Amazing Grace - A beginners slide guitar lesson.
The Lesson explained
Here's a lesson on slide guitar. Personally, I find it the most challenging and rewarding of all playing styles. It ain't easy. Here are the main speed bumps.
There's a whole lot more to think about and keep under control when playing slide guitar. First and foremost, there's the challenge of keeping it all in tune. With normal guitar, we've got quite a wide margin of error for where we put our fingertip to sound any given note. So long as it's somewhere between the fretwires and we push hard enough, the string will contact the wire and it will become the exact length to create that note. Not so with a slide: it becomes the fretwire -- a moveable fretwire no less -- that works on the strings from above and which is under your control. There is just one point on the string that will yield any given note, and that point is directly above the fretwire that would be creating that note in normal playing. So when playing slide, you need to be looking at the fretwires to 'see' notes, not the spaces between.
The other thing, of course, is that we get to play all the micro-tones between each note. We can swoop up through any interval and play one long continuous rising or falling note. So, accuracy of movement and a good ear for pitch are essential. Have you ever watched those Formula One racing cars come in for a pit stop on TV? They swoop up pit lane at about 50 mph and stop dead in the little painted rectangle where the pit crew waits. Total control. That's what playing slide is like. In the following lesson, you'll see some wide intervals in melody notes. You need to swoop up and down to them and stop dead at the target note.
Here's an important thing to remember: You can slide down through a target note, go past it, and come back up to it. That's allowed, in fact it sounds great when done properly. The opposite, oddly, doesn't work as a rule. If you slide up to a target note and pass it, go sharp, then come back down to correct the mistake ... it sounds awful. If you go sharp, keep heading up until you reach the next chord tone, is my advice. It'll sound a whole lot better and you can call it 'improvisation'.
The other major challenge is muting out all the unwanted sounds coming from strings that are not being used. Slides are tubes that need to lay flat on the strings to work. If you only want to play one note on one string, you need to mute all the others so that that one note alone rings out. If you don't, you get notes ringing out from the other strings that are in contact with the slide, notes that have nothing to do with the tune. If you want to play a double stop, that means letting two strings ring out and muting the others. Same goes for chords, where three or four strings come into play. Muting really is the key to being able to play slide, and it's done with the fingertips and side of thumb. Obviously, it's much easier to play slide guitar without a flat pick, but it can be done.
Almost no downward pressure is applied to the slide. If you push down, you'll simply be ramming the strings onto the fingerboard and fretwires, which will be ruined in no time at all. The lightest of touches is what's needed, you almost just let the weight of the slide itself do the work for you. All you're doing is moving it up or down the fretboard, steering it and wobbling it for vibrato. There are countless ways of playing around with it all when you've got the basics down, but the general idea is to keep the slide in contact with the string(s) as you move between notes so that that distinctive sliding sound can be heard. You can, of course, lift it off the strings if so desired and bring it back down at some other position. That in itself is no piece of cake. The act of lifting off and bringing it back down can be noisy and once again, you need to mute everything in those nanoseconds of transition. Fortunately, it all becomes second nature if you stick at it and practice regularly.
I found out many years ago that heavy slides works best. They make very good contact with the string and deliver a big fat note with tons of sustain. Light slides tend to sound thin and the note dies off quickly because the string's vibrations work their way under the slide, killing off the note. So, I recommend a nice heavy slide. If you've already started and have a favorite slide, that's fine -- stick with what's comfortable -- but if you're just starting out, try to find a heavy one. It may feel weird at first, but you'll be glad you did further on down the line. Mine are custom made for me. They're machined out of solid brass; the fingertip end is thicker to add weight ... they have mass. Mass is what you want at that point where the brass meets the string. I also sell them.
There are two main schools of thought: ring finger or pinkie. Again, if you've already started out and you use your ring finger, stick at it. I use my pinkie. It feels better having the slide down at the end of the hand rather than the middle, especially when it's not being used, and I also have developed a sort of hybrid style where I use my ring and middle fingers as normal, combined with the slide. I find it easier to do slide-to-finger pull offs or finger-to-slide hammer ons with it on my pinkie.
There are many tunings you can use for slide. Most players use open tunings, which means that you tune the guitar to a chord. 'Open D' and 'Open G' are commonly used but there are more exotic tunings. When I started playing slide back in about 1970 I tried the open tunings, but I found them confusing and limiting. I already had a pretty good map of the fretboard in standard tuning, and I felt lost in open tunings. Yes, I was able to slide big six-string chord up and down the fretboard but I quickly discovered that there were really only three that made much sense in most tunes, and it got very boring to play and to listen to. Any chords that were not of the flavor of the open tuning were hard to find and playing melodic lines seemed to become very repetitious. There are many wonderful players who do use open tunings, but for me I think it was more a case of my brain not being quite big enough to master several tunings, so I reverted to Standard Tuning, the one I know very well. I also sometimes lower the thick E string a whole tone, which puts me in Dropped D. That's what I'll be teaching. I was pleased to discover that Standard Tuning is in fact a very rich source of chord flavors of all descriptions ... they're just 'smaller', more compact voicings than open tunings. Which brings us to ...
I've used Amazing Grace for this lesson. Its melody line is known by just about everyone and it's a Public Domain tune, meaning the Copyright Police won't be raiding the site.
