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

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What I’ve Been Listening to: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band/The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

While I don’t ever feel I need a specific reason to write about the blues, I can’t deny the timing of this post isn’t entirely coincidental. The other day, I watched a Q&A with Walter Trout that was streamed online, during which he answered questions fans had submitted. At some point, he talked about his influences and in this context noted The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and their eponymous debut album from October 1965. Well, evidently, Trout’s got great taste!

Frankly, I could have picked any tune from this record, which is just outstanding from the first to the last bar. So let’s kick it off with the opener Born in Chicago. It was written by blues, rock and folk singer-songwriter Nick Gravenites, who became best known as the lead vocalist for The Electric Flag and his work with Janis Joplin and Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1966 (from left to right, front: Paul Butterfield (lead vocals, harmonica)& Billy Davenport (drums); back: Jerome Arnold (bass), Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Mark Naftalin (organ) & Elvin Bishop (guitar)

Apart from the great music, I’d like to call out the tune’s lyrics. These words could have been written in present-day America – something to think about as the country’s so-called leaders present alternate facts, while they pretend to celebrate the nation’s birthday with grandiose and thoughtless mass gatherings in the middle of a deadly pandemic!

I was born in Chicago 1941/I was was born in Chicago in 1941/Well, my father told me/”Son, you had better get a gun”/Well, my first friend went down/When I was 17 years old/Well, my first friend went down/When I was 17 years old/Well, there’s one thing I can say about that boy/He gotta go…

As frequent visitors of the blog know, I just dig vocals, so let’s shake things up a little with a great instrumental. Thank You Mr. Poobah was co-written by Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and the band’s keyboarder Mark Naftalin. I love that tune’s groove fueled by Jerome Arnold’s walking bass and Sam Lay’s drum work. And there’s also Bloomfield’s masterful guitar-playing and Butterfield’s great harmonica work. Frankly – dare I say it – when the music is so nicely rockin’ and rollin’, who needs vocals! Yes, that just came from the guy who likes to wine about certain tracks, especially in prog rock, which seemingly have endless instrumental parts with no vocals! 🙂

While it’s perhaps an obvious choice, I just couldn’t skip I Got My Mojo Working – what a killer rendition of the Muddy Waters tune that originally came out in April 1957! ‘Nuff said, here it is!

Let’s move on to another original, Our Love Is Drifting, co-written by Butterfield and the band’s second guitarist Elvin Bishop. It’s a great mid-tempo blues track. Butterfield’s singing, Bishop’s guitar work and Arnold’s bassline are the standouts to me in this tune.

I’d like to wrap up things with another blues classic: Mystery Train written by Junior Parker and produced by Sam Philips in 1953. Elvis Presley was the first among many other artists who covered the tune.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was the first of six albums Butterfield released under that name between 1965 and 1971. The band saw various line-up changes already starting with its sophomore album East-West from August 1966, which featured Billy Davenport on drums. Bloomfield who had tired of the band’s intense touring schedule left in 1967 to form The Electric Flag. Among others, that band included the above-noted Gravenites (rhythm guitar, vocals), Barry Goldberg (keyboards), Harvey Brooks (bass) and Buddy Miles (drums), who later became a member of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s eponymous debut album essentially was ignored when it came out, at least from a chart perspective. It only climbed to number 123 on the Billboard 200. I’m also a bit surprised it merely ranked at no. 468 on Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Well, it least they did include it, along with the following commentary: Where American white kids got the notion they could play the blues. This band had two kiler guitarists: Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. Jeez, there’s even a typo in there – what an embarrassment!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube