Essential information for beginner slide players

Download the above video here.


Here you'll learn much of the essential information that new players will need before you take on learning to play slide guitar. It will be relevant to players of fretted and fretless cigar box guitars, 3 or 4 string. It covers:

How it Works

The pitch of any note you play is determined by two things: the length of the vibrating portion of the string, and the tension on the string.

Throughout this workshop you will learn how the length and tension of a guitar string impact on slide playing and what you can do about it.

On a fretted guitar it's easy, you put your finger on the fretboard behind the fret and the length of string in front of that fret is free to vibrate and create a sound. The fret is rounded at the top so only a very small part of it touches the string, similarly with a round slide only a very small part of the slide touches the string and the point that it does acts like a fret to limit the vibrating section of the string. The difference now is that the slide can move where the fret is fixed in place.

Less obvious perhaps is how the tension on the string affects pitch. A heavy string produces a slower vibration and therefore a lower pitch, so to get a string at .024" up to G would require more tension that an a string at .022". This has significant implications when choosing what string to use for playing slide. More on that later.

A light touch

When you put the slide onto the string it is crucial that you use as little pressure as is necessary to get a clean note. If you push the string down on the fretboard two things can happen. You may hit the fret and make an unwelcome noise or you can increase the tension on the string, raising the pitch. Both of these things need to be avoided.

A light touch also allows you to play with more expression and speed, it is difficult at first to obtain but there is no escaping it, whether on a fretted or a fretless instrument.


A low action is preferable for fretted guitars, you don't want it so low that the string buzzes on the frets but the lower you can get it the less extra tension you add by fretting and the easier it is to get tonal variety with techniques such as bending and vibrato.

The problem for slide players is that a low action makes it more difficult to avoid fret noise so there's generally a compromise to be made. There is no one correct solution for every player, you just need to understand how it works, listen for things like intonation and fret noise and work hard to achieve as light a touch as possible with your slide.

If you choose lighter strings you may need a higher action because the light string is more likely to be pressed down on the fretboard, the payoff though is that reduced tension in the light string will mean less of an impact on intonation, providing you don't go too high. Again, it's about balance and compromise which is why you need to know this stuff.

Choice of slide

The arguments about the choice of slide are long and varied and I'm not going into them here, except to say that downward pressure is generally easier to control with a lighter slide and so may be an option if you are going for light strings and low action. Many prefer, and I'm one of them, a heavy slide when using heavier strings.

Hand position

You really need to watch the video to get this but the main thing to note is that your slide needs to be parallel to the frets and the best way to achieve this is to have your hand and guitar both in the correct position. Thumb behind the neck, wrist relaxed and curved, fingers resting lightly behind the slide.

Then comes putting all of this into practice. The courses here will take you slowly through the skills you need to play slide successfully on your 3 or 4 string cigar box guitar, fretted or fretless, but there's a difference between knowing how it works and making it work. Essentially you need to build skills slowly, one at a time, each stage building on the success of the previous one. It's not rocket science.

There are 4 Comments

Thanks Kelly, I missed that one. The link is up now, directly below the video.

I have read that phosphor bronze strings will work best iif the CGB is to be played mostly acoustically and nickle if played with magnetic pick ups. Your thoughts?

I have read that phosphor bronze strings will work best iif the CGB is to be played mostly acoustically and nickle if played with magnetic pick ups. Your thoughts?