Learn the key differences between slides, and what you should be looking for when buying a new slide for your setup
If you want to get started playing slide guitar, the first step is to find the right guitar slide.
I can’t overstate the importance of this decision. The guitar slide you choose will not only have an impact on your tone, but also on feel and playability. When I first got started playing slide guitar I made a lot of mistakes. And as a result, I wasted both my time and money.
To stop you from making the same mistakes, in this article I will cover the key points you need to consider when buying a guitar slide. I will be looking at:
- The different materials from which guitar slides are made, and the impact this has on your tone
- How to choose the right size guitar slide
- The design of different guitar slides, and how this affects playability
- The thickness of your guitar slide and the impact this has on feel and playability
Without further ado then, let’s get into it! Here are the key points that you need to consider before you buy a new guitar slide:
The first and perhaps most obvious point to consider, is the material from which your guitar slide is made. In the early days of slide playing, guitarists would use whatever materials were available to them. This included knives, bones and the necks of glass bottles. It is for this reason that slide playing is often referred to as ‘bottleneck style’.
I suspect that the early Delta bluesmen who popularised slide guitar chose the materials of their slides more for their ready availability than they did for their tonal benefits. However whilst this may be the case, these various materials have gone on to provide inspiration for the many different materials from which guitar slides are currently made.
Today there are now a huge range of different materials to choose from when looking at guitar slides. This include slides made from the same materials the early bluesmen actually used – like bone, brass and glass – as well as other materials that include stone and carbon fibre.
The material that you choose for your slide is important, because it has a significant impact on your tone. And whilst the subtle tonal differences between slides made from the same material are often exaggerated, there are noticeable differences in tone when you compare slides made from different materials.
That is not to say that one material is better than the other. Rather it is to say that you need to choose a material that will work for you, depending on your playing style and the tone you have in mind.
Although a wide range of different materials have been used for guitar slides since the early days of the blues, the most common materials now used are glass, metal and porcelain and ceramic.
Let’s have a look at each of these materials in a bit more detail:
In the early days of the Delta blues, guitarists would often use the blade of a knife or a flat piece of metal to slide up and down their strings. And metal has since remained a popular material for guitar slides.
Generally speaking, metal guitar slides have a bright and quite aggressive tone. They also have great sustain. As such, they have proven popular with guitarists looking for a more overdriven and fiery blues tone. Muddy Waters was one of the first electric guitarists to use a metal guitar slide to achieve his searing slide tones. Notable slide players like Johnny Winter and Rory Gallagher closely followed his example. And in more recent years, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Sardinas and Joey Landreth have all used metal guitar slides to dial in their beautiful slide guitar tones.
So if you are looking for a heavier slide tone with more bite and treble, as well as great sustain, then a metal guitar slide could be a great choice.
Having said that, at this point, it is worth noting that within the category of metal guitar slides, there are various different options. Amongst the most common of these are brass and steel. Steel guitar slides are also often coated in different materials. Nickel and chrome are two of the most common.
In my opinion, the tonal differences between the different types of guitar slide within the same category are often exaggerated. Yet having said that, they do exist.
Broadly speaking, guitar slides made from brass have a slightly darker sound than those made from steel. Steel guitar slides sound a bit brighter, with chrome plated steel slides arguably sounding the brightest.
Metal guitar slides
There are a whole range of different metal guitar slides available out there. However some of the best options are as follows:
All of these will help you to dial in a searing, fiery blues tone perfect for heavier blues rock tones. However if you want to spend a little bit more and opt for either a boutique or signature guitar slide (more on this below), then any of these slides would also make a great choice:
These slides all vary in weight, shape and size. And these are topics that I cover in much more detail below. So before you make any decision, I would recommend deciding what you are looking for in those areas too. However, I hope that these initial options give you an idea of some of the different slides out there.
At the other end of the tonal spectrum are slides made from glass. When compared with slides made from metal, those made from glass produce a warmer and more mellow tone.
Over the past 100 years, a huge number of notable slide guitarists have used glass guitar slides to craft their killer blues tones. Mississippi Fred McDowell was one of the first. He initially played using the blade of a knife, but switched to glass for more volume and sustain. He cut the top off a Gordon’s gin bottle and used this as his guitar slide for the remainder of his career.
