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Musical Space

Musical Space: Slide Guitar Is An American Tradition


The idea of sliding something against the strings of a guitar is as American as pecan pie.

the lonesome cry of the slide guitar is a distinctive part of our musical heritage.

It started in Hawaii, of all places; local players took to holding their guitars in their laps, putting a knife-blade to the strings instead of using their fingers. Blues musicians picked up on the raw, twangy wail, typically using a glass medicine bottle or the broken-off neck of a wine bottle against the strings. Bottleneck slide can be heard in classic depression-era recordings, from the Mississippi delta blues of Robert Johnson all the way to the Georgia Piedmont blues of Blind Willie McTell. The rasp of slide technique got even twangier with the invention of the resonator guitar, or Dobro, using a metal cone, sort of like a tin pie plate, to help project the sound.

Country musicians picked up on the slide and refined it into the pedal steel guitar. Players in Appalachia brought the Dobro to Bluegrass. Delta bluesmen like Elmore James electrified the sound in Chicago. And rockers like Duane Allman of the Allman brothers and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top took that sound to big stadiums.

Slide technique is still very much alive today. Derek Trucks is pushing the blues/rock slide tradition forward, and Jack White continues to bring the American slide guitar to the alt rock crowd. Wichita’s own Moreland and Arbuckle carry on the tradition here and all over the world.

The raw emotion of slide guitar crosses genres and generations, and I can’t think of anything that sounds more American.