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Blues Guitar Institute

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How Not to Suck at Slide Guitar

Lesson ID: TB113

There’s something about playing slide guitar that seemed elusive to me for many, many years. So much so that I shied away from even attempting it for way too long. When I did, it wasn’t pretty.

I was sliding all over the place and there was tons of buzzing going on. I lacked the control and finesse of great slide players that I admired. Sure didn’t sound like Mr. Johnson…

I still struggle with certain parts of slide playing, but I focused heavily on slide guitar the last few years and I feel I’ve made some progress. Here’s the spoiler:

When I focused on the fundamentals of slide guitar, my playing improved dramatically.

When starting out with slide guitar, I recommend keeping things as simple as possible. To that end, focus on a few key elements of slide playing at a time. It’s better to move a mile in one direction than an inch (or millimeter 🙂 ) in several directions.

Here are a few fundamentals that will help you get good clean notes from your slide. There’s certainly more, but focusing on these in the beginning will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Where to Fret the Note

Make sure you play with the slide directly over the fret you’re targeting. Maybe this will click immediately for you, but for me, it was hard to break the habit of playing just behind the fret as you do with regular guitar playing.

If you bring this “just-behind-the-fret” approach to slide guitar, you will sound flat. Not good.

Use your ears. I can’t tell you how freeing it can be to listen for the proper intonation (a fancy word for whether the note is at the proper pitch).

NOTE: Watch the end of Tuesday Blues #115 to hear the effect of playing in front of or behind the fret.

How Much Pressure to Use

The second area of focus should be how much pressure to apply to the strings with the slide. This is somewhat of a balancing act.

You need to apply enough pressure to keep the strings from buzzing like crazy, but not too much pressure that you touch the frets.

This pressure business is further complicated by the varying thickness of each string and the weight of your personal slide.

You’ll need to experiment on your instrument in order to achieve this balancing act. To know that you’ve arrived, make sure that you can slide up and down one string and hear a continuous slide without much extra noise or buzzing.

Clean Up the Sound with Dampening

When I look back and ask myself what single factor took my slide playing to the next level, the answer is clear:

Dampening.

Lay the two or three fingers behind the slide lightly over the strings. Don’t press down hard at all. You simply want to choke out the strings to keep the buzzing and metallic sliding sounds at an absolute minimum.

This technique will help the notes that you play under the slide really stand out. Without this fret-hand dampening technique, you’re going to get some unwanted buzzing and overtones.

I should mention that at times you’ll want to play without the dampening for a special effect. Great, but I recommend dampening throughout 99% of your slide guitar playing and no dampening for the 1% of special occasions.

Give it a Try

What ever you do, just get started. Don’t let the fear of not sounding good keep you away from playing slide guitar like me. I’ve missed out on years of enjoyment that comes from playing some bluesy slide tunes and I don’t want the same to happen to you.

BGI has a growing library of slide guitar lessons to help you out in your pursuit. Check them out here:

Slide Guitar Lessons


Premium Members have access to a slide guitar course called Getcha Slide On. After you complete the course you will:

  • Be able to play a cool Crossroads-inspired slide groove
  • Learn several exercises to improve your technique
  • Be able to tackle tough licks with the slide
  • Much More!

Click the button below to find out more about becoming a Premium Member.

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