So, You Want to be a Slide Guitar Player…

There are as many reasons for wanting to learn slide guitar as there are pickers out there…

…and there are innumerable ways to go about learning.

Although it worked for me, I do NOT recommend my method. AT ALL!

“No pain, no gain” is what they say. I found it to be true while first learning guitar and bass at a tender age. Until one builds up callouses on their fingertips, the strings and the death grip of an inexperienced guitarist can cause excruciating pain.

Once one gets through that phase – if they ever do – things usually get a lot better very quickly. But the pain certainly tests one’s commitment.

With slide guitar, the string is never pressed down onto the guitar neck at all…that would defeat the whole purpose of slide playing – and sound really horrible too. Consequently, it would seem logical that the same painful entry point to learning would be absent, wouldn’t it? Well, read on….

I was already playing for a while when I first heard Duane Allman play slide guitar. I instantly knew I HAD to learn how to do this. But back in those days I HAD to learn almost everything I heard come through my streo speakers, so slide only occupied a small fraction of my overall attentions as an aspiring Rock God.

Yes, there are a lot of jaw-dropping slide players, and I’m sure I heard them all, but Duane had a fluidity and a bite to his style that simply stood out way above any other player for me (until I heard Derek Trucks play – but that was decades later). Of course he aced the blues, but he also had the same level of groundbreaking mastery over other musical motifs – like that bright country sound and even dobro and country blues styles.

It was on acoustic guitar that I first set out to get slide playing under my belt – and the acoustic guitar is a very forgiving instrument (once you have the pre-requisite callouses). But in order to really get where I wanted to be it had to be done on the electric guitar, period. And I didn’t have one…yet!

It wasn’t until I was in the Air Force that I finally got an electric guitar. I’d been dabbling on guitar for 5 or 6 years by then – my main focus was on bass guitar. But getting that electric axe and an amp was where I first started to shift from bass to full-time guitar picking.

The first thing I learned as an acoustic picker is that the electric guitar is not a forgiving instrument at all! Welcome to the land of amplified mistakes, where the name of the game is control. There’s a lot of power at your fingertips and what separates the meningitis from the boysenberries is subtlety. I had a lot to learn, but I had all the time in the world to learn it.

Now, I would never imply that consciousness-altering substances should be a part of anyone’s learning curve in any pursuit. But in my case, certain nefarious habits indirectly led me to a slide guitar “breakthrough” of sorts. It all happened during a late night run to a local store for that most innocuous of consciousness-altering substances: beer.

My Air Force buddy “Zipperhead” (let’s call him Zip, OK?) and I were out of beer and between us only Zip had a vehicle. To our great dismay we discovered his battery was dead. In a stirring testament to that epic U. S. military can-do, never-give-up spirit, we decided to “borrow” the battery from a mutual friend’s car. We debated (briefly) taking the time to go ask him, then decided he’d probably want some of our beer and chose the least time-consuming route: we simply stole (temporarily) his battery. We reasoned that he wouldn’t mind and, besides, he’d never know anyway.

So, we scoop up the battery and all is well. We get our beer and get back on base and park. Then Zip held the beer while I “un-stole” this car battery back into it’s rightful vehicle.

That’s when I dropped the battery about 4 inches down onto the fingernail of my left ring finger.

Karma? You be the judge. Anyway, the fingernail cracked horizontally about halfway down and hurt like the blazes! The beer didn’t even put a dent in the throbbing agony and even looking at it made both of us nauseous. So, a band aid was employed and we finished the beer.

I knew right away that this gnarly injury would NOT stop me from playing guitar. After all, I had played with a broken right ring finger back when I was a bass player, cast and all.

So the next day I picked up my electric guitar (this was a Fender Telecaster for those of you who care) and decided I would just not use my left ring finger while fretting. OUCH!!! I should have known that would be impossible, what with most of what one learns becoming muscle memory through endless hours of practice.

Clearly, there was no way to practice while trying not to use one finger. Fortunately, the mangled member was the one on which the bottleneck slide was customarily worn when playing slide guitar. I gave it a try and it was almost pain-free! Yes!!! Hello, Uncle Duane, I’m-a-comin’….

Well, in the year of 1983, there was no internet with instantly accessible slide guitar lessons, so I just set about figuring it out for myself, playing along with my favorite tunes whether there were slide parts in them or not.

I played only slide guitar for at least 3 months – until the top of my cracked fingernail finally fell off and the nub finally grew back enough to fret again.

So, you want to be a slide player? Don’t do like Tom! Go take a lesson!

If you care to hear some of the results of my ill-begotten slide guitar skill, such as it is, all you have to do is check out our new CD Love One Another. The title track and a number of others have plenty of slide parts. Go ahead, judge away! You can do it right here: