Intro to Slide Guitar and How To Play
Discover tips on sizing, set-up, tuning, as well as slide guitar techniques for beginners with Fender.
By Ben Nemeroff
Slide guitar lends added punch to songs -- packing a bluesy wallop with the brash twang of glass or metal gliding down guitar strings, carrying you from one note to another in the span of a second. Whether you’ve heard it on a classic blues song like Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Red Rooster” or the haunting solo at the end of Eric Clapton’s 1971 version of “Layla” (spoiler alert: that was actually Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers), the sound of slide guitar can inspire players to want to experiment with this style.
The beauty of slide guitar is that there is no one right way to achieve this sound. Guitar slides come in a variety of sizes and materials -- from brass to chrome to glass. There’s also no set finger to place your guitar slide on. Many guitarists opt to put the slide on their pinky, but some players (like the aforementioned Duane Allman) wear it on their ring finger, and other guitarists like Bonnie Raitt and Joe Walsh buck convention completely and play slide with their middle fingers.
If you’re thinking of trying your hand (literally) at slide guitar, we’ll answer some common questions you may have, as well as offer up some slide guitar lessons on proper techniques to use.
What Is A Slide Guitar?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a slide guitar. Rather, slide guitar refers to a playing technique in which a guitarist glides a hard cylinder along the fretboard to produce a twanging sound, swiftly arriving from one note to the next. This cylinder fits over a guitarist’s finger of choice on their fretting hand. The tool can be made from a variety of materials, including metal, plastic, or glass. Slide guitar playing is sometimes referred to as “bottleneck guitar” based on the old school technique where guitarists would improvise, using the neck of a bottle (or even an empty tube of lipstick) on their fingers to get that signature slide sound. Slide guitar can be heard across an array of genres including blues, country, and hard rock.
While all guitars can be played with a slide accessory, there are some types of guitars that are made to be played exclusively with a slide. These guitars are called lap steel guitars and -- true to their name -- are meant to be played with the back of the guitar resting on your lap. Instead of pressing the strings with your finger on specific frets as you would with a standard guitar, a lap steel guitar is played exclusively with a slide.
On a standard guitar, players can use a slide while playing the guitar in an upright sitting or standing position, with a strap around their neck.
Slide Guitar Size, Weight, & Materials
Guitar slide accessories come in a wide range of sizes, weights, and materials. Some of the most popular materials for guitar slides include brass, glass, and steel.
Guitar slides also come in a variety of weights. The type of material your slide is made from can also impact the weight of your slide, too. Typically, glass slides are the lightest-weight material, but the internal wall thickness can range between a thinner 1.5mm to a heavier 4mm thickness.
The thickness and weight of a slide can transform the sound of your playing, especially when combined with the material. If you use thicker gauge strings, a heavier slide may be the right choice for you. Similarly, if you use lighter strings, matching that with a lighter-weight slide may be to your best advantage. Making sure your slide isn’t too heavy and doesn’t mash down the strings or knock against the fretboard for a harsh, clunky sound.
Slides may also have an internal diameter between 18mm to 22mm. This allows each slide to fit a variety of finger sizes and thicknesses.
In terms of length, guitar slides range from 60mm to 69mm long. Longer slides can span the width of the fretboard, making it easier to slide down all six strings. However, if you plan to switch between fretting notes and playing slide, a shorter length guitar slide can make it easier to have that versatility of playing.
How to Choose a Guitar Slide
When choosing a guitar slide, it boils down to personal preference, given that the materials help to produce a specific tone:
• Brass guitar slides offer a warmer, brighter tone with resonance and sustain. These slides can be used with electric or acoustic guitars.
• Glass guitar slides give players a ton of versatility. Available in a variety of thicknesses ranging from 1.5mm to 4mm, glass slides deliver a sweet, fat tone packed with resonance and expressiveness. They’re also excellent for use when playing either an acoustic or electric guitar.
• Chrome steel guitar slides are made with electric guitars in mind, offering powerful sustain that slices the air with a sweet high end and bite.
Beyond material, your own playing style may drive you toward choosing either a longer or shorter slide. Depending on which finger you prefer to wear your guitar slide, that may determine the best length for you. Players with shorter fingers or those who may want to wear a slide on a smaller finger -- like their pinky -- may choose a 60mm slide, whereas those who play with their middle finger might opt for a longer slide. Similarly, players with thicker fingers may find it more comfortable to have a slide with a wider internal diameter to more easily slide the tool on and off.
How to Set Up a Guitar for Slide
If you’re thinking about playing slide guitar, you’re going to need to be sure your guitar is properly set up. A guitar setup involves adjusting the bridge, nut, and other parts of the guitar to achieve your desired intonation. In order to set up a guitar for slide, you may want to raise the action or string height. If your strings are too close to the fretboard, they can make a dull, unappealing sound when you try to use a slide.
If you know how to set up your guitar, you can raise the strings on your bridge and raise the nut at the top of your headstock to adjust the action of your guitar to play slide. Making sure your pickups are properly situated is important to getting just the right sound to play slide, too. When adjusting your pickups to play slide, you’ll want to consider how light or how heavy your strings are.
If you don’t know how to set up your guitar, you can take it to a local music store and have them adjust it for you. Just let them know you plan to play using a slide and they can take it from there!
Slide Guitar Tuning
Much like everything else about playing slide guitar, there is no single tuning that can be used when playing. While many players favor standard (E-A-D-G-B-E) tuning, there are quite a few alternate tunings that are popular for slide guitar. One of these is Drop D tuning. Drop D tuning, when played on slide guitar, gives a song a lower, down-and-dirty feel. Need an example? Listen to the iconic slide guitar riff on the Beck classic, “Loser.”
Other popular tunings include open tunings like Open D and Open E. Open tunings tune all six of the guitar strings in such a way that it’s easy to play chords in an open position using one or fewer fingers. When using a slide that spans the width of a fretboard, open tunings can come in handy. With Open D tuning, you can easily play an open D chord. Similarly, Open E tuning lets you play an (you guessed it) E chord without having to use multiple fingers that may be occupied with a slide tool.
A prime example of Open D tuning while using a slide can be heard on blues great Elmore James’ rendition of “Dust My Broom,” originally recorded by Robert Johnson. There are also quite a number of noteworthy songs that use Open E tuning with some searing slide guitar. Check out Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” or The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to get inspired to experiment with open tunings and slide guitar.
Wondering How to Play Slide Guitar? Try These Techniques
Learning new guitar techniques -- especially those that require a new tool -- can sometimes feel a little intimidating. Don’t get discouraged! If you want to learn to play slide guitar, with a little practice, you can do it. It’s just one more new skill to add to your arsenal and one that allows you to have a lot more fun with your instrument. (Right up there with stringing together pedals and using cool effects!) Here are a few top slide guitar techniques to keep in mind when you start playing.
Choosing What Finger to Wear Your Guitar Slide
Figuring out which finger you’ll wear your slide on is a matter of preference -- and trial and error. Whether you find you prefer wearing your slide on your pinky, ring, or middle finger, you can put a slide on any finger of your fret hand that is most comfortable to you.
There are a few benefits and drawbacks to each finger, but players can get creative and see what works best for them while learning:
• Wearing your guitar slide on your middle finger gives you more control over the slide since it’s a stronger finger than your ring or pinky. Additionally, if you want to mute strings with your index finger, wearing a slide on your middle finger gives you that option.
• Wearing your guitar slide on your pinky allows you to reach higher strings (and frets) with your other three fingers, giving you a greater variety of sound. Putting the slide on your pinky also lets you tuck or lift your slide finger out of the way if you need to switch between slide and traditional fretwork.
• Wearing your guitar slide on your ring finger can give you the best of both worlds. For instance, using your ring finger helps you to keep a straight wrist, which is essential to playing slide guitar and part of proper technique. You still have the dexterity of your index and middle fingers to fret notes alongside the ability to shift back into slide mode.
Getting Comfortable with Fretting Hand Finger Position
As with every other aspect of playing guitar, proper technique is critical when learning to play with a slide. Playing slide guitar differs from more traditional methods of putting your fretting finger as close to the fret as possible without actually touching the fret. With slide guitar, the slide should be placed directly on the fret itself. If you place the slide in the middle of the fret (normally, where one of the inlay fret markers may sit on odd-numbered frets), the note that rings out will be flat. Setting good playing habits when playing slide guitar can help to minimize finger pain during long practice sessions or later on down the road.
Knowing How Much Pressure to Apply
When you hear the powerful sound of a slide bearing down from one fret to another on the neck of your guitar, you might think it requires a heavy hand. Actually, you’ll only need to apply gentle pressure when using a slide. Similar to the technique you’d use when learning how to play harmonics, you barely need to touch your slide to the fretboard. To be clear, you don’t want to press the string down against the fretboard. This is where having a higher action and more elevated strings can be really useful if you want to make playing slide guitar a regular practice.
Mastering Muting Behind the Slide
If you’re confident in your ability to apply just the right amount of gentle pressure and you’re still getting a murky sound when playing slide, it might just be a matter of adjusting and isolating the note you want to ring out when playing slide. If you have your slide on your pinky or ring finger, you can use them to press down on the frets so that your slide is only hitting the notes you want to sound on adjoining strings. Mastering muting strings behind the slide can help give you a clearer, more resonant and punchy sound when playing slide guitar.
For more tips on perfecting your muting technique on slide guitar, check out our Artist Check-In with Jason Isbell:
Is it Easy to Play Slide Guitar as a Beginner?
If you’re a beginner guitarist, playing slide guitar is not nearly as hard as it might seem. Like anything worth doing, playing guitar -- and playing slide guitar as one more technique in your tool kit -- takes time and practice. Figuring out which style of slide and which finger works best for you, the sound you want to achieve, as well as what you most naturally gravitate towards takes some time and getting used to. However, the more you play and the more you practice, playing slide guitar can become easier over time.
Check Out Fender Play Slide Guitar Lessons
Feel inspired to start experimenting with slide guitar? Check out Fender Play, which offers bite-sized video tutorials complete with tablature designed to get you started playing and progressing along your journey as a musician. Get slide guitar lessons, learn how to play chords, scales, and hundreds of songs -- whenever and wherever you like. Get started with a free trial today!