Slide guitar or bottleneck guitar is a particular method or technique for playing the guitar. The term slide is in reference to the sliding motion of the slide against the strings, while bottleneck refers to the original material of choice for such slides, which were the necks of glass bottles. Instead of altering the pitch of the strings in the normal manner (by pressing the string against frets), a slide is placed upon the string to vary its vibrating length, and pitch. This slide can then be moved along the string without lifting, creating continuous transitions in pitch.
Slide guitar is most often played (assuming a right-handed player and guitar):
- With the guitar in the normal position, using a slide called a bottleneck on one of the fingers of the left hand; this is known as bottleneck guitar.
- With the guitar held horizontally, with the belly uppermost and the bass strings toward the player, and using a slide called a steel held in the left hand; this is known as lap steel guitar.
Slides may be used on any guitar, but slides generally and steels in particular are often used on instruments specifically made to be played in this manner. These include:
ever Since the introduction of slide guitar playing in the early 1900s, many different materials have been used to play slide guitar. Various smooth hard objects may be used as a slide. One of the most common is the neck of a glass bottle, which is slipped over one of the fingers of the fretting hand. The term "bottleneck guitar" to describe any type of slide guitar playing is derived from this. Modern bottleneck slides are still manufactured by companies such as Mr. B's Bottleneck Guitar Slides, Blue Moon Bottlenecks and Diamond Bottlenecks.
A glass, stainless steel, brass, or chrome tube of approximately the same size (typically one to three inches long) may also be used. There are also the Mudslide porcelain and Moonshine Slides ceramic slides, invented by Terrie Lambert in 1990, which are glazed on the outside but porous on the inside, so that finger moisture is absorbed, preventing slippage. Another more recent kind of slide is made of Pyrex, an imitation of glass bottle slides that have been utilized by slide players.
Technically a slide can be made with any material, so long as it resonates, and the craftsmanship is good. Examples include stag antler and buffalo horn, although slides like these are not often sold in mainstream shops, if at all, as the time and effort needed to create one is often too much when conventional slides are available. An alternative method is to use a solid metal bar or rod, also about the same size as above, laid across the strings of the guitar and held by the fingers of the fretting hand being laid on it to either side, parallel to it. Shotglasses, pipes, and stones have also been used to good effect, as have rings, spoons and even cigarette lighters.
One can also use a knife instead of a bar:
- "As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable." ―W. C. Handy on his first hearing slide guitar, a blues player in the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station.
An ordinary guitar, either electric or acoustic, can be used for playing slide. Often the strings are raised a little higher off the neck than they would be for ordinary guitar playing. This is done especially if the free fingers are not going to be used for fretting. An extension nut may be used to achieve the higher string height at the peghead end of the neck. This is just a normal nut, with the slots filed less deeply, and often in a straight line rather than following the radius of the fretboard.
The lap steel and the pedal steel are guitars that have evolved especially for playing slide in the horizontal position. Resophonic or resonator guitars have often been employed for slide playing, typically held horizontally. They are sometimes known as dobros after the Dopyera brothers, whose company first made them. National is another brand. In resonator guitars, rather than the sound being produced by the body's hollow, a special bridge transfers the vibrations from the strings to a metal cone placed inside the body.
A bottleneck slide on an acoustic guitar
The slide is pressed against the strings—lightly, so as not to touch the strings to the fretboard, and parallel to the frets. The pitch of the strings can then be continuously varied by moving the slide up and down the neck. The usual limitation in fretted guitar playing of twelve pitches per octave does not apply. Indeed, in pure slide guitar playing the frets serve no purpose, other than as a visual reference. The technique lends itself to glissandi (swoops up or down to a note); in addition it has the ability to evoke sounds of the human voice, crying, sighing or weeping, or natural noises. Another strength of the technique is its vibrato, which is easily achieved by oscillating the hand so that the slide goes quickly back and forth.
The major limitation of slide playing is of course that only one chord shape is available: whatever the strings happen to be tuned to going straight across. Many slide guitarists will still use their free fingers to fret the strings if they want to employ that sound as well. Using the free fingers opens up the possibility of playing chord shapes other than the straight line given by the slide. One strategy is to use the free fingers for rhythm work, and intersperse this with lead phrases played with the slide.
The guitar may be held in the normal guitar-playing position (that is, with the face of the guitar more-or-less vertical) or it may be held flat, with the face of the guitar horizontal. In the latter case the guitar may sit flat in one's lap or on a stool, face up, or held in this position by a strap, and played standing up. If holding the guitar in the normal vertical position, it is more common to use the tube type of slide. In the horizontal approach, solid bars or "bullets" are more commonly used, and the grip is overhand: the hand is not wrapped around the neck, the index finger is nearest the bridge, the little finger nearest the nut, fingers pointing away from the chest.
Usually, a slide player will use open tuning, although standard tuning is sometimes used. In open tuning the strings are tuned to sound a chord when not fretted; sliding the bottleneck up and down the guitar neck gives that chord in various keys. The chord tuned to is most often major. Open tunings commonly used with slide include Open D or "Vestapol" tuning: D-A-d-f#-a-d; and Open G or "Spanish" tuning: D-G-d-g-b-d . Open E and Open A, formed by raising each of those tunings a whole tone, are also common. These tunings can be traced back to the 19th century through the banjo, predating the Hawaiian guitar. Another open D tuning is D-A-d-a-d-f#. Other tunings are used as well.
Occasionally a bottleneck is used on only the highest two strings of a guitar in standard tuning, usually in live performance to introduce just a short passage of bottleneck effect into a piece which otherwise consists mainly of guitar played in standard fashion.
Slide guitar is most often fingerpicked, with or without plastic or metal picks on the thumb and fingers. However some players use a flatpick (plectrum).
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