The Movable Fret - An Intro to Slide Guitar
by Daniel Brooks
Slide guitar is a simple thing, really. All you need is a metal, glass, or ceramic finger-length tube or “slide” to use as a movable fret in direct contact with the strings. Play it well and it can completely transform your guitar into a primordial force of nature with the power to create a sound of primal emotion, a wild and beautiful invitation to the eternal dance, the fundamental growl that gives new life to the soul. To do this, however, you’ll have to develop a different set of skills than those you need to play a guitar the standard way. You can learn these basics immediately, but, like many things worth doing, it can take quite some time to master them.
If you have a spare guitar that you can set up for slide playing, then great. There are a few things you can do to make it easier. Put the heaviest strings you can find on it, and raise the action at the bridge a good quarter inch or so above the fretboard. Some dedicated guitarists will replace the nut with one designed to permanently raise the string height, and a few manufacturers make good slide extension nuts that fit under the strings to raise their height without having to perform surgery on the guitar. You’ll have to adjust your pickups to the new string height, and then, just get out your slide and have at it. Of course, if you are not ready to sacrifice a guitar to a slide set up, I’ll assume you are using a slide on the same guitar you use to play conventionally. Either way, there are a few things you’ll have to rethink about playing the guitar when you pick up a slide. You have to learn new techniques for both the left and the right hand.
Place the slide over your left pinky, or ring finger, depending on your preference. There are slide guitarists who use their middle finger, but I wouldn’t recommend it as you’ll find you have make an effort to keep your ring and pinky finger out of the way, and you won’t really be able to play conventionally with the slide on. Whichever finger you use, keep your index finger on the string to mute the un-played length between the slide and the nut. You only want to hear the notes between the slide and the bridge, not the unmusical harmonics of a random length of vibrating string behind the slide.
Put the part of the slide underneath the tip of your chosen finger on the string, directly over the fret, and pluck. Pick out a melody or harmonize with another note on another string. Keep the slide in contact with the string as you move to the next note, or even to a note on another string. Along the way, you’ll hear the microtones that hide “between the frets.” This is where the magic lives.
Now, with your left hand, you are no longer practicing the same kind of hand yoga it takes to fret complex chords. Your whole left hand is reduced to the points of contact between the slide and the strings, and there are a few new things of which you’ll need to be mindful.
The first of these is the realization that when you use a slide, you are playing the string, not the frets. You may have to overcome the instinct to push the string to the fretboard to voice the note. Your slide does the job of the frets to determine where the note is voiced. It may sound a little weird, but, you may have to learn to trust your slide.
You may also have to develop your sense of intonation, or pitch accuracy. As guitarists, we rely on our frets far more than we realize. As long as a conventionally played guitar is set up properly, and in tune, then any fretted note will be perfect. Every fret is placed to shorten the string to the exact length needed to voice our selected note at its accurate frequency. But when using a slide, you can no longer rely on your frets for perfect intonation. It is all too easy to slide up to a note and miss the spot, voicing a frequency that is off by just enough cycles per second to clash with the music. Fortunately, you can use any fret as a position marker, since each one is in the right place for the note. When you touch the slide to the string directly over the fret, it will shorten the string to the exact same length to create the same note. Just listen to the notes, they will tell you if it’s too high or too low. This sense of intonation becomes more important when playing two or three notes at a time. Whenever you play harmonies, chords, and arpeggios, keep the slide parallel to the frets so all of the notes are accurately intonated and in harmony with one another. It sounds so much better. Keeping an ear open to your intonation is a good practice that pays off in other ways. Like many guitarists, you may find your sense of pitch improves when you play slide. Or maybe you just listen a little more closely.
On the other hand, there are some problems that arise from playing with a slide that are best addressed through your right hand techniques. Because the slide stays in contact with the string, it tends to keep on ringing until it is stopped. If you just whack away at the strings with a pick, you’ll find your sound quickly becomes cluttered with string noise and unwanted notes. You want to keep control of your sound in your hands. Put away the pick. Keep the thumb and the first three fingertips of your right hand on the strings to mute any unwanted notes and pluck only the string or strings you actually want to ring out. Use your thumb to mute, or voice, the E, A, and D strings while the index, middle and ring fingers mute or voice the G, B, and E Strings, respectively. Get used to this and you’ll not only sound better as a slide guitarist, but you’ll have a classical technique in your skill set that might open up a whole new world of expression.
Many guitarists find that alternate tunings are especially convenient for playing slide guitar. Usually it’s an open chord tuning that places all of the notes on a single fret, allowing a slide player to transpose the basic chord form anywhere on the neck in order to play the song’s progression. A complete exploration of alternate tunings is, of course, beyond the scope of this article. But there are a few common ones that continue to reward the creative slide guitarist. The open G tuning (DGDGBD) is quite common, and convenient, since you only have to tune down three strings. You can tune up three strings for an open E tuning (EBEG#BE), but you may find your guitar goes out of tune a lot faster as your retuned string tries to release some of the added string tension. You could drop the whole open E tuning down a whole step for an open D tuning (DADF#AD) or drop the F# string down an additional half step for an open D-minor tuning (DADFAD).
Of course, you can play slide in standard tuning (EADGBE). A lot of great slide guitarists do so. As long as you are careful about muting the unwanted strings, you can play a major chord anywhere on the fretboard by transposing the open G that naturally occurs across the DGB strings. Additionally, a naturally-occurring open E-minor chord plays across the GBE strings. Endless creative possibilities await you.