What Everybody Ought to Know About Selecting a Slide
The first slide may have been a pocketknife like the one composer W.C. Handy witnessed an itinerant bluesman wielding at a train station at Tutwiler, Miss., in 1903, catching Handy’s ear and influencing the course of the music’s history. But today there’s a wide variety of slides to choose from…
[originally from Gibson.com] Different common designs and materials have distinctive ergonomic and sound-coloring qualities that we’ll consider in the entries below. We’ll leave esoteric choices like wrench sockets and plumbing pipes to the likes of Lowell George and Louisiana Red, and focus on slides for standard round neck guitars.
Another early slide is the bottleneck — typically the neck of a wine bottle cut by a fine saw or heated wire. These look great, but their irregular shapes require concentration to ensure even string contact. And it’s hard to find a bottleneck that’ll cover all six strings if you’re looking for neck-spanning Elmore James chords. Also, if a smooth, warm, even tone — generally a virtue of glass — is desired, the sometimes grainy nature of bottle glass may interfere. On the other hand, the seam in some bottlenecks can be used to produce a grittier sound if that’s what’s called for.
An intermediate slide option between smooth sided glass and bottlenecks is a coricidin bottle like the one Duane Allman favored. We’ve got ample proof of the buttery tone Duane generated with these empty pill jars, which are now available at many guitar shops. But they share pitfalls with thinner glass slides. They require more pressure on the strings to compensate for drag and a lighter tone. Thin slides that drop to the stage or slam into a bridge during a fevered solo are more likely to break than thick-sided slides. Some manufacturers use Pyrex to deter breakage, but these don’t sing as sweetly.
Factors like tone, string resistance, weight and fit are a matter of taste, but beginners might want to try a thick walled slide that covers as much of the ring finger or pinky as possible. The smooth surface and mass will allow faster movement on the strings and provide a creamy tone with minimal pressure. And if one drops it’s less likely to break.
Both glass and steel slides can be found in all lengths: full finger, pinky, and partial — the latter especially handy if you’re playing in standard tuning and likely covering no more than three strings at a time. But steel has an abundance of other variations. Some are ring-like, others have cutaways, and, thanks to steel’s malleability, there’s a wide variety of surface finishes.
The bottom line on steel, however, is that if you’re looking for the brightest, most cutting tone possible, steel is the way to go. After that it’s a matter of what feels and sounds right for you. Obviously breakage is no longer an issue. Thicker walled steel slides have a slightly darker tone, but can be a bit cumbersome due to their weight.
A pinkie slide may be a good alternative, since it’s light — which promotes speed — and can be used to fret individual notes or do quick hammering once your skill level is up. Pinkie slides also leave your other fingers open for fretting.
Of course, there are plenty of variations on slide-wearing strategies. For example, one of the greatest slide players around, Bonnie Raitt, places a large slide on her index finger and uses her other three digits for fretting.
Brass slides have all the virtues of steel, although brass’ higher price makes it less popular, so there are fewer design options available. Brass has slightly more drag on the strings than steel’s slippery surface. That plus the metal’s density gives brass a somewhat darker tone and, debatably, extra harmonic complexity. Some players also prefer the look of brass’ golden sheen to steel’s glint.
In recent years ceramic and porcelain slides have grown in popularity. Of the two materials, ceramic is the most versatile due to its density and the variety of finishes it can bear. Porcelain is also more prone to shatter. Typically, however, these slides are manufactured with a very wide interior, which gives them too much play and contributes to the unnecessary noise some sliders refer to as “fret clacking.”
Players interested in investigating ceramic slides with a tighter fit and other desirable characteristics should visit Rocky Mountain Slides, a small company in Colorado that hand makes a wide variety of composite ceramic slides with custom glazes. My personal favorite sports two thin non-glazed bands on its otherwise smooth exterior, so with a twist of the wrist it can generate the grinding buzz of string drag or create a dirtier harmonic profile.
BONE, STONE AND MORE
Another form of slide at least as aged as knife blades and bottlenecks is animal bone. Usually these are made from the hollow center bone of a ham or steak. Dogs love ’em, and some people swear by them, too. An on-line search will also turn up slides made of stone, esoteric metals and ores, and even mahogany, but despite the claims of those who employ these colorful variations they have no edge over more common slides.