When you think of playing slide guitar, the main image that pops into many minds is the shining National Guitar resonator with its high action and tinny, vibrant, unmistakable Blues sound.

The Mississippi Delta
Was shining like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War

What’s the best way to get into playing slide guitar?  You often need to use a new tuning.  Standard tuning E-A-D-G-B-E most often needs to be changed to an “Open G” tuning — or “Spanish Tuning” for old timers like me — and that means you need to step down three strings on your guitar to D-G-D-G-B-D.

Changing the standard tuning of your guitar can be a scary experience for the amateur guitar player, but with the advent of cheap, but effective, $8.00 USD clip-on tuners like the Snark — here’s no reason to not experiment with non-standard guitar tunings like Open G and Drop D and Open E and Cross-Note because you can always get back to standard tuning without an ounce of wasted pain.

I decided to leap into playing around with Open G tuning because a lot of Blues songs are written in Open G and being able to add a slide to my fingerpicking was just too fun an opportunity to pass up.

I prefer to fingerpick and slide on acoustic guitars, and both my Clapton acoustic and D-42 work great in Open G and with a slide.  The Clapton is snarlier on the top end and the D-42 thumps the bassline.  I enjoy creating two totally unique vibes and sounds using the same slide and tuning on different guitars.

Getting started with Open G tuning is easy and adding a slide is dead simple.  As usual, the Internet is always your best friend.  Here’s a lovely YouTube tutorial that teaches the whole technique really well:

Here’s a master lesson with the great Arlen Roth:

Open G is one very flexible tuning, and the possibilities for slide players are endless. The open positions offer a great deal of open harmonies for that very Dobro-like effect  so often employed by players such as Ry Cooder, Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt and Lee Roy Parnell. They also, however, require a good deal of slide accuracy.

I employ a great deal of slide “tilts” and angling to achieve this effect, and you’ll see – up close in this lesson – just how this can be accomplished. The right hand dampening, as always, will be stressed as a very important part of the process.

You can certainly play slide guitar in Standard Tuning — Warren Haynes is the master of that Bright Art — but if you want to touch the fleeting heels of history, you will want to change the sound of your guitar by using a new tuning for your slide and fingerpicking.

There’s a reason Open G tuning was popular a century ago and is still popular today — thanks to the good, modern, work of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones:

The discovery of open G tuning was a revelation for Keith Richards, who wrote about the experience with awe and reverence in his autobiography Life.

Open G helped Richards create a personal sound and approach on guitar, and yielded such classic Rolling Stones songs as “Honkytonk Women,” “Brown Sugar,” “Beast of Burden,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Happy” and “Start Me Up.”

You don’t have to be a radical and remove your guitar’s low string to play in open G, the way that Richards does. However plenty of players have followed his path to good result. One example is Jim Chilson of Boston’s Ten Foot Polecats, whose five-string open G finger-picking style is just one reason that band is rising up from the blues underground.

Richards, Chilson and others remove that low string because it can cause some awkward resonating frequencies if it’s accidentally struck in open G tuning. The sacrifice, however, is that a five string guitar can’t be reset to other tunings.

It is the duty of every guitar player to sit down and tune down to get the whole cloth experience of hearing how our history was made for ear in the fingers.

7 Comments

    1. Slide was easier than I thought it would be. The trick for me was finding the right slide and then the right finger and that process took a couple of years. I just found an “aged” brass slide — it’s featured in the article — that is 100% perfect. I have a bunch of glass slides and chrome slides and brass slides and ceramic slides — they all work fine, but this latest discovery is just “it” for me.

      I also like the slide on my ring finger best, but it’s smarter to use your pinkie so you can use your other free fingers to fret chords as you might need them beyond the slide. I keep testing fingers, but the ring finger keeps winning me back.

      String buzz still annoys me, but that’s part of it. All the greats had some amount of sting buzz — either on the fret or on the slide — so you learn to cover it live and live with the sound.

    1. Yes, I love the discovery prizes. You think one thing, try something else, and you get a gift by the change in expectation.

      I do have a lot of slides here that I’ll likely never use again, though… SMILE! It’s a good thing they’re all pretty and fun to try on and look at. Ha!

      And, of course, the INTJ in me now wants three more “back up” slides of the one I love and use now — just in case something horrible happens to the main one or the company goes out of business or I need to be in two places at the same time or or or…