Slip Sliding Away
Updated: Feb 12, 2019
This version of "Tennessee Waltz" by Bonnie Raitt and Norah Jones popped up on my FaceBook feed. I thought it was beautiful. It brought to mind a question that I get from time to time from students. Namely, "Why don't you teach bottleneck slide?"
I consider bottleneck slide to be a specialty and I'm not particularly interested enough in it to do the work that it would take to solve the 3 problems I see with it:
1) It's impossible to play sophisticated chords with a slide. This problem is only solvable if you develop some kind of hybrid technique where you take the slide off to chord and put it back on to solo. Awkward.
Related to this issue is the fact that there are several altered tunings used among slide players. All these tunings are used to facilitate easier chord playing. Besides the fact that each of these tunings impose their own limitations on the types of chords that are possible, their use illustrates the problem to begin with.
Consequently slide playing primarily serves a soloing function. I'm far too interested in being able to play sophisticated chords to be happy with that limitation.
2) I cannot find the words to describe the horrible, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard sound of a slide scraping a guitar string - especially a metal or brass slide. Why anyone would find this an attractive sound is completely beyond me; I've talked to slide players who actually want that scraping sound. There's no accounting for taste.
3) Intonation is a HUGE issue with slide players. Almost every slide player I've ever heard plays out of tune. My first exposure to bottleneck slide playing as a young teenager was Johnny Winter. Even at an age where I didn't know squat I could tell he was mostly out of tune, and the scraping sound drove me bonkers. I could name any number of famous slide players and the issue is always the same.
BTW - the album was Johnny Winter And Live. This was a very influential album to me and my peers in the early '70's. It was from this album that I learned "Johnny B. Goode." I thought the song was about Johnny Winter! It was only later that I became aware of Chuck Berry. Johnny Winter was a killer Blues/Rock guitarist/singer in my book - his slide playing notwithstanding. He's the forerunner to Stevie Ray Vaughn in my opinion. Even though I think that Johnny Winter is more historically significant than Rick Derringer (the rhythm guitarist in the band), to be honest, I liked Rick Derringer better. No accounting for taste.
In my experience (admittedly limited) there are only 2 people I've ever heard who made me wish I could play bottleneck slide guitar. First and foremost is Bonnie Raitt - thus the relevance of the YouTube video referenced above. Her pitch control is flawless. She is always spot-on. When sliding up to a note she always stops the slide on pitch. I hear no string-scraping sound when she plays. I love her slide playing. I also love her singing. Her singing and slide playing are images of each other. Both are very soulful and beautiful - but that's my opinion - and there's no accounting for taste.
Secondly, Derek Trucks. I saw Derek Trucks years ago when he was about 19 years old opening for John Scofield. I had never heard of him. I was very impressed. His pitch control was very, very good. He had a pretty smooth move where he slipped the slide on and off his finger from the pocket of his jeans. If you weren't watching closely it was like the slide appeared out of nowhere. He sat in with Scofield's band (which included Steve Swallow on bass) at the end of the show and acquitted himself adequately in a non-diatonic context. I could hear just a little scraping when he used the slide on the 6th and 5th strings.
I should also mention that I've seen some dobro players (I don't know who they are) here and there that I thought sounded really cool. The intonation control was really impressive and the music was very expressive, but the scraping sound was still an issue as well as the inability to play chords.
If I were to seriously attempt to play bottleneck slide I would first work on eliminating the scraping sound and then devote most of my time to gaining complete control of pitch.
If you ever see me play bottleneck slide (I've done it a handful of times live) I'm faking it - and I suck! There is one cut - Eastwood Hills - on my Sound Tracks CD where I play a melody with a bottleneck slide.
Full Disclosure; it's studio trickery; I actually played it but I punched it in a phrase at a time. Even with the technological aid, there is questionable intonation here and there, imo.
I'm just not motivated to do the work it would take to surmount the problems.
For those who are interested in bottleneck slide, go for it and more power to ya! In the modern era, I think Derek Trucks has made it a viable format, commercially. But if I have an inquiry from a prospective student that wants to learn bottleneck slide, I refer them to someone else. I know my limitations.
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