Since then, a wide range of notable slide players have used glass slide. This includes guitarists like Bonnie Raitt, Sonny Landreth and Ry Cooder, amongst countless others.
However it is arguably Duane Allman who is best associated with the glass guitar slide. He famously used a glass Coricidin medicine bottle for his slide.
So the story goes, Allman started playing slide when his brother Gregg gave him two presents for his birthday. The first was a copy of Taj Mahal’s debut album, featuring Mahal’s version of ‘Statesboro Blues‘. The second was a bottle of Coricidin, because Allman had a cold.
Heavily inspired by Allman, Derek Trucks has since also gone on to use a glass slide. And with it he has earned a reputation as one of the best slide guitar players of all time. So if you are looking to recreate the tone of players like Allman and Trucks, opting for a glass guitar slide would be a great choice.
Glass guitar slides
Such is Allman’s legacy that you can actually buy old vintage Coricidin bottles on sites like Reverb. However, because of Allman’s amazing ability as a slide guitarist, the prices of these start from around $100/£100.
Thankfully, there are some more affordable alternatives. One of the best options if you are looking for authenticity would be the Derek Trucks Signature Slide. This is built to model Allman’s Coricidin bottle. It is the same weight and is closed at the top. It also has the same indent at the bottom of the guitar slide where the lid for the medicine bottle would have originally been.
Additionally, Dunlop offer a range of similar ‘Blues Bottle Guitar Slides‘. These are based on the same medicine bottle design. However they come in a variety of different thicknesses (more on this below) and colours.
If you don’t like the idea of using a slide with a closed top, then the good news is that there are a huge number of different glass guitar slides available. And they come in a range of different prices. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
All of these slides will help you to dial in a beautiful, warm and mellow guitar tone that is perfect for the blues.
Porcelain & ceramic
Lastly are guitar slides made from porcelain and ceramic. These have tonal properties somewhere between metal and glass. As such, they are often recommended for guitarists who are looking for a compromise between glass and metal.
Porcelain and ceramic have only been used in more recent years in the manufacture of guitar slides. As such, their use within the blues genre is not as extensive when compared with slides made from glass or metal. Having said that, they have proven popular with a number of famous blues and blues rock guitarists. Perhaps the most notable of these are Billy Gibbons (who also plays using a glass slide), Joe Perry and Keb’ Mo’. Modern blues guitar players like Justin Johnson and Samantha Fish have also used ceramic guitar slides to brilliant effect.
Porcelain & ceramic slides
If you are looking for a guitar slide that is well balanced – both with regards to tone and playability – then a porcelain or ceramic slide could make a great choice. Some of the best options out there are as follows:
These guitar slides tend to be in a slightly higher price range compared with those made from metal or glass. So if you want to go down the porcelain or ceramic route, it might also be worth considering some of the signature slides out there. Some of the best choices here are as follows
Any of these slides would work well if you want a ceramic or porcelain slide, and are also looking to recreate the tones of one of your favourite guitar players.
How should you wear your guitar slide?
Once you have decided on the type of guitar slide you have in mind, you can turn your attention to choosing a slide that will fit you properly.
However the first step here is to decide on which finger you want to wear your slide. This is because as you have probably noticed, all of your fingers are different sizes and lengths. As a result, the finger you decide to use to play slide will determine the size of guitar slide you need.
If you are unsure of where to start, then I would recommend experimenting with either your fourth or ring fingers.
From a practical viewpoint, wearing a guitar slide on your fourth finger makes the most sense. This is because you can use your other fingers to play chords and fret notes without the slide. You can play ‘normally’ with these three fingers, without the guitar slide getting in the way. Not only this, but with the slide on your fourth finger, you have three fingers behind the slide to help dampen the strings. This is a crucial technique when playing slide, and so is worth taking into consideration.