The tuning for this is Dropped D (even though in this lesson I don't play any slide on that bass string), so the first thing to do is to lower that thick E string down to D. The best way to do that is to twang away at the 4th string, the D string while you're lowering the thick string. Twang away at it, too, and listen to them both. You will hear a lot of throbbing and pulsating. That's the sound waves interfering with each other as you lower the pitch of the 6th string. As you get close to the note D, which is whole tone down from E, you'll hear the throbbing change, become quicker and then disappear. That's when you've reached D. So now the 6th and the 4th strings are tuned to D, one octave apart. You may need to fine-tune the other strings too, as the release of tension on the neck can affect all strings. If you have an electronic tuner, use it.
I open the lesson with a bit of picking through a D chord, then an Em/A chord (read "Em over A", meaning an Em chord with an A bass note ... you can also call it an A7add9 chord, I guess. Whatever!) I do this only to let you hear the tonality of the key of D. You can learn this little intro if you want, I have included it in the tab.
Now comes the sliding ... the tricky part. All the sliding bits are outlined in gold in the tab.
The melody line starts with a normal fretted note (bar 6), and then you need to bring the slide into play. You need to start moving your hand up the fretboard toward the target -- the 7th fret -- and basically 'land' that slide onto the string like a plane on a runway. You already need to be thinking about the muting element! You can see in the movie how my thumb and finger tips automatically move to mute the three bass strings (the thumb does that) and the two treble strings (the tips of the middle and ring fingers), so that JUST the G string is allowed to ring out. I have color coded the strings in the downloadable movie to make that very clear. Slide guitar is all about sliding (duh) and mostly sliding up to the target note from below. Where you start the slide-up is not very important. You will be able to experiment once you get the basic techniques down. It sounds to me like a whole tone or so that I slide into the first note of bar 7. You don't have to slide of course, you can come down directly on the note if you want, but that's even harder to get right. The target note in this case is a D note at the 7th fret ... and I really mean the 7th fret. The slide winds up directly above the 7th fret wire. Even a millimetre either way will sound bad. Accuracy is everything. "Intonation" is the word used for getting it in tune, so you want your intonation to be spot-on. Notice that I add a bit of back-and-forth vibrato to the note to make it sing a bit. You can introduce this as you go ... no need to do everything on the first go.
The next bit is even harder! Those last three notes of bar 7 (the triplets) are executed in one slide, one that starts on the 7th fret, pauses for a nanosecond on the 5th fret and then goes down to the 3rd fret, then back up to the 7th fret, all in one pluck. You'll also see that I've changed strings! Those three notes are on the B string, so my muting hand has adjusted accordingly: the thumb has moved up a string, the index is idle, the ring finger is muting the thinnest string.
A lot to think about! But, as you can see, it does become second nature. I'm certainly not thinking about all of those things, I'm just thinking about how the line is sounding.
I then start the next line (Last note of bar 8) with a note that I didn't slide up to. So here I have lifted the slide off the strings to get from the 7th fret to the 5th, then plucked the note when I was in position.If you watch the movie carefully, you'll see that for that tiny fraction of a second that I lift off and move down, ALL strings are muted. That way you don't hear anything too ugly during that lift-off and landing.
BY THE WAY: You will always hear some noisiness when playing slide, especially on an acoustic guitar, clunks and scraping sounds ... it is part of the sound. We all try to minimize it, but listen to any acoustic slider and you'll hear it. It can't be avoided. On electric, you don't hear as much.
At bar 10, I repeat the opening line, but this time I use the slide for all the notes. You'll also see/hear that I pluck the initial note, dip down in pitch about a quarter note (yes, you can play quarter tones with the slide) go back to the note, then slide up to the 7th fret, where I do the same with that note: hit it, dip down in pitch then return to it. This is mimicking the way singers add detail to their lines. Then the triplet thing again -- it comes up several times, so learn it well -- and then a line that ends up at the 10th fret, followed by an open a string and a strummed Em/A chord. I discovered a long time ago that if you intersperse slide notes, which may or may not be perfectly in tune, with fretted notes or chords, which are always in tune, you can re-set the intonation for both you, the player, and the listener. It's a neat way of saying "this is the pitch, the tonality, we're working around".
After a couple of more repeats of previous lines, we wind up ending on a D note, 7th fret on the G string. I used that D note instead of the 3rd fret/second string, because there is in fact a D triad there, one where all the notes line up across the fretboard ready for the slide. You can see at about the 0:57 second mark in the movie that I 'un-mute' the 2nd and 4th strings to allow the chord to ring through as an ending. However, I don't pluck anything ... it's just the vibrato action of the brass slide on the strings that brings those notes out, like a violin bow.
So, you can see and hear that it's a very free form way of making music on a guitar. You can swoop into notes, out of notes, shimmer, wobble, bark ... the possibilities are endless and in coming lessons I'll show you more tricks. I've got at least another two or three Amazing Graces to do, I'll show you how to make it all a bit easier than this one ... but you need to learn a couple of tricky techniques to do that. As I said at the start: It ain't easy, but with practice, it can all become very manageable and loads of fun.
Click here for the printable TAB and Notation
Click here for the printable TAB and Notation
Have fun with this ... if you're after a heavy brass slide like the one I use, you're in luck: I sell them. If you take good care of it and don't lose it, it'll last you a lifetime, so it's a good investment. I also sell a 90 minute DVD on the art of playing Slide Guitar in Standard and Dropped D Tunings.
I have added dimmed down chord names to the tab just in case you can get someone else to play along with you on another guitar of piano. There are a few different progressions that work for this old tune, but this is my favorite. The gold boxes indicate the parts played with the slide.