Harrison Marsh provides an introduction to contemporary acoustic blues and the early slide players that influenced today’s great exponents.
Following on from last month’s instalment that looked at electric slide playing, this month we focus on the acoustic side of things. A heavier slide can be beneficial here as acoustic guitar strings tend to be thicker; heavier slides provide more sustain and improved tone. Make a decision early on about how smooth or raw a sound you want as this will give you something to aim for in terms of how much muting and vibrato to use, how hard to attack the guitar and how much fret noise you allow as well as the type of slide you use.
In the last instalment we were aiming for very clean results, but with acoustic playing, however, many players feel a little more string noise is part of the genre. It’s common to associate resonator guitars with slide and while they are popular with players such as Son House and, later, Eric Clapton, lots of players use regular acoustic guitars. One big difference between electric and acoustic slide playing is that the acoustic style allows for bass note accompaniment and there is a wealth of blues phrasing on offer here. For electric, I wear my slide on the third finger of my fretting hand. For acoustic playing, however, I have moved my slide to my 4th finger as many players do. This may feel awkward at first, but it frees up your ability to fret notes in between using the slide and allows you to rotate your fretting-hand wrist to bring the slide away from the fretboard when fretting notes with the first and second fingers. Taking the slide away from the string and putting it back without creating unwanted string noise is a skill in itself and
IT’S A GOOD IDEA TO PRACTISE THE EXAMPLES WITHOUT VIBRATO, TO ENSURE GOOD INTONATION, THEN CAN ADD IT LATER
can take a little while to perfect.
It’s a good idea when you get to the use of vibrato in the examples, to practise without it at first to ensure good intonation, then add vibrato later and work on this separately. Some players have a very wide, expressive vibrato and others have a more subtle, focused approach that sticks closely to the intended pitch. The idea is to give the slide playing a vocal quality. You will notice when listening to players like Bukka White that, as well as intonation and tone, there is also a huge dynamic range used; so pay careful attention to your own dynamics.
Ry Cooder: playing great slide on his old Martin D-45
Any acoustic guitar will do for slide. As with electric a higher action is beneficial and a flatter radius on the fretboard can be useful if possible. Steel resonator guitars are great fun but far from essential and various guitars have been used by famous slide players from Robert Johnson’s infamous Gibson L1 with very small body and typical‘boxy’blues sound ,to Ry Cooder’s use of Martin Dreadnaught-style instruments. All examples here were recorded using a Martin 00016.