Mention of the words “slide guitar” to any music fan is likely to conjure images of Delta bluesmen, back porches, whiskey bottles and the like. This is a crucial aspect of the history of the slide guitar, however by no means the only one. In this guide, we’ll explore the slide’s versatility, and take a look at the different styles and sounds one can expect to achieve from different slide sizes and materials.
A Brief History
The slide as a device to play stringed instruments is believed to have originated in Hawaii. The method originally required one to hold a guitar horizontally across the lap, and frequently employed open tunings to produce the desired sound. Check out the early country music of Darby and Tarlton, such as their 1927 classic “Birmingham Jail”, for a sublime example of this style.
Touring musicians spread this unique method of playing the guitar across the States, which eventually took root in both the blues and country music traditions. Development of the technique saw the guitar returning to its’ upright playing position with increased use of fretting and slide combinations, however the original method of playing “lap style” with a slide endured – particularly in the form of the lap steel. Indeed, the world’s first commercially successful electric guitar – Rickenbacker’s so-called “frying pan” developed in the early 1930s, so named for its resemblance to this common piece of homeware – was designed to be played in this way.
Right: Delta bluesman and cousin of BB King, Bukka White, plays “lap-style” with what appears to be nothing more than a steel rod! From Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop
The association of the slide guitar with the blues began early on. So-called “Father of the Blues”, one W.C. Handy, notes in his autobiography that his first encounter with the blues was, fittingly enough, late at night while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and consisted of an apparently destitute individual pressing a knife to the strings of his battered old guitar to produce the “weirdest music I had ever heard.”
Many and varied are the reports of guitarists using bottlenecks, knives, and even pill bottles to produce their often vocal-inspired melody lines. Which kind of slide, then, is appropriate to achieve different sounds?
Slide Materials and Sizes
The guidance here is of course just that – guidance – and nothing can truly replace in-person experience when searching for a sound. However, there are certain truths that are generally accepted. For example, glass sides are thought to produce a warmer sound than brass, while steel or chrome may be the material of choice for someone looking to replicate that slashing Delta sound.
Produces the warmest sound of the slide materials looked at here. Suited to getting that classic Dobro sound, and also used regularly when playing slide on electric guitars to deliver a fullness of tone. Great for players looking for a light, fast-playing experience. Favoured by such players as Derek Trucks and Duane Allman.
Essential listening: “Made Up Mind” by the Tedeschi Trucks Band
Heavier than glass, ceramic slides arguably create a deeper sound. They are still capable of producing brittle highs way up the neck; however, they may be more suited to unwound strings, or at least strings that have been changed recently (the glazed finish can create a slightly scratchy sound that some players may find off-putting).
Essential listening: Joe Perry, “Shakin My Cage”
The most common and arguably quintessential material for a slide, behind the glass of a bottleneck. A great all-round option for players looking to experiment with the sound of a slide for the first time and pros alike. None too heavy and a great middle ground between the brightness of a brass slide and the warmth and lightness of a glass slide. A perfect material for achieving those classic Delta sounds.
Essential listening: Son House, “Death Letter Blues”
The harshest and heaviest of the slide materials. Great for all-out attack, brightness and drive though also capable of a subtle mellowness. Arguably the most “vintage” sounding of these materials.
Essential listening: Seasick Steve, “Cut My Wings”
Sizes and Lengths
The sizing for slides can vary between brands. Often marked S, M, L, or XL (for small, medium, large and extra large respectively), they may also come in ring sizes. The breakdown of these sizes is roughly as follows:
Small: ring size 4-7
Medium: ring size 7-10
Large: ring size 10-13
Extra large: ring size 13+
Of course, this is only ever going to be approximate advice; the best thing to do is to come down to the shop and try a few sizes out in person!
Slides also come in different lengths – from covering the full length of the finger to only covering up to the knuckle. The latter is a great option for those looking to keep their finger pads free for fretting as well as slide work, while the former is best suited to those looking to play “full” slide (eg, those needing to fret across all strings, such as those looking to play with a slide in open tunings).
A final note is on the wall thickness of the slide. This is the depth of the slide; that is, how much material sits between your finger and the strings. Wall thickness of course affects the heaviness of the slide as well as the tone – those looking for a lightning fast, bright sound would do well to play with a thin brass slide, while those looking for a deeper, mellower tone may steer towards a thicker glass slide.
The humble slide then has a rich and storied history – starting with Hawaiian music at the turn of the century, through the development of rural blues and country, to rock, soul and beyond. The size, length and material of the slide are all important aspects to consider when purchasing, as all can contribute to the playability and tone of the music ultimately played. Whether you’re in the market for a new slide for the first time or simply looking to expand your tonal range on this most modest of devices, be sure to pop into the store to find your next purchase.