Tunings, Setup and Guitar for Slide

Slide guitar 1

If you’ve been following this series, you should have already considered which finger your slide goes on, what type of slide to use and maybe even made yourself your own bottleneck slide. But wait! There’s more. Now for some thoughts on slide tunings, guitar setup, guitars and picks.

Most of the classic slide guitar tunes are played in a non-standard guitar tuning. Two of the most popular tunings for slide guitar are open G and open D.

Wait? Do you use open A or open E instead of G or D? Or maybe you’ve read you’re favorite slide guitarist uses these. No problem because functionally open A is the same as open G and open E is the same as open D. You could think of open E as open D with a capo at the second fret. Same with open A compared to open G. Another way to think about open tunings is to compare the formula that gives which fret to play in order to tune the next higher string. All tunings which have the same formula are functionally equivalent in that chord shapes and scales have the same shapes and relative relationship to each other. The only difference is what key you are in at any time. (See end of article for tunings.)

If you play mostly in standard tuning and but want to occasionally play a slide guitar piece in open tuning, do you tune up or tune down. Tuning up gives you open E or open A, down gives open D or G. Generally, if you are playing slide on an acoustic guitar you will tune down. The reason is that tuning up increases the tension on your guitar and that could end up damaging your top – in theory. On the other hand if you play electric guitar – particularly a solid body electric guitar, you will probably tune up to open E or A. The reasoning here is most electric guitar players today use light gauge strings with low action and increasing the tension helps keep your slide from bouncing on the frets.

There are no rules and you can do the opposite. And if you dedicate a guitar to slide, then you can set it up to work with whatever tuning you want. Increase the string height, customize the string set gauges, change the string radius at the bridge (probably to decrease the radius – flatter is easier to make chords for slides). Generally, slide works better with heavier strings. Resonator guitars will typically come with medium gauge acoustic strings and some with change the first or first and second strings so they are heavier still. String companies are now offering special resonator sets – but make sure you get one for your tuning. Some of these string sets are designed for square neck (Dobro) tunings which aren’t used often on for round neck guitar slide.

But which open tuning to use. Open D (E) or open G (A)? If you are playing classic acoustic blues tunes you’ll want to use the same tuning as the famous version. Each tuning has a unique sound and you need to be in the right relative tuning to play the same riffs as you slide heros. Open G was used in many early blues, including some of Robert Johnson’s tunes. It was also used by Chicago blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf (AKA Chester Burnett) on tunes like Little Red Rooster (guitar by Hubert Sumlin). It seems like most of the recorded work of Elmore James was done in open D tuning.

If I’m not playing a classic I prefer open D tuning. Many guitarists dislike the fact that the lowest note (6th string) in open G is not G but D. The lowest note in open D is D. Keith Richards is reported to remove the 6th string when he plays slide guitar in his favorite tuning, open G (or maybe it’s A for Keith). That way his lowest string is the root, G.

There is of course, another obvious and popular tuning option. Learn to play slide in standard tuning. You can then switch between slide and all the normal chords and riffs you already know. The main disadvantage of standard tuning, in my opinion is it seems as if you have to move the slide more to get to the notes you want. Open tuning gives almost all the notes you want for any riff within 2 or 3 frets from a “home” position for a chord. But standard tuning actually gives you more variety for chords than open tuning. Think about how many chords you can make using only a barre spanning 3 or more strings. Open tuning you are limited to a major chord no matter which 3 or more strings you play. Standard tuning can give you a major chord (strings 2 , 3 & 4), a minor chord (strings 1, 2 and 3) or a minor 7th chord (which can also be a 6th chord – strings 1, 2, 3 & 4). If you only play single line lead (with some double stops) then either standard or open tuning are good.

Another consideration is picks. If you are a fingerstyle acoustic guitar player, learn to play with fingerpicks and a thumb pick. The difference in tone is huge. Try it and see. If you play electric, the amplifier helps compensate for fingerstyle playing. Besides you probably already use a flatpick. But if you don’t use a pick, try one. It helps on electric too.

 Guitars

You can play slide on any guitar, acoustic or electric. Maybe not on a classical guitar but slide on most other guitars is possible. Possible doesn’t mean optimal. And some guitars are closely associated with acoustic blues slide guitar or with famous slide guitarists.

One of the first great slide guitarists was Tampa Red and he played one of the first guitars that have become associated with slide blues guitar, the National Tricone. This was the first resonator guitar. The other two styles of resonator guitar are also great for slide. These are the single cone, biscuit bridge resonator (e.g. Style O or Duolian), and the single cone spider bridge resonator (Dobro).

Most photographs of Elmore James show him playing an acoustic guitar with a pickup in the sound hole. No special guitar for him. However, I’ve seen one picture where he is playing a Kay electric. Modern electric blues and rock guitarists tend to prefer solid body guitars with good access to the upper frets.

Some Slide Guitarists and their Guitars
  • Johnny Winter – Gibson Firebird
  • Derek Trucks – Gibson SG Standard
  • Bonnie Raitt – Fender Stratocaster
  • Duane Allman – Gibson Les Paul
  • Bob Brozman – Vintage Nationals
  • Joe Walsh – Rickenbaker 330 and others
  • Son House – National Style O

Tunings

Standard Tuning
String # 1 6 5 4 3 2 1
Note E A D G B E
Change from Std 0 0 0 0 0 0
Formula 2 5 5 5 4 5 .
Open D
String # 6 5 4 3 2 1
Note D A D F# A D
Change from Std 3 -2 0 0 -1 -2 -2
Formula 7 5 4 3 5 .
Open E
String # 6 5 4 3 2 1
Note E B E G# B E
Change from Std 0 +2 +2 +1 0 0
Formula 7 5 4 3 5 .
Open G
String # 6 5 4 3 2 1
Note D G D G B D
Change from Std -2 -2 0 0 0 -2
Formula 5 7 5 4 3 .
Open A
String # 6 5 4 3 2 1
Note E B E A C# E
Change from Std 0 0 +2 +2 +2 0
Formula 5 7 5 4 3 .

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Footnotes

  1. Standard practice is to number strings from the highest to lowest.
  2. A formula starting with 5 means tune the next higher string until it is in unison with the indicated string when fretted on the fifth fret.
  3. This indicates how many half-steps or frets the string must be tuned down (-) or up (+) from standard tuning.

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