Blues Guitar Institute

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Delta Blues Slide: 3 Tips to Level Up Your Playing

Lesson ID: TB443

Do you feel like your slide guitar playing has hit a plateau?

Slide playing is one of the most expressive ways of playing and it screams, the Blues! But it isn’t all that easy to get a good sound going on your guitar. The slide is inherently wild and uncontrollable. Taming it is often a hard won battle and requires focus. Intense focus on slide technique can lead to you overlooking other vital techniques that should be part of your slide sound. Those techniques might be just the thing to help you level up.

In this lesson, I’ll share three tips that will help you become a better slide player by developing a fuller, well-rounded slide sound.

Ready? Let’s get started with my first tip.

Tip 1: Master the Subtle Art of Dynamics

One of the most powerful but often overlooked tools in our toolbox is dynamics.

Dynamics is all about how loud or softly you play.

Playing softly wasn’t natural for me when I began playing slide. It’s my thrash metal roots, what can I say?


I wanted to play at full volume all the time. The slide seemed to be naturally programmed for loud, noisy playing and I was all about that!

Now, there’s nothing wrong with those big, untamed moments. In fact, they’re necessary. But, when you play on ten all the time, big moments lose their impact. Maximum attack leaves no headroom to get louder.

If you’re like I was and want to learn how to dial it down a bit try this:

Play this example riff from the video with every note played loudly, as loud as you can:

This is Level 10.

Then, play it again as softly as you can – Level 1. This will give you an idea of the dynamic range.

Now, try placing a stronger attack (Level 7) on some notes and a softer attack (Level 3) on others. This will help you feel the dynamic headroom that’s available to you. It’s up to you how you accent each note. You get to craft the dynamic feel of what you play and that is part of your own unique style. Your sound.

Don’t ignore this! It can seem subtle but this subtlety can have a massive impact on your performance.

Tip 2: Incorporate Fretted Notes into Your Slide Lines

Many new slide guitarists fall into the trap of playing every single note with the slide.

I did that too and it’s easy to fall into this trap because good clean slide playing is a hard won skill. Once you have it, you want to use it!

While playing exclusively with a slide can work in some tunes, you can level up by mixing in fretted notes. Plus it puts parts like this turnaround into action:

Or really take your sound to the next level with parts like this:

The ability to quickly switch between slide and fretted notes will add depth to your playing. Develop this by practicing short snippets of material like the two examples above.

It will probably feel awkward at first. Keep going and you can add even more to your sound when you weave in the next tip.

Tip 3: Incorporate 7th Chords into Your Slide Grooves

It’s common to play slide guitar in an open tuning like Open G or Open D, both of which produce big sounding major chords. While tuning to a major chord enables playing full chords with the slide, it makes one part of the blues sound difficult:

Dominant 7th Chords.

These chords are used throughout the blues. The 12 bar blues progression is commonly played with all dominant seventh chords. Only one dominant chord belongs to a key which means that two of these chords are out of key. But they work. These out-of-key chords sound good in context and are a key characteristic of the blues style.

Get that classic bluesy sound by incorporating 7th chords into your slide playing. These chords instantly add grit and character to your performances.

Listen to the 7th chords in action in a slide performance by Johnny Shines:

You may have noticed that I sneaked a three note voicing of C7 into the previous example. Here’s another example where the same three-note shape is moved up two frets to D7.

Playing this chord may seem easy when you’re looking at the TAB or sheet music. But when you’re wearing a slide on one of your fingers, chords can be quite tricky. I wear my slide on my pinky finger in part, to enable more chord voicings. This frees my index, middle and ring fingers to fret a chord while the slide is held away from the strings by my pinky finger.

If you wear your slide on your ring finger, you can still play chords, you will just need to make adjustments. I demo this in the video lesson above.

No matter what finger you wear your slide on, try these two tips if playing chords is difficult for you:

  • Learn the chord shape without the slide. With the slide removed, fret the chord using only the non-slide fingers. You may have to modify familiar shapes because of the slide and this will help you get used to new fingerings. When you have the fingerings down, add the slide back.
  • Leverage partial chord shapes. Seventh chords contain four notes (1 – 3 – 5 – b7) but voicings that require four fingers aren’t doable while wearing a slide. Think of ways to reduce chord shapes to free up your slide finger but but aim to include the 3rd and 7th intervals. Those tones give the chord their character.

Yes, some shapes will be uncomfortable. Some will seem impossible but remember, there are always workarounds on the guitar. The moveable, three-note voicing of a 7th chord covered here is a great start. But don’t stop with just one voicing, regularly seek ways to add chords to your slide blues. It will seriously help you level up!

If you found these tips helpful, you’ll love how we put them (and others) into action on the slide guitar roadmap inside, myBGI.

That’s the premium membership offering from Blues Guitar Institute.

Click here to learn more about becoming a member so you can become a better slide player.

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

Become a myBGI Member: Membership comes with access to Back Porch Blues plus over 70 step-by-step courses.  Get proven results with one of myBGI’s structured Roadmaps.

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