Slidin' the strings
So far we have concentrated on the right hand and the means of striking the strings, but the let hand has an equally profound effect on the sound of a guitar. Normally the strings are fretted, pressed against the fingerboard above a metal fret, thus shortening the length of the string that is free to resonate, changing its tone. To change the tone of a string from one note to another progressively, without interrupting the voice of the string, the guitar player can slide his finger along the string from one fret to another.
Listen again to John Dilleshaw’s Spanish Fandango posted yesterday. Dilly starts the song off with a slide transition and continues throughout the piece. He also provides excellent examples of “hammering on” and many other left hand techniques beyond the scope of this post, but one should take special note of his use of “harmonics” at about 2:41 into the piece. Just beautiful!
Sorry, I got sidetracked. Let’s get back to the slide. At some time, someone realized that a glass or metal tube slipped over one of the fingers and held against the strings could be slid up and down the length of the string to produce a continuous sound of various notes. There is some controversy about where and when the slide was first developed, but I’ll save that for a future post.
The most common object used as a slide by early practitioners was a small medicine bottle or the cut-off neck of a whiskey bottle. Today commercially made slides of metal or glass and are sized to fit over one of the player’s fingers. To keep the slide from striking and sounding on the metal frets as it is slides along the string, the “action” of the strings (that is, the distance that the string sits above the fingerboard) must be set higher than a standard guitar. But a guitar with high action takes much more finger strength to fret and is Hell on the fingertips. Most guitarists like the action of their strings to be set just high enough that the strings don’t buzz against the frets, making fretting fast and easy. The bottleneck slide player has to compromise the ease of fretting and an unobstructed path for his slide. Pickers that play lap style rarely, if ever, fret and can happily set their action high. I’m off on a tangent again, I’ll blame the gin.
There are hundreds of excellent slide guitar pieces I could post as examples. I chose two that I particularly like for their simply melodies and artful use of the slide.