Playing Slide with Style
Playing with a slide looks pretty easy at first glance. For starters, even though you might be using heavier strings, you aren’t pressing down on them as you would normally need to; there’s no real fretting involved, for the most part. Even the interaction with the strings is through the slide, you’d think it’s really soft on your hands. Plus, you can afford to be much less accurate with a slide, right? Slide players just wiggle their hands around?
I’ve got some bad news if you were expecting an easy time! Playing slide is an art in itself.
What Makes Slide Playing Hard?
While the vibrato technique in slide playing makes it seem very loose and sloppy, you’ll get a shock if you try it yourself. It’s extremely easy to totally mess up and just make a tasteless, out-of-tune noise. The hidden trick is that the movements are wide and loose, but precise at the same time.
Where the lack of fretting is concerned, yeah, there’s some degree of ease on the finger doing the sliding. However, remember that you can’t feel through a slide! Imagine using a chopstick instead of a plectrum and you’ll have the right sort of idea. It takes a while to really nail the way it should feel.
If you’ve seen a lot of slide players using open tunings(more on that later), they have a bit of leeway. In standard tuning, however, muting is a huge challenge. When you rub something against metal strings, even if you don’t pluck them, you’re going to make noise. If this isn’t the right noise, your playing will become a mess! While only one finger controls the slide, the others need to be used like a mute.
On top of all that, whereas normal playing has some room for error, slide playing has to be exactly above the frets. As in, the point of contact with the string must be precisely above the fret – extra tricky, because you can’t see where it touches and will need to develop a feel for it. When playing normally, you just need to be somewhere behind the fret and press hard enough.
What can you do to make it easier?
The obvious answer would be to practice. That assumes you know exactly what you’re doing, though! Here I’m going to lay out all the basics you need to consider when getting into slide playing. In fact, I’m going to take one step back from actual playing – the first thing you need is a slide. You may be surprised to find that there is a huge amount of variety and you can even make your own! I have a strong preference for metallic slides, not for a tonal reason – I’m just a bit wary of having glass around my hands and pressing it into things. I strongly recommend you try a few different materials and find a favourite.
The first key point when playing is accuracy, you’re no longer aiming before the fret. Just like when you play a harmonic, you need to be above it. The other twist is that you don’t want to press as if you were fretting. On top of that, you need to have a slightly more solid contact than if you were playing a harmonic; slide playing occupies its own space in terms of “feel”. I have something to help, though! You can counterbalance the risk of overdoing it by:
1) Using heavier strings.
2) Setting your guitar up with high action.
3) (optional) Putting your guitar on your lap.
The strings and action mean you can press harder without messing up, while the flat guitar give you a bird’s eye view of frets. That makes it easier to tell how accurately you hit the spot above frets.
Vibrato’s a huge part of slide playing. It’s what really shows off the unique sound it gives you. It’s also very risky. So many people go overboard and ruin an otherwise tasteful lick. If you go wild with vibrato, you’re going to go too sharp or too flat and not return to the original note cleanly enough. When you use vibrato normally, you pick a note and then shift it up, down, up, down. You can bend it towards the ceiling and towards the floor and it doesn’t matter. When it comes to slide you can actually bring the pitch down and then up, instead of the traditional up and then down. I find it much easier to do this, too and creates a much smoother sound. You just slide down from the note and then back without going past it and bringing the pitch sharp.
Where to go from here.
From here, once you’re familiar with these tips, it’s time to experiment. Try tuning your guitar to DADGAD tuning and suddenly everything will sound great when you let it ring out, for example!
Another key to getting better is to listen to slide players. Here are a few to get you going: