When I started playing slide guitar….

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I get a lot of email and questions about how to start playing slide guitar. When I answer, I try to remember what it was like way back then when I first started playing.
Although it has been about 17 years since I first started, I can still remember sitting in my bedroom desperately trying to play some guitar with a slide.

The Beginning

So some of you may think that I just picked up a slide and sounded ok. Because you know, some people are just born with it. THIS IS COMPLETE AND UTTER CRAP! Yes some people may have been born with a little more skill, but even so, they have to practice like mad to get where they are.

Did you know that Derek Trucks plays around 300 shows a year. He has also been doing that for about 15 years I believe. Let’s see, that is 4500 shows or so since he has started gigging. This is an approximation and it is probably more. That is a lot of playing! Yes he is gifted, but look how much effort he has put into his gift. How much are you willing to sacrifice?

Just so you know, you don’t have to play this much to sound good. You just need to dedicate some time every day and don’t quit!

So we’ve established that is does take practice, so here’s what happened when I started.

Back around 1993 or so, I figured I would try out slide guitar and put the metal slide against the strings. Of course I had mad distortion going on, because anybody that’s anybody plays with your Peavey Backstage amp with the gain button in and the overdrive to full! That’s what Zeppelin sounded like, or so I thought.

Anyway, so I put the slide on the strings and start playing notes with a pick. What came out of my guitar sounded pretty much like a dieing cat. I remember my Mom telling me that if I didn’t stop that racquet, I would have to quit playing. So yeah it sounded awful!

I was trying to play the Black Crowes “Twice as Hard”, but I couldn’t quite get it. Another beginning song I tried was “Bad to the Bone”. Eventually I tried some Allman Brothers which was next to impossible! I couldn’t play with the strings muted. How did he get just one string to sound? Duane Allman’s slide guitar solos were impossible. I didn’t even know that something like open e tuning even existed. In fact, I didn’t start playing open e tuning until about 2002. Up until then I played only standard tuning slide.

I tried all kinds of slides, and even a socket wrench piece or whatever you call it. It just seemed that everything was out of tune with the song, and it was very hard to keep all the strings from ringing at once.

Fingers

Somewhere I found out (probably through a magazine) that a lot of slide guitar players played with their fingers. I figured I would give this a shot and really didn’t know where to start. Around the same time, I started taking classical guitar lessons in college. I believe this helped me to develop my right hand technique. It is not exactly the same technique, but I kinda just adopted my own thing out of it.

After practicing this stuff for about a year or two I finally started to put some things together. So I continued to practice, made a little headway, and that’s when I started listening to Warren Haynes.

Warren

Warren sounded awesome! I had taped a live concert of him with the Allman Brothers in New Jersey off the radio, and that really sold me on what could be done with standard tuning slide guitar. He was playing the Allman Brothers stuff without using open e tuning. I vowed I would learn this style so I spent a lot of time with a cassette tape and the guitar. Rewinding, rewinding, rewinding. Then I realized you didn’t have to press stop on the cassette deck, you could just tap the rewind button and let go to get back to the part. Very time consuming!

One of the first Warren solos I learned was “No One To Run With”. It wasn’t terribly difficult and sounded great. I was using a Fender Twin by then with an American Strat. I paid $400 for the twin and about $450 for the guitar. I didn’t get them at the same time though. I believe I was using a Mexican Strat for a while with a Hot Rails pickup in the bridge position.

I desperately tried to get Warren’s tone with that strat. I would use the neck pickup, and turn the tone knob all the way down. I think I was also using a Rat pedal at that point as well. I really wanted a Les Paul or some kind of guitar with humbuckers in it, but that wouldn’t come till about 10 years later.

Open E Tuning

So then I continued to woodshed on Warren’s style for a few years when I eventually got decent enough to play in bands. Around 2001 I started experimenting with open e tuning. I heard Derek Trucks again on CD after seeing him live when he was about 14 in 1998 or so. My roommates actually sat in with the band, which I thought was really cool.! I didn’t talk to him though. I think his dad was there, and the bar only had about 10 people in it. He did sound amazing though! I think he was using the Washburn. That starts a whole other story which I’ll talk about later. Anyway, that’s a bit about what it was like for me when I began my journey to play slide guitar. In the next installment I’ll continue on with this story.

If you want to know what I have learned after so much trial and error, I have produced 5 DVDs worth of material on how to play in Open E Tuning and 3 DVDs of how to play slide guitar in Standard Tuning. Honestly I wish I would have had something like this when I was learning. It would have saved me a lot of time practicing the wrong thing.

What has your experience been with slide guitar? Let me know below by posting a comment.

9 thoughts on “When I started playing slide guitar….”

  1. John, thanks for sharing that information. Always interesting to hear about other people’s journeys.

    As for my own experience with slide guitar, I still consider myself a beginner as I just started a little less than two years ago.

    I used to play some guitar, a mixture of classical and some country blues stuff a la Mississippi John Hurt and contemporaries. But all that came to an abrupt end in 2004 when I was diagnosed with Scleroderma which caused my fingers to curl up to the point where I lost virtually all movement in my hands. My finger picking days were over. I sold or gave away my guitars and my little Dan Electro amp and that was that.

    But then, about two years ago I started thinking there might just be a way for me to play again – I really did miss it. Well, I did some research and thought that maybe a lap steel, because of its size might be something I could handle if it were tuned to an open tuning. And because my thumbs are about all I have left to work with, the other part of the solution was to put a slide on my left thumb and a pick on my right.

    And so I bought my first lap steel (I now have three and a couple of amps), borrowed a small amp from my son-in-law, purchased your first DVD and I haven’t looked back since.

    I am now having the time of my life and, for the first time in my life, I am playing by ear, improvising like crazy and have even participated in a couple of jams. Your DVD’s have been instrumental in getting me to this point and for that I will always be grateful. I can say in all honesty that I learned more in the first month of playing along with your lessons than I’d learned in my previous years of playing. Of course, because of my limitations, I’ve had to adapt the techniques you teach but then that’s what my whole life is about, adapting and finding new ways to do the things I enjoy.

    In June, I will be organizing a benefit concert for Scleroderma where I plan on making my debut by playing in front of an audience for the first time. Kind of scary but exciting at the same time. Again, thanks for sharing your story and encouraging us to do the same. Best wishes, Bill.

    • That’s one amazing story! I believe that sometimes the things that seem to hold us back, can be the things that make us who we are.

      You have definitely achieved something great, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be playing again. Victory over unsurmountable circumstances is one of the greatest feelings mankind can experience.

      I’m glad the lessons have helped and good luck with the show!

      You should get someone to video it for you.

    • I just read your story, brought a sympathetic tear to my eye. Feb. 11th 2007 I crashed my truck on a back road with my best friend in my passenger seat. The dash of my truck broke and crushed his leg before he was tossed out his door. Fracturing my skull, my head busted out the back glass for me to escape. My poor friends leg was broke and to this day still bothers him with nerve pain. I myself laid in a coma expected not to live for a few weeks or so.
      I have no memory of the early times after awaking from the coma and very little of a few years right before it. I suffered a T.B.I. and was expected never to be able to function as an adult again.
      My docter told my parents that medical science couldn’t explain how I was eventually able to recover. Anyhow I guess some of my earliest signs of life in my coma was chord shapes with my left hand. Coming out of the coma I had to relearn to walk, talk, who my family and friends were and who I was.Since those trying times I’ve been blessed with a beautiful wife and our first son, getting close to 3 years old. That’s as short a summery I can give but since I’ve been knocked back years in my passion of guitar mastery, I’ve made it back to the slide again and am inquiring for advice to a lead picker in the genres of classic rock and country who is now wanting to include some mean slide work into his chops.

  2. John, one thing that’s been a bit challenging for me is going back & forth between standard and open E tuning. I’ve been playing guitar for around 15 years, and have picked up slide over the last 2-3 years. Like most people, I learned guitar in standard tuning, playing with a pick. For slide, I play primarily in Open E with my fingers. When playing in Open E, my fingers (and ears) often want to grab notes and chords from standard tuning, and practicing in Open E has resulted in me forgetting some stuff in standard tuning.

    It seems tough to find a balance in practice time in both tunings as well. I love playing slide, but after 15 years of writing and learning lots of songs in Standard tuning, I don’t want to try to relearn songs in Open E. I’ve tried playing slide in Standard tuning, but prefer to play in Open E.

    One thing I do is have 2 guitars always tuned to Standard tuning and 2 guitars always tuned to Open E, so I can associate the tuning to specific guitars, but any other suggestions?

    • Yeah it can be hard. I like to think of things as intervals and use memory tricks to remember the “hot spots” in standard tuning and open e tuning. If I’m playing a tune that is blues funk in C and I’m in open e tuning, I’ll think Key of C, here’s the root notes, and this is where I can jump to if I need some money licks.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. You could say that some people are born with it. I have seen a few people pick up the guitar for the first time and somehow they managed to play a little and you could see that once they learn it, they can do very well.

    Yes, it takes a good amount of practice but it is so much fun to learn.

    Tal

  4. Great to hear your story, John! I started playing guitar as a teenager in 1968, and the next year on my birthday, my parents gave me a Jansen (Fender copy) solid body and amp and also one of those slides used by lap steel guitarists. This got me going, so that on weekends, I’d end up playing up to 8 hours a day. I didn’t learn about open tunings until a few years later, and started using various slides. However, once I quit school and started training as a professional air pilot, my guitar playing slowed way down, as I figured it would be better to spend as much time as possible learning how not to crash planes!

    Since my retirement some years ago, I’ve fallen in love with a Strat and an SG and have bought all of your DVDS (as well as a whole bunch more!) and am now reigniting the passion I had for guitar as a teenager. And loving it even more.

    Yep, I agree it would’ve been nice to have those DVDs decades ago, but … it sure is fun learning how to play now!

  5. Wow so I love slide guitar…I have never learned to play regular guitar but I think I could learn “open-e” and play slide without having to play chords. What do you think? Can I go straight into slide without learning blues guitar? Which course should I get first?

  6. Thanks for sharing you’re learning curve John, it’s great to read as I can relate a lot of things to my own experiences. My first attempt at slide guitar was via a video tape by Arlen Roth how to play slide guitar…needless to say it all went south when I found I had to tune my guitar to a different key. I was only about 15 at the time and only had one guitar and I wasn’t about to start messing around with the tuning, so it all got sidelined. However I never lost my love of hearing slide being played, the movie Crossroads blew me away, especially the Crossroads Blues solo which I still love to this day…I’m determined at some point to give this style another go.

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