Having said that, many guitar players prefer to wear their slides on their ring fingers. Typically guitar players are more comfortable using their ring fingers when they fret notes, and the same is true when they play using a slide. In other words, a lot of guitarists feel they have more control and accuracy when they wear the guitar slide on their ring finger. And although you don’t have quite the same freedom to use your other fingers when you wear the slide in this way, you do still have the ability to fret chords and dampen the strings with your first and middle fingers.
It is for these reasons that the vast majority of slide guitar players wear their slides on either of these fingers. And personally I would recommend doing the same.
There are however a small number of guitarists who wear their guitar slide on their middle finger. Of these, Billy Gibbons, Joe Walsh and Bonnie Raitt are some of the most notable.
From a control perspective, this makes sense. Your middle finger is likely to be stronger than your ring or little fingers. And so you will probably feel more comfortable when using it. The major drawback however is that your ability to fret notes and more complex chords is limited. Even Raitt admitted that her style has its drawbacks, stating:
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.
As such, I wouldn’t recommend opting to wear your guitar slide on your middle finger. Instead, try experimenting with your ring or fourth fingers.
Which one you try first is really up to you and depends on how you think you might use the slide. If for example you are predominantly looking to play soaring lead lines, then opting for your ring finger might be the best option. Conversely, if you know you will be fretting complex chords in addition to using your guitar slide, then your fourth finger might be the better option.
Once you have decided on which finger you are going to wear your guitar slide, you need to decide on the size of the guitar slide. There are a number of different elements to consider here, which I will address in turn.
However the first and arguably most important element is the size of the hole in which you place your finger. This will determine the control you have when using the slide, and also how comfortable it is to wear.
Typically slides range in sizes from small to extra large. Though if you want to buy a boutique guitar slide (more on this below) you may be presented with many different sizing options beyond these simple choices.
Most websites and brands offer sizing charts to help you navigate these choices. Though having said that, personally I would always recommend trying on a variety of different guitar slides before you buy, if possible. This will ensure that you make the right choice and end up with a guitar slide that fits properly.
And here it is all about striking the balance. You want to buy a slide that fits fairly snugly around your finger. This will give you more control and ensure it doesn’t fall off your finger. However, you don’t want the slide to be so tight that it is uncomfortable. And here it is worth noting that your finger will get warm and will expand a little bit when you are wearing the slide.
So if you envisage that you will be wearing your slide for long periods of time or whilst gigging, it might be worth opting for one that gives your finger a little more breathing space.
The next consideration to make is the length of your guitar slide. And here there are three main options:
The first is to opt for a full length guitar slide, which will cover the entirety of whichever finger you decide to wear it on. The benefit of this is that the slide will also cover all 6 strings of your guitar. So if you want to play chords using open tuning, or to move quickly between different strings, then a full length slide would make a great choice.
The second is to choose a shorter guitar slide. Unlike a full length slide, this will not cover your whole finger. Nor will it stretch across all of your guitar strings. At first this might sound like a drawback. But the shorter length makes these slides suitable for single string playing. And as such, a whole range of different slide guitar players – including Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters and Tampa Red – have used these shorter slides. So if you are predominantly looking for a slide to play single string solos, then one of these shorter slides could be the way to go.
The final option is to opt for a very short slide – or ‘Knuckle Slide’, as they are often called. These are generally much shorter than full length slides. The idea behind them is that they allow you to bend your knuckle. And this gives you the option to fret notes normally without having to work your way around the slide.
Personally, I am not so convinced by these shorter guitar slides. For although I understand the potential benefit of being able to fret notes and slide with the same finger, I think that these shorter slides actually end up compromising both your slide playing and your regular fretting.
This is because even if they allow you to bend your fingers, they do not give you the same level of freedom compared with an uncovered finger. Not only that, but they also move you away from focusing on your slide playing.
In addition to the size and length of your guitar slide, there is also the specific design to consider. As is often the case with guitar gear, there are many different options from which to choose.
Some of these are specific to guitar slides of different materials:
For example, and as noted earlier – in addition to ‘regular’ glass guitar slides, it is common to find ‘Blues Bottle’ slides and flared slides. The former are based on the old Coridicin bottles used by players like Duane Allman. They have a closed top and the same features of those old medicine bottles. The latter is wider and bigger at one end than the other.
