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Lesson Series

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Michael Casswell - Pro Concepts Season 1 - Part 6: 'Bottleneck in Regular Tuning'

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 6 **

Hi everyone. In this guitar lesson I wanted to get you thinking about slide playing. As long as you get a few fundamental key areas correct, you can have yet another cool sound and colour that will give weight and kudos to your reputation as a professional guitar player to be taken seriously.

Like a lot of other areas on the guitar, slide playing seems to be one of those techniques that comes easy to some and takes a while with others. Strictly speaking, there is no right or wrong way to use a slide. The only way you know it's right is when, and if, it sounds cool. If it sounds messy, pitchy or simply rubbish, then you know you are doing it wrong.

When I was a kid, there was no internet to visually check other players using a bottleneck, or to get tips and lessons on how to use one. Even the word "bottleneck" seemed shrouded in mystery. All I knew was that a few of my favourite players occasionally made this fantastic sliding sound that I loved. Joe Walsh, Rory Gallagher and Jeff Beck spring to mind, but there was also Eric on a Dobro, as well as Ry Cooder and probably the best slide player there has ever been, Sonny Landreth, who is just untouchable and simply in a different league when it comes to specialist slide playing.

The thing I always found a pain was the idea of having a spare guitar that should be set up for slide, and maybe tuned to a chord. For most of my formative years, I had one guitar which was my old Strat (even back then it was old), which had a low action and a floating trem for the odd Hank like waggle. But ideally for slide, you should have a fixed bridge, and strings half a mile away from the fretboard. I didn't have the luxury or the inclination to be so thorough as to have a spare guitar dedicated to the perfect bottleneck style, so I went about making sure I could just pick up a slide and knock out the odd solo in a fairly musical fashion on my one guitar. Everything clicked when I saw Jeff Beck live, who played his Strat for most of the show, and would just have bottlenecks placed around the stage, which he would occasionally pick up mid song, use, then literally drop on the floor for a roadie to rush on and place back on the drum riser.. That's the sort of slide style I was into, Years later, I was lucky enough to play in Brian May's band on his first solo tour shortly after the death of Freddie, and he would keep his slide in the buckle of his leather guitar strap, which would come out for the odd solo, then when finished, be put back safe in its notch. My point being, with the right technique, and the correct choice of Bottleneck, it literally can be another aspect and colour you can add to your playing, with your regular guitar, using regular tuning and set up.

So what do you have to get right? Well your choice of slide for a start. If you are using a really nice medium to low action on your guitar, then things are all made very much easier if you choose a light glass slide, rather than a thick heavy brass or steel monstrosity. Anyone who talks about better tone with the "piece of steel pipe they sawed off their granny's plumbing", is probably all talk, and cruel to old people. A glass slide gives a great tone, and most of the tone comes from the player rather than material used anyway. A small light glass slide will enable you to get that delicate touch you need more quickly, when using a low action. Next would be pitching and vibrato of the note. This has to be right or it's game over. Make sure you can slide from low down the neck, right up to somewhere around the 12th fret, stop on the note directly above the fret, and make the note sing with a sweet lyrical vibrato. It sounds easy, but to do it in such a way that sounds stylistically correct ,and speaks musically, is much harder than you think. As with regular vibrato, if your  bottleneck vibrato sucks, then again, game over. Think of it as a voice. If a singer has an irritating vocal vib, then they are never going to sound as good as the vocalist that has a beautiful musical vibrato that draws the listener in. It is exactly the same for us gee-tarr players, so I strongly suggest you bear that in mind both in your slide playing, and your regular playing!

I have been in many a recording session where whoever is paying me wants a guitar feature in the song, doesn't know how or what, but knows it is not a big technical solo. Quite often, the trump card can be me saying "lets try this" and then breaking out the trusty little glass bottleneck, playing a few ideas, at which point everybody jumps out of their seat, gets really buzzed, and thinks you are some kind of guitar magician, and all you really are is someone that can make some cool sounds with a slide. Trust me, it works. The snag is you have to have some ideas, and technique to make them think you are a magician, but that goes with all areas of guitar and generally any instrument. And if you are actually a magician, who plays guitar, well how cool would that be!!

This is a big subject, and we could have filmed another hour, but I hope there is enough here to get you started, or to think about your current fundamental slide playing. I talk about being able to see and outline simple chord tones, as well as being able to play lines in the scale. Plus we have some fun with harmonics towards the end. It's the similar theme on all my Pro Concept column, where I try to show you how to think creatively, and how I might develop simple ideas into some musically strong guitar playing.

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