To play slide well, you need to master three skills: touch, intonation, and damping. Here are some tips to get you started on the road to bottleneck nirvana.
Touch. There’s no “right” slide-wielding finger. Duane Allman favored his 3rd finger, as did the great Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Bonnie Raitt uses her 2nd. To leave strong digits free for chording and riffing, however, many players—including Sonny Landreth and Ry Cooder—wear their slide on the 4th finger. It a good idea to experiment before deciding which finger you prefer.
Press your slide against the strings hard enough to keep it from rattling or bouncing when you pick or strum, but not hard enough to stretch the strings sharp or push them against the frets. This calls for a light, firm touch. If you’re regularly crashing into the frets, try a lighter slide (for instance, instead of a burly glass bottleneck or brass slide, try a Duane Allman-style medicine bottle) or switch to a heavier string gauge.
Intonation. To play a note in tune, park the slide parallel to and directly above the corresponding fret. Trust your ears—not your eyes—for fine tuning, and add vibrato after you’ve zeroed in on a note. When practicing, frequently reference and calibrate your intonation to open strings. For instance, when playing blues in A, use your open A, D, and E strings as pitch guides.
Damping. Use both hands to mute strings. To tame those “behind-the-slide” sounds, lightly trail your 1st finger along the strings (see Photo 1). However, those whirring noises can add character to your picked notes, so don’t feel obliged to always mute with your slide hand.
Muting with your picking hand is another matter. If you don’t acquire this skill, you’ll be doomed to sonic chaos. Most great slide guitarists play fingerstyle so they can mute selected strings with their fingertips while simultaneously plucking others. The basic playing position is the “all notes off” clamp (Photo 2). Lay the side of your thumb across the bass strings and press the tips of your index, middle, and ring fingers onto the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings, respectively. Unless a string is being plucked, it stays muted.
In Photo 3, I’m plucking the first string while keeping the others damped. This selective plucking takes a lot of finger independence, so be patient. When thumbing bass notes, you can also mute the treble strings with the karate-chop edge of your picking hand. Notice how the slide is tipped in this shot. When playing along on the first string—which is most often used for bottleneck melodies—tilt your slide to prevent it from scraping unused strings. Photo 4 shows another view of this essential technique. ♦