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How I Finally Broke Through a Plateau with My Slide Guitar Playing

Lesson ID: TB423

Ever feel like your slide guitar playing is stuck in a rut?

Like you’ve hit a plateau?

If you find yourself locked into one spot on the neck playing the same old licks then you might be on one now.

You see other guitarists playing great lines effortlessly. But while you’ve got the basics down, there’s still something missing.

Frustrating. I’ve been there.

And I want to share three things that helped me get off my slide guitar plateau. I’ll show you how to get out of a common trap that helps capture the essence of the slide. Then, we’ll dive into the unsung hero of good slide playing before checking out a rut-busting slide technique.

Let’s get to it!

Don’t Approach Slide Guitar the Same Way as Regular Guitar

I played regular guitar for many years before seriously trying to play with a slide. I started slide guitar with the same ideas I used for the regular guitar. That’s okay, but I noticed something.

I was staying in one spot.

With regular guitar, I tended to play licks and riffs in one area. I was locked into those pentatonic box patterns. I’ve since learned how to break out of the boxes, but I initially brought the boxes to my slide playing. Here’s why that was a problem for me:

The slide is made to move.

It’s made to produce that connected sound when travelling up and down the strings. It’s okay to stay in one spot at times, especially when you’re just starting. But, it’s great when you let the slide move freely up and down the neck.

Look at this staple blues lick:

Now, we can change it a bit for the slide to travel more on the strings. This sounds cool and uses the slide’s ability to…well, slide!

The trick? Think of your licks and melodies horizontally (from nut to bridge) on the fretboard. Like how Mississippi Fred McDowell plays the melodies in his song, “You Gotta Move”, along one string.

Start thinking horizontally by learning the minor pentatonic scale along the 1st string, then the 2nd string.

You’ll play on other strings too, and sometimes stay in one spot. But remember to slide around on the guitar neck to get that fun sliding sound!

Use Muting to Let the Right Notes Sing

I love making a big noise when I’m playing slide. You get that buzzy, metallic sound that reminds me of the classic Delta Blues Slide Players.

Untamed, wild sounds on the guitar are fun.

But it’s helpful to balance those wild moments with more controlled slide sounds. That takes technique. And it’s one of the most important technique for slide players.


Good muting technique uses both hands. Let’s look at each separately.

Muting Behind the Slide

You can do this as long as you don’t wear your slide on your index finger. That’s rare, so let’s assume you wear the slide on your middle, ring or pinky finger. That leaves at least one finger behind the slide.

Use that finger or fingers to dampen the strings behind the slide by lightly placing then over the strings. This will eliminate the ringing from the part of the string behind the slide. There’s a note produced by the part of the string from the slide back to the nut. Sometimes this is a pleasant overtone with what you’re playing. Sometimes it isn’t.

Let your finger or fingers travel with the slide.

Picking Hand Muting

Using damping behind the slide is a big step, but dialing in my picking hand muting made a huge impact on my sound.

I think of my muting method as turning a light on and off.

I named it the “Lightswitch Technique.” Here’s how it works:

When I start playing, my fingers rest on the strings, like this:

  • Thumb rests across the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings
  • Index finger rests on top of the 3rd string
  • Middle rests on top of the 2nd string
  • Ring finger rests on top of the 1st string

This way, the guitar doesn’t make a sound. It’s completely silent.

To play a note, I pluck its string. Think of this as turning the light switch on. When I switch strings, I turn the first light off at the same time I turn the next light on.

Give this technique a try in this example:

Remember, mix the muting styles from both hands for a clear sound. And sometimes, play loud and free to really make your music stand out!

Mix Things Up by Playing Fretted Notes Too

During my first few years with a slide, I tended to play every note with the actual slide.

It was on my finger and I was therefore naturally drawn to using it. It’s a great sound, so I used it! No harm no fowl there.

But after watching players like Ariel Posen and Joey Landreth, I realized that I was leaving a lot of notes untouched. They were able to craft wonderful slide melodies and that mixed in fretted notes with their slide playing.

That sound drove me wild and chasing this new perspective helped get me off the plateau. Maybe it’s next for you?

Take this lick that is played entirely with the open strings or the slide:

Now, if we incorporate this idea of playing behind the slide, we can quickly grab some additional notes and play the lick this way:

This slide technique isn’t easy but it’s worth investing some practice time into, especially if you’re on that plateau.

I went into detail on playing behind-the-slide in Tuesday Blues #390.

The Way Forward

If you’re stuck on a plateau with your slide playing take a look at these three things:

  1. Think horizontally (along the length of the fretboard) to leverage the cool sounds of the slide.
  2. Tune up your muting technique to control the wild sound of the slide and let the right notes sing.
  3. Start mixing fretted notes in with your slide lines to add textures and nuance to your playing.

These concepts will help you take your slide playing to the next level. But you should always check up on your overall slide technique. If you need a jumpstart, try BGI’s free guide:

5 Simple Steps to Better Slide Guitar

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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