Slide guitar is a fundamental part of the blues. When W.C. Handy first ‘discovered’ the blues at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, it was a slide guitarist responsible for that revelatory experience:
A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept … As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. … The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.
Yet despite slide guitar being as old as the blues itself, there are very few proficient slide guitarists in blues. There are even fewer guitarists who have dedicated themselves to mastering slide guitar.
That this is the case remains a mystery to me. Slide guitar is such a key part of blues, and it opens up a whole range of tonal possibilities that the guitar does not normally offer.
Using a slide allows you to play all of the micro tones between frets. It also allows you to slide up to and down from the target notes you want to play. This gives slide guitar a vocal quality. It’s a very expressive form of guitar playing and one that is perfect for the blues.
Around 6 months ago I discovered Derek Trucks and I became entranced by his playing. I’ve since started learning slide guitar. As part of that journey, I’ve started listening to as much slide guitar as possible. I have a new found appreciation of the early masters of slide guitar. I’ve also discovered some amazing modern slide guitarists in the process.
If you too are looking to play slide guitar, or are just looking for new music to listen to, then here are some of the best and most influential slide guitarists you need to have on your blues playlist:
Known to many as the ‘Father of the Delta Blues’, Charley Patton was one of the earliest slide guitarists to be captured on record. He was also one of the most influential. Patton was a celebrity in the Deep South, famous for his gritty, raw vocals and powerful performing style. He was said to have frequently played his guitar behind his back and between his legs, in much the same way that Jimi Hendrix did 40 years later.
Patton’s playing style was both unusual and innovative. He is credited with being one of the early guitarists to use syncopated rhythms in the blues. When it came to slide, he switched between using a knife and playing the guitar on his lap – as is more typical in Hawaiian guitar – and using a brass slide.
Unusually, Patton often tuned his guitar up a step and a half, or even more. Most slide guitarists use open or ‘slack’ tunings. These tunings voice chords when you play all of the open strings together. They also allow you to barre your slide across the neck at various points and voice chords as well.
That Patton adopted a different approach is illustrative of his innovative style. He set the standard for Delta blues and influenced later slide guitarists like Robert Johnson and Elmore James.
The story of Robert Johnson is one of the most compelling and mysterious in music history. So the story goes, Johnson set out as a musician in pursuit of fame and glory. Frustrated by his lack of progress, he left his hometown of Robinsville in Mississippi and went to a crossroads in nearby Clarksdale, where he made a pact with the devil. He sold his soul and in return was gifted with super human song writing and guitar playing abilities. What happened at the crossroads that night is a mystery. Regardless, Johnson returned to Robinsville a very accomplished musician (most likely having just spent a lot of time practicing…)
During his lifetime, Johnson was little more than an itinerant bluesman; playing in Juke Joints and on plantations and street corners. He enjoyed very little fame during his lifetime. It wasn’t until Columbia records posthumously released the album ‘Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers’ in 1961 that his name became synonymous with the blues. He has since become arguably the most famous blues musician of all time. His impact on the genre is immeasurable.
Johnson only recorded 22 songs during his career. I’d recommend listening to them all, but some that stand out for their slide guitar work are:
Every slide guitarist owes a debt of gratitude to Elmore James. Not only is James responsible for some of the most distinctive slide guitar licks of all time, but along with Muddy Waters, he played a key role in bringing the old style of acoustic Delta blues into the modern electric era. Previously, slide guitar had been played on acoustic or dobro guitars. It was a very traditional style of blues. James revolutionised the style, electrifying slide guitar and bringing it into the modern era.
Born in Richland, Mississippi in 1918, James was exposed to the thriving Delta blues scene from an early age. He was inspired to learn the guitar after seeing Robert Johnson performing live. As an adult, James spent most of his time moving between Mississippi and Chicago. Here he experimented with, and fused the different styles being played in these areas. More dynamic and technically complex than the early Delta bluesmen, but more restrained than later players like Duane Allman, James’ style is a beautiful mix of Delta and Chicago blues.
Like his hero and mentor Robert Johnson, James had a profound influence on blues and rock n’ roll. His songs were covered by The Allman Brothers Band, Fleetwood Mac and Canned Heat, amongst countless others.
In my opinion, Duane Allman is a criminally underrated guitarist. The quality of both his slide guitar and his regular playing is phenomenal.
The Allman Brothers defined the country rock genre and Duane’s lead work as part of that band is exceptional. He totally changed the way that guitarists played slide. Prior to Allman, very few slide guitarists had played on electric guitars. Muddy Waters and Elmore James paved the way, but Allman was the first to popularise lead slide guitar playing as we now know it.
Outside of the Allman Brothers, Allman played slide guitar on the Derek and the Dominos album ‘Layla and other Assorted Love Songs’. It remains one of the most popular blues albums of all time. Speaking of Allman, Eric Clapton said:
What really blew me away was Duane Allman’s guitar playing. I was mesmerised by him…He was like the musical brother that I never had, but wished I did
Tragically, Allman was killed in a motor bike accident in 1971. He was only 24 years old. Yet despite that, he recorded a wealth of amazing music. To hear him at his very best, you should listen to the Allman Brothers playing live at Filimore East. It has become one of the go-to albums on my blues playlist.
Much of Duane Allman’s playing is without a slide, and this is also well worth a listen. But here I’ve tried to pick out songs that showcase Duane’s skills as a slide guitarist:
I first discovered Ry Cooder as a teenager when I watched the film Crossroads, featuring none other than Ralph Machicio – the Karate Kid. This time, instead of waxing cars and learning Karate, Ralph is trying to learn the blues. The plot line and acting are somewhat dubious; the guitar playing and film soundtrack – both of which are provided by Ry Cooder – are not. The film features some amazing slide playing from Cooder and culminates in a guitar duel between the Karate Kid and Steve Vai. It’s well worth a watch.
Unlike some of the guitarists listed here, Ry Cooder is not a strict Bluesman. Cooder’s music draws from many different influences and includes elements of Eastern and African music, as well as roots music and country. Yet even if Ry Cooder’s solo material has never been on your radar, the chances are you’ve heard his guitar playing. Cooder is a prolific collaborator and session musician – performing with artists as diverse as Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones. For the latter, he played slide guitar on the song Sister Morphine, from the Stones’ album ‘Sticky Fingers’.
Almost 50 years later and Cooder is still going strong. His new album ‘Prodigal Son’ features some beautiful slide guitar playing.
Billy Gibbons is better known for his fuzz laden riffs and masterful use of pinch harmonics than he is for his slide guitar playing.
Yet whilst Gibbons’ use of slide may be sparing, he is a brilliant slide guitarist. His slide guitar playing is heavy, biting and raw. He does not have the finesse of some of the modern slide guitarists listed here. He is also fairly unusual in that he wears the slide on his middle finger. Typically, slide guitarists wear their slides on either their ring or little fingers. This allows them to dampen the strings behind the slide and prevent unwanted noise.
Gibbons does dampen the strings with his index finger, but not to the same extent of the other slide guitarists listed here. As a result, his slide playing has less clarity. This fits perfectly with ZZ Top’s raw style of Texas blues. Gibbons also uses a metal slide, which typically has a more biting tone.
Unlike the other guitarists in this list, only a handful of ZZ Top songs feature slide guitar. But Gibbons doesn’t hold back in these songs. His slide guitar solos are brilliant – long, extended jams that will help to give you ideas for your own slide guitar playing.
Bonnie Raitt is the most prominent female slide guitarist in blues. Raitt learnt the guitar as a young girl at a time when there were very few – if any- famous female guitarists. There were no female slide guitarists. The only famous slide guitarists at this point were Delta bluesmen like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. So Raitt’s use of a bottle neck made her stand out. She was recognised and praised for her use of the slide, and it came to be a defining part of her sound.
