Of Slides and Bottlenecks

The sound of a well played slide guitar is one of the coolest in music in my opinion. I’ve always loved it. It’s also one of the most challenging techniques that requires great precision and lots of feeling. You can easily be off, which to me is the equivalent of a violin player who hasn’t mastered yet how to properly use the bow or a trumpet player who is still working on their blowing technique – in other words real torture, if you miss!

I thought it would be fun putting together a post that features great slide guitarists from different eras. Before getting to some music, I’d like to give a bit of background on the technique and a very brief history. More specifically, I’m focusing on slide guitar played in the traditional position, i.e., flat against the body, as opposed to lap steel guitar where the instrument is placed in a player’s lap and played with a hand-held bar.

How to Play Slide Guitar - Quickstart Guide | Zing Instruments

Slide guitar is a technique where the fret hand uses a hard object called a slide instead of the fingers to change the pitch of the strings. The slide, which oftentimes is a metal of a glass tube aka “bottle neck,” is fitted on one of the guitarist’s fingers. Holding it against the strings while moving it up and down the fretboard creates glissando or gliding effects and also offers the opportunity to play pronounced vibratos. The strings are typically plucked, not strummed with the other hand.

The technique of holding a hard object against a plucked string goes back to simple one-string African instruments. In turn, these instruments inspired the single-stringed diddley bow, which was developed as a children’s toy by Black slaves in the U.S. It was considered an entry-level instrument played by adolescent boys who once they mastered it would move on to a regular guitar.

Clockwise starting from left in upper row: Sylvester Weaver, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Brian Jones, Mike Boomfield, Muddy Waters, Duane Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder and Derek Trucks

The bottleneck slide guitar technique was popularized by blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta near the beginning of the twentieth century. Country blues pioneer Sylvester Weaver made the first known slide guitar recording in 1923. Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and other blues artists popularized the use of slide guitar in the electric blues genre. In turn, they influenced the next generation of blues and rock guitarists like Mike Bloomfield (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band), Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band) and Ry Cooder.

Time for some music. Here’s Sylvester Weaver with the instrumental Guitar Blues, one of the earliest slide guitar recordings.

One of the masters of Delta blues who prominently used slide guitar was Robert Johnson. Here’s the amazing Cross Road Blues from 1936 from one of only two recording sessions in which Johnson participated. If you haven’t heard this version but it somehow sounds familiar, chances are you’ve listened to Cream’s cover titled Crossroads.

Are you ready to shake it? Here’s smoking hot Shake Your Money Maker written by Elmore James. James released this classic blues standard in December 1961.

The Rolling Stones were fans of the Chicago blues. One of their blues gems featuring Brian Jones on slide guitar was Little Red Rooster, which they released as a single in the UK in November 1964. It was also included on their third American studio album The Rolling Stones, Now! from February 1965. Written by Willie Dixon, the tune was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in October 1961.

Next is Walkin’ Blues, which The Paul Butterfield Blues Band covered on their second studio album East-West from August 1966, featuring Mike Bloomfield on slide guitar. The tune was written by Delta blues artist Son House in 1930.

In May 1969, Muddy Waters released his sixth studio album After the Rain. Here’s slide guitar gem Rollin’ and Tumblin’, which was first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern (gotta love this name!) in 1929. It’s unclear who wrote the tune.

Here’s one of the greatest slide guitarists of all time: Duane Allman with The Allman Brothers Band and One Way Out. This amazing rendition appeared on an expanded version of At Fillmore East released in October 1992. The original edition appeared in July 1971, three months prior to Duane’ deadly motorcycle accident. Co-written by Marshall Sehorn and Elmore James, the tune was first recorded and released in the early to mid-’60s by Sonny Boy Williamson II and James.

A post about slide guitar wouldn’t be complete without the amazing Bonnie Raitt, an artist I’ve dug for many years. Here’s Sugar Mama, a song co-written by Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark, which she recorded for her fifth studio album Home Plate from 1975.

Let’s do two more tracks performed by two additional must-include slide guitar masters. First up is Ry Cooder with Feelin’ Bad Blues, a tune Cooder wrote for the soundtrack of the 1986 picture Crossroads, which was inspired by the life of Robert Johnson. This is a true slide beauty!

Last but not least, here’s Derek Trucks who is considered to be one of the best contemporary slide guitarists. Trucks is best known as an official member of the Allmans from 1999-2014 and as co-founder of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which he formed together with his wife Susan Tedeschi in 2010. Here’s a great live performance of Desdemona by The Allman Brothers, featuring some amazing slide guitar playing by Trucks. Co-written by Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes, the tune was included on the band’s final studio album Hittin’ the Note that came out in March 2003.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 8

Covering March 8 in rock history was a last-minute decision. In part, I was inspired by the last item on the list, which is related to The Beatles. Interestingly, it turned out this date also saw another event related to The Fab Four, which is the first item. What could be nicer than bookending this installment of my long-running recurrent music history feature with my all-time favorite band? Let’s get to it!

1963: Please Please Me by The Beatles placed at no. 40 on Chicago radio station WLS’s weekly Silver Dollar Survey, according to Songfacts Music History Calendar – the first time a Fab Four tune made a radio station survey in the U.S. This also means WLS may have been the first radio station in America to play one of their songs. As usual, the track was credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, though the original composition was by Lennon and the released studio version was significantly influenced by George Martin. About 11 months later, on February 9, 1964, The Beatles would conquer American TV households and start the British Invasion with their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

1965: Bob Dylan released Subterranean Homesick Blues, the lead single to his fifth studio album Bringing It All Back Home, which appeared two weeks thereafter. The tune marked his first top 40 hit in the U.S., climbing to no. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, it did even better, reaching the top 10 on the Official Singles Chart. According to Songfacts, Dylan told the Los Angeles Times that musically “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the forties.”

1968: The Fillmore East opened in New York City on Second Avenue near East 6th Street. The venue was a companion to rock promoter Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium and its successor Filmore West in San Francisco. Until its closing on June 27, 1971, Fillmore East saw many notable music acts, such as Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers Band, The Kinks, Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin. Due to the venue’s great acoustics, many live albums were recorded there, including the legendary At Fillmore East by the Allmans in 1971. Here they are with the epic Whipping Post, captured on September 23, 1970. The band’s double guitar attack with Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, along with Greg Allman’s mesmerizing vocals and Hammond are on full display. The band was on fire that night. Live rock music simply doesn’t get better. Check it out!

1974: Queen released their sophomore album Queen II in the UK. The record peaked at no. 5 in the UK and cracked the top in the U.S., reaching no. 49 on the Billboard 200. Initially, Queen II was met with mixed reactions, but as is not uncommon with famous bands, eventually, it garnered praise from music critics, fans and fellow musicians. It also marked the first record for Queen where they used multi-layered overdubs, which became a signature feature on their later records. Here’s the lead single Seven Seas of Rhye, which was written by Freddie Mercury and released about two weeks ahead of the album.

2016: Legendary producer George Martin passed away at the age of 90 at his home in Wiltshire, England. His death was announced by Ringo Starr on Twitter and later confirmed by Universal Music Group. The cause was not disclosed. Of course, Martin is best known for his work with The Beatles. I think it is fair to say they would not have been the same without him. Following the disbanding of The Beatles, Martin worked with many other well-known artists, such as America, Jeff Beck, UFO and Little River Band. One of my personal favorites Martin did for The Beatles was the string arrangement for Eleanor Rigby. Primarily written by Paul McCartney, the tune appeared on the Revolver album from August 1966.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day In Rock; YouTube