In addition to regular metal guitar slides, it is common to find concave slides, which are wider at both ends and narrower in the middle. It is also common to find metal slides that are essentially sawn in half. So although they cover the full length of your finger, they do not cover the full diameter. This gives you the option to either wear the slide, or turn it around so that it covers your knuckle, but leaves your fingertip free to fret as normal. In this way it is similar to the short slides mentioned above – the idea behind it being that you can switch quickly between fretting and sliding.
As is often the case with guitar gear, there are a huge number of different designs and options from which to choose. Some of these – like the ‘Blues Bottle’ slides are designed to carry on the tradition of the early bottleneck blues players. Others, like those which are concave, aim to improve playability and feel.
My advice here would be to try not to get overwhelmed by the different options. If in doubt, keep it simple. Start with a straight slide or with a gentle taper or concave. See how you get on, and you can then always adjust and experiment further down the line if you wish.
Wall thickness & weight
The final and significant element to consider when choosing a guitar slide, is wall thickness and its effect on weight.
For as well as coming in a variety of sizes and lengths, guitar slides also come in a variety of thicknesses.
These thicknesses are typically categorised as being light, medium and heavy. Again though, if you are looking for a boutique guitar slide, you may be presented with further options from which to choose.
In short though, guitar slides with ‘heavy walls’ are thick. And those with light walls are thin.
This is important, because the thickness of a slide has an impact on its weight. And this in turn effects both tone and playability.
Heavy guitar slides produce greater sustain. Like heavy gauge guitar strings, they also allow you to play more aggressively. You can apply heavy vibrato and create a range of sounds that are not possible with a lighter guitar slide.
The drawback to using a heavy slide is that it is more difficult to control. You have an increased chance of rattling the slide against your fretboard, as it will not glide so easily across your strings. Heavy guitar slides are also more difficult to play at speed.
I would argue then that the weight that works best for you largely depends on your playing style and your guitar set-up (more on this below). If you are looking for soaring, sustained notes and you have a strong fretting arm, a heavy guitar slide could make a great choice. Conversely, if you want to play at great speed, then a lighter guitar slide might work better for you.
Joining the dots
It is worth noting at this point that not only are all of these different elements connected, but they all have an impact on one another. We can see this in more detail by comparing two different types of guitar slide together:
As noted earlier, glass guitar slides have a warm and more mellow tone. They are typically lighter in weight, and therefore easier to control and play at speed.
By contrast, brass guitar slides have a more aggressive and sharper tone. They are typically heavier in weight, and therefore are a little more difficult to control. Yet they have longer sustain and arguably allow for a more aggressive style of vibrato.
In short then, you could view these two guitar slides as being at opposite ends of the spectrum, both with regards to their tone and playability. However, if we change some of the other parameters above, then this also changes.
For example, if the glass guitar slide is long, with a very heavy wall, its tone and playability will be closer to that of the brass slide.
And equally, if the brass slide is short with a very light wall, its tone and playability will be closer to that of the glass slide.
I don’t say this to over complicate the matter or to confuse you. I just point it out to make you aware of how all of these elements fit together. And this will help you to make the right buying decisions.
Boutique & Signature guitar slides
The final piece of the puzzle is to consider how much you want to spend on your guitar slide. As is often the case with guitar gear, there is a wide variance in price between different slides. You can buy guitar slides for little more than $5/£5. You can also buy boutique guitar slides that cost more than $30/£30 each.
Likewise, there are signature guitar slides based on those used by famous slide guitarists. Derek Trucks, Billy Gibbons, Keb’ Mo’ and Joe Perry are just some of the notable blues guitarists who have their own signature guitar slides. And again these tend to be in a higher price range.
How much you are willing to spend will of course depend on your budget. But it will also depend on how much time you want to dedicate to playing slide. If you are looking to make slide your main playing style, then don’t be afraid to spend a little more. Provided that you look after your guitar slide, it will last. So unlike guitar strings, once you have your slide, you will not have to keep on replacing it.
Conversely, if you plan on playing slide only occasionally, then you may be better saving the money to spend on another area of your set-up (or on something not at all guitar related!)
There are a whole number of different boutique slide guitar companies out there. But some of the most notable are as follows:
Unlike some of the other options listed above, these boutique guitar slides are handcrafted. And this can have a positive impact on the comfort, durability, playability and – to a lesser extent – also on the tone of your guitar slide.
Of course that is not to say that you need a boutique guitar slide. The quality of batch made guitar slides is very high. So if you are just starting out, don’t feel compelled to spend more. Having said that, if budget is of less concern, then one of these options could make a great addition to your rig.
Beyond your guitar slide
Once you have narrowed down some of the options presented above, you need to turn your attention to other elements of your set-up. Specifically, you need to look at the guitar you plan on using when you play slide. This is because the guitar you use, as well as the way it is set-up will affect both the tone you produce and your success with using your slide. To some extent, it will also determine which guitar slide you buy.
Certain guitar slides require you to set your guitar up in a specific way. This is an in-depth topic, which I will cover in much more detail in a future article. In short though, the heavier your guitar slide, the more alterations you need to make to your guitar.
You want your guitar slide to glide effortlessly across your strings. But if you try and use a heavy slide on a guitar with light gauge strings and a low action, you will struggle. Your slide will press down on the strings too much. It will rattle against your fretboard and will be difficult to control.
So if you want to use a heavy guitar slide – then you will need to consider adjusting your guitar accordingly. You will either need to raise the action and use thicker gauge guitar strings on your current guitar, or use a totally separate guitar altogether.
These changes will actually benefit your slide guitar playing quite significantly. Heavy gauge guitar strings will enhance your sustain and give you a greater dynamic range. And the increased action will allow you to move your slide around freely without fear of rattling against your fretboard.
The downside, is that setting your guitar up in this way will make it more difficult to play without your slide. The high action and heavy strings will be difficult to fret. So if you plan on playing slide guitar occasionally, or if you want to play both ‘regular’ guitar and slide guitar on the same instrument, it is worth taking this into account. You may instead want to err on the side of caution, opt for a lighter guitar slide and make less radical changes to your guitar set-up.
There is no right choice here. It all comes down to how often you plan to play slide, the type of tone you are looking to create, and whether you feel comfortable making changes to your current guitar, or even buying a dedicated guitar for slide playing.
The important thing is to make the link between the slide you use and your guitar. After all, there is no point in buying a particular guitar slide for its tonal properties and playability, only to discover that it is totally mismatched with your current setup.
Some further considerations
I hope the information above helps you to navigate the many different types of slide available. Yet if you are still feeling confused – or if you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice available – then here are some general points to keep in mind when trying to find the right guitar slide:
Compared to guitars, amps and pedals, guitar slides are relatively inexpensive. Even if you were to go wild and buy 10 guitar slides for your collection, you could do so for less than $300/£220. I appreciate this is still a decent chunk of money. But it is cheaper than buying just one boutique guitar pedal.
And it is of course an extreme example. Hopefully you won’t need to burn through 10 different types of guitar slide before you find the right one for you.
In other words – provided you don’t limit your guitar slide search exclusively to boutique and signature slides, you can buy and try out a range of different slides, without incurring too much expense.
When you are starting out, keep things simple. It is always tempting to try out the newest and most cutting edge gear available. But before you go off in search of those new and revolutionary guitar slides, I would first look at the options used by your favourite slide players.
If you look at almost any of the best slide guitarists of all time, they don’t stray far from the materials and designs that players were using more than 100 years ago.
Derek Trucks uses a glass slide based on Duane Allman’s Coricidin bottle slide. Warren Haynes uses a slide of a similar shape and design. Keb’ Mo’ uses a full length porcelain guitar slide. As do Billy Gibbons and Joe Perry. Bonnie Raitt uses a full length glass guitar slide. As does Sonny Landreth. Ry Cooder uses a flared glass guitar slide. The list goes on and on…
And whilst everyone has a personal preference, it is useful to look to other guitarists for guidance. I would always advocate starting with relatively safe options and then being more adventurous after that.
So far I have spoken about searching for a single guitar slide. Yet it is worth pointing out here that you don’t need to limit yourself to just one slide.
As noted above, guitar slides are relatively inexpensive. And so there is absolutely no reason that you can’t buy a number of slides. This would work well if you want to recreate the tones of different slide guitarists. Equally it would work well if you want to create a wider range of different guitar tones.
Whilst you can of course create different tones with a single guitar slide, you might have more success (and fun) playing with a range of different slides.
Control your G.A.S.
Having said that, try not to get carried away. I know as well as anyone the dangers of guitar/gear acquisition syndrome (G.A.S. for short). It is easy to think that the perfect piece of gear is out there just waiting for you. And whilst I do advocate trying out different guitar slides, you don’t need to make this a frequent or even continual process.
If you find a brand and type of guitar slide you like, stick with it. Then every now and again, try out a similar but slightly different type or design of guitar slide.
As a final point, it is worth noting the huge role that technique plays in your tone. For whilst the material of your guitar slide will have an affect on your tone, the way you play will also make a significant difference. You can see this by comparing the tones of the different guitarists who all use the same types of guitar slide.
As noted above, a number of different players use slides made from glass. And yet the sound of Ry Cooder’s slide playing is very different to that of Duane Allman. Of course the other elements of their rig contributes to this difference. But so does their technique.
And so whilst it is important to recognise the tonal differences between different guitar slides, it is equally important to recognise the role your technique plays in getting you the sound you have in mind.
Putting it all together
At this point, you might understandably be feeling a little overwhelmed. After all, who would have thought that so much could go into a little piece of metal or glass that fits over your finger?
The good news though is that when it comes to actually choosing a guitar slide, how it feels on your finger and when you move it across your strings, will guide you towards the right decision. There will be some guitar slides that feel comfortable, whereas others will feel too tight, clunky and cumbersome. And that will help you to narrow down your search.
Before you get to actually trying on a specific guitar slide however, the key is to work out roughly what you are looking for, and then refine your search from there. This will help you get into the right ballpark before you zone in on the exact guitar slide (or slides) that will work best for you.
And this is actually simpler than it sounds. If you condense all of the information above, the main takeaway points are as follows:
- The material of your guitar slide effects its tone. Glass slides have a mellow and warm tone, and a shorter sustain. Metal slides have a bright and sharp tone, with a longer sustain. Porcelain and ceramic slides have tonal qualities somewhere in the middle.
- Both the weight and size of your guitar slide have an impact on playability and tone. Every element of your guitar slide has an impact on how it feels and plays. So take this into account when you think about buying a new slide.
- You need to consider the set-up of your guitar. You will either need to change it depending on which guitar slide you buy, or buy a specific guitar slide to suit your current guitar and set-up.
- Although there are a whole range of different guitar slides which come in lots of shapes and sizes, try to keep things simple. Avoid extremes – especially when you are starting out. Focus on comfort and on finding a slide that fits you well.
- Once you have used your slide for a while and feel a little more comfortable with your playing, you can start to experiment with different types of slide. And if you really take to slide playing, you can buy different guitar slides for different occasions!
Well there we have it. Everything you need to know to choose the right guitar slide. The information outlined here is intended as a guide. When you are buying guitar gear – be it something as small and inexpensive as a guitar pick, or something as large and expensive as a guitar – it is good to know what you are buying and why. This will empower you to make the right buying decisions.
And yet whilst all of this information is important, don’t buy new gear based solely on facts. Buying guitar gear is all about finding the sweet spot between tone and playability. And most importantly, it is about figuring out what works best for you. On paper, a long, heavy-walled glass guitar slide might seem like the obvious choice for your hand size and playing style. But if after repeatedly playing with it, you find it to be difficult and challenging, try something else.
Your guitar slide is what connects you to your instrument. So if in doubt, err on the side of comfort and playability. Don’t get so wrapped up in the tonal properties of the different materials or in what you think you should be playing. If you are playing at your best, then you will be producing a great tone, and enjoying yourself. And that’s what this is all about.
Good luck with your search! And if you have any questions at all I can help with, just pop them in the comments below or send them over to email@example.com. I’d love to help.
Image of Billy Gibbons – Wikimedia Commons (The license for the image is here)
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