, Texas, and Chicago, into places where I find my voice.”

“There are so many great slide players,” Connor added. “Ry Cooder will always be close to my heart because he’s the first person I studied; Into The Purple Valley and Little Feat’s Waiting For Columbus are the big records I listened to coming up – Lowell George. Then you have Elmore James, Blind Willie Johnson, and Robert Johnson. Sonny Landreth and Derek Trucks are the kings today, and there’s Mick Taylor, Johnny Winter, and Bonnie Raitt doing her thing – you always know it’s her.”

Eric Sardinas

“I have to shout out Jerry Douglas,” Lovell noted. “He inspired me to pick up a slide. I listened to a lot of Alison Krauss and Union Station, and of course I grew up listening to the Allman Brothers.

“The sound of the slide has always been in my head, but I don’t think I really connected with what the instrument could do until my early teens,” she added. “I saw Jerry and was blown away by the idea of slide, so when I first picked up a dobro, I learned all of his solos. He’s a master, and his pitch is incredible.

Warren Haynes

“After we plugged in, it made sense for me to pick up the lap steel so we could play with drums. Then I was inspired by David Lindley and Derek Trucks, who have fantastic pitch. Derek inspired me to play with that sort of otherworldly passion. He’s like an operatic vocal stylist, and that inspires me.”

“‘Dust My Broom’ by Elmore James is a great one to start,” said Adams. “That solo is nice and simple in open D. Once you’re comfortable with that, listen to both Jesse Ed Davis and Duane Allman play ‘Statesboro Blues’ for a progression of complexity.

“Jack Pearson is another player everyone should check out; his slide and fretted playing are incredibly underrated. He looks like he’s chillin’, but the nastiest, most fiery stuff comes out of him.”

Joanna Connor

Tools of the Trade
In the magical philosophy of slide, variables range from its material to which finger to put it on, as well as string gauges, string height, and “fingers versus pick.”

Slides are made from metal, chrome, steel, glass, brass, ceramic, and even fashioned from pill bottles, bottle necks, and wrench sockets. Allman, Trucks, and Haynes have been known to use glass and pill/bottle necks, favoring their smoother, warmer sound and reaction to picking dynamics. They’re not as bright as metal but allow more flexibility. Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt favor bottle necks because of their added weight, which improves inertia and articulation.

Brass is much like chrome, but brighter and mellower, and its weight affects articulation, intonation, and technique. Robert Johnson and Johnny Winter used a metal pipe that yielded an intense attack. Socket lovers Lowell George and Dickey Betts got great results because of the weight on thicker strings and higher action. Ceramic lovers like Joe Perry go for tougher sonic textures best served for acoustic players. They’re noisier and yield less sustain but are smoother and darker.

Samantha Fish

“I’ve been using a Dunlop 212 (pyrex glass) forever,” said Dickinson. “It fits perfectly. I wear it above the first knuckle of my ring finger so I can bend it and have mobility, like Keith Richards. I’ve been playing behind the slide like Sonny Landreth, because he plays such beautiful chords and arpeggios.”

“I tend to use metal because glass is too light,” Connor noted. “I’m using brass right now. It’s fairly heavy but not extreme.”

“Match the size and weight of your slide with your string gauge,” advises Landreth. “There is no one combination best for everyone. It’ll take experimentation. You want a slide that isn’t so heavy it chokes out thinner strings, but isn’t so light that you don’t get enough sustain with thicker strings.”

“I like slides that aren’t too heavy, but not too thin,” Adams added. “Currently, I’m using an Ernie Ball Comfort Slide, which is pretty thin, and a Dunlop 212. I sometimes use brass with rubber inserts that help with grip. I play .011s, which helps a lot, and I raise the action a bit.”

Robert Johnson stuck his slide on his pinky, freeing his other fingers for chord work. Allman, Haynes, and Trucks use their ring fingers, while Raitt, Cooder, and Ron Wood often use their middle fingers (as did Harrison).

As one of the few musical instruments that can emulate the emotive timbre of the human voice, finding the right tuning is essential. Former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor tuned his guitar to open G, E, and A, while Haynes sticks to standard tuning.

“I love them all, but recommend starting with open E because it gives you familiar real estate with strings you already know in standard tuning,” said Landreth. “Tunings open a world of possibilities with sympathetic strings and harmonics. Once you slide into a big E chord at the 12th fret, you’re in the game.”

Connor goes the other way.

“I say learn slide in standard tuning because it’s harder,” she said. “If you can do that, open tuning is a breeze. I play in standard 75 percent of the time in open G, open A, and a little in open D and E.”

Dylan Adams

“The first five years I played slide, I was in an open tuning, doing the typical things,” said Adams. “Later, I wanted to find new ideas, and standard tuning felt like the most-natural place to start for gigging. I didn’t want to switch guitars – I wanted to put on a slide at any point in any song. For the type of rhythm playing I do for blues, rock, funk, and soul, I’m more at home in standard tuning, and it opened a lot of pathways.”

Pro Pointers
Mastering the guitar is no easy feat. There are techniques to develop, sussing the fretboard, thousands of hours to reach the “effortless” stage, and the maturity to play in service of a song. Slide playing is further separated by finesse, sensitivity, and a feel. The greatest practitioners treat it with reverence.

“Playing slide is a lifelong pursuit,” says Landreth. “You can always learn something from another player because the art of slide is personal. What one player takes from somebody else gets interpreted differently, then you pick up the thread and do it your way. In that respect, it never gets old.”

Megan Lovell

“Slide playing is all about intonation,” adds Trucks. “When I’m not where I need to be, I’ll check in with Elmore James. Through him, I learned how to attack a note. You can dig in and take it anywhere if you bring them in with a beautiful emotion from the beginning. You must start and end well – an entrance and an exit – you’ll be forgiven for a lot of what happens in the middle. You might have this phrase and then find ways to get in and out of it. You go off and explore, then come home occasionally. That’s an Indian classical-music concept, where somebody improvises then comes back to the melody with everyone else before it’s someone else’s turn to run with it.”

“We, as players, get in our own heads a little bit,” said Fish when asked about becoming a better slider. “When I’m approaching a solo traditionally, I feel confident. But when I switch to slide, it’s a different muscle. You can’t be ham-fisted with a slide – it requires finesse and there’s so much more nuance. It’s almost like you have to play slower and find melodic lines. I love slide, but don’t feel like I’m a great slide player. I do what I do (laughs), and keep forcing myself to do it.”

“Slide is very deceptive. It looks like you’re digging in, but it’s the opposite, and it freaks people out,” Connor adds. “It’s such a delicate operation. Once you get the technique down, you’re like, ‘How much fun is this?’ If your intonation is off, though, it sounds like a bunch of cats having a battle (laughs), and that’s not a good thing.”

“Be aware of your vibrato,” suggested Adams. “Always make it a deliberate choice. I hear a lot of slide players giving every note vibrato, which makes things sound indistinct.

“And, feel is all about trial and error – and practice. It takes time to develop touch. Pick-hand muting is important, and using fingers can make you more precise.

“Playing slide, there’s no way to fake it. You have to put the time in, use your ear, and dig into it.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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