Like Gibbons, Raitt also wears the slide on her middle finger. She was originally taught on a Hawaiian lap steel guitar and made the transition to an acoustic after discovering Robert Johnson’s seminal album ‘The King of The Delta Blues Singers’. In her own words:
To hear that guy play was exquisite, an amazing influence on everybody – as well as being incredibly intimidating. But I taught myself to play as best I could, and when I finally got a chance to see someone live, I realised that I should have learnt to play with the slide on my ring finger, but it was probably too late.
Yet despite Raitt’s somewhat unorthodox technique, the clarity of her playing doesn’t suffer for it and she remains as good a player as she ever was. More than 50 years after starting her career, Raitt continues to release music, tour and inspire the next generation of female guitarists. Her most recent album – ‘Dig In Deep’- features some brilliant slide guitar playing and will make a great addition to your blues playlist.
Sonny Landreth is a virtuosic slide guitarist. His playing is extremely technical and unlike that of any of the other slide guitarists listed here. Born in Louisiana in 1951, Landreth is known to many as ‘The King of Slydeco’. A nickname he earned as a result of his fusing blues slide guitar playing with Zydeco. This is a musical style unique to Louisiana. Created by French Creole speakers, it blends blues with rhythm and blues and indigenous Creole music.
That in itself distinguishes Landreth from the other slide guitarists listed here. But what is more interesting, is the sheer technicality of Landreth’s playing. Eric Clapton cites Landreth as one of the most gifted and underrated guitarists in the modern era. And I have to agree with him,
Most slide guitarists wear their slide on either their ring or little fingers. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows them to dampen the strings behind the slide. This eliminates any buzz and preserves the clarity of each note. Secondly, it frees up their remaining fingers to play chords or to fret notes without the slide.
Generally speaking, slide guitarists play chords and individual notes, or they use their slide. They don’t mix the two. Landreth does the opposite. He developed a technique which involves a lot of fretting behind the slide. The slide sits on top of the strings and acts like a barre, and Landreth frets the notes behind. This is technically very complex and produces a unique sound that is definitely worth a listen.
Chris Rea is not exactly what you would call a typical blues guitarist. Ascending to fame in the 1980s, the influence that decade had on Rea’s style is fairly evident. Some of his most famous songs – like Josephine and On The Beach are very pop heavy. They’re a million miles away from the work of the other guitarists listed here. Yet Rea is also a brilliant blues player and slide guitarist.
Rea picked up the guitar at the comparatively late age of 21. He heard Charley Patton on the radio and at first mistook the slide guitar for a violin. Once he was corrected by a guitar playing friend, in his own words: ‘I got my dad’s guitar and one of my sister’s nail varnish bottles – and that’s how I started!
Much of Rea’s later work saw him move away from his early inspirations and his overriding passion for the blues. Yet the slide guitar has remained a fundamental part of his sound.
In my opinion there is no place for blues purism. We should celebrate when artists take elements of the blues and fuse them with more mainstream genres. Rea has sold over 30 million albums, and garnered fans worldwide. He has done so by placing his beautiful blues and slide guitar playing at the centre of his music.
To my mind, Derek Trucks is the best guitarist in the modern blues scene. He is an unbelievable slide guitarist and all around musician. Technically, he is flawless. His feel is impeccable and his solos are always tasteful and never gratuitous.
Derek is the nephew of Butch Trucks, the drummer for The Allman Brothers Band. Born into a musical family and named after Derek and The Dominos, Trucks started playing from a very young age. Unsurprisingly, he cites Duane Allman as one of his major influences, along with Elmore James. As a teenager he also developed an interest in Indian music, after being inspired by Ali Akbar Khan.
Trucks spent time studying Hindustani and Sufi music and combined these Eastern influences with blues, country, rock and folk music.
Having played as part of the Allman Brothers Band, The Derek Trucks Band and now the Tedeschi Trucks Band, his discography is extensive and diverse. Here are some of his best songs and guitar solos:
Who are your favourite slide guitarists? Let me know in the comments!
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