Red Writes about the Blues
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  Talkin' Blues Guitar
   Article Series by Lightning Red
Originally Published in the
Delta Snake Review Webzine

Lightning Red and his series on the origins of the modern electric blues,
and the techniques and hardware used by the legends to get their unique sounds.
Part Seven: The Slidemasters

Many young players have asked me how I'm able to reproduce or generally simulate the sounds of such blues guitar legends as B.B.King Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

As I've learned by watching and listening to these and countless other great blues guitarists, I may be able to shed some light on a few of the mysteries surrounding the execution of this uniquely American art form.

Since I am most knowledgeable of modern electric guitar, this will be our primary focus. Future topics will cover modern player techniques, axes and equipment, blues tunings, string gauges, fingering techniques, string bending, new amplifier combinations, and whatever topics that may be of interest.

I welcome any input, suggestions, comments, etc. If you note an inaccuracy in anything you read, please let me know. All of us are continually learning.

Contents © 1997  Lightning Red

Before I dive into this installment of the TBGS, I'd like to print a correction to the section on Canned Heat in Part Six: The Boogiemen. A reader from Buenos Aires responds, "Henry Vestine was the lead guitar player for most of the material they covered, particularly during the ¨classic¨ period. The Blind Owl did play slide, and provided strong rhythm work along with his harmonica, flute, and singing, but it was Vestine that provided the great sounding Gibson through an overdriven Marshall stack and memorable lines that characterized Canned Heat's solos." - B.Z.


Now on to the business at hand:

"I do not play no rock and roll, ya'll"
- Mississippi John Hurt.

It is said that when John Hurt was a child, his uncle placed a steak bone on his finger and showed him how to let it "float" over the strings of his guitar. In those days this technique was often referred to as "Hawaiian Guitar". Whether the player used the neck of a bottle, the blade of a knife, or a piece of bone, the effect was intoxicating.

Brownie McGee's father told him early on, "Once you get to slidin' you'll never go back to pickin' ". Brownie accepted his ol' man's advice and enjoyed an illustrious career picking his Martin along with Sonny Terry's eerie yelps and wonderful harp playing, but a wide assortment of blues guitarists discovered fame while sporting a slide on one of their playing fingers.

In this segment I'd like to investigate alternate tunings and touch on a handful of players who fit the criteria of 'Slidemasters'. Since our space is limited, I will apologize now for any worthy slide player who goes unmentioned. Perhaps once the reader critiques come in, another segment will have to be written to include them.

The technique we call "Slide Guitar"is accomplished by placing any sort of hard surface lightly against the strings. Rather than pressing the strings down against the fingerboard of the guitar, the player lets the strings float above the metal frets while placing a glass "bottle neck" or metallic tube lightly against them. Using a chrome microphone stand or beer bottle for this purpose is a real crowd-pleaser. Just about anything will do, but a glass, chrome plated or brass tube is the most common 'slide' in use today.

I've often experienced those nasty heart palpitations when my trusty "trigger finger" slide made from a piece of plumbing pipe turns up missing before a gig. I'd be lost without it, and a good many of the songs in my repertoire would be unplayable. Although I often use a standard chrome plated metal slide on the third finger when playing with a large band or in the studio, the larger-diameter slide with the funky old duct tape inside fits snugly on my trigger finger to allow me greater flexibility to switch back and forth between 'slidin' and chording/picking in a trio or small combo situation.

Most Players accomplish this by placing a smaller-diameter glass or metal tube on their 'pinkie' or smallest finger, but the accident I had as a kid prevents me from enjoying this ease-of-playing situation. Most Delta, Muddy Waters [McKinley Morganfield] Johnny Winter, Roy Rogers and a host of modern players prefer the slide on their 'pinky', while Duane Allman, Leroy Parnell and many others prefer using their third finger.

I've also seen a few cats place the slide on their second finger, but this is rather rare. But whatever method is chosen, the effect is otherworldly. A good slide guitarist can send the listener floating over the treetops. And very shortly we'll take a look at some of the greats who've mastered this wonderful playing technique.

Many players are adept at playing slide in standard tuning - E A D G B E, but most of the great recordings were done using an open G tuning - D G D G B D in which the low E is tuned down a full step (two frets), the A is tuned down a step, and the high E is also tuned down one step. Johnny Winter is unique in that he tunes all the strings down two frets from standard tuning, thereby playing in D while in the most difficult situation - slide in standard tuning.

Although your guitar neck may complain a bit, you can also tune the D string up a step, the G up a step, and the B up two frets (in this case one and one-half steps - but I won't get into any music theory here) which takes us to an open A tuning. The open D tuning, also used, is created by tuning the low E down two frets, the A down two frets, the G down one fret, the B down a step, and the high E down a step. Other tunings surely exist, and I'll leave it to my readers to educate me as to what they might be.

When performing or recording slide licks, my electric guitars always remain in standard tuning, while I keep an open G acoustic on hand. That's what I'm playing on "Rollin' & Tumblin' " on Texas Thunder Blues, while "Austin Boogie" from Red's Blues utilizes the open D. Young players are always amazed at what I can get out of my standard-tuned Strat, and I'd be happy to delve into my personal playing technique as a response to inquiries. But now, in no particular order, let's bow down to the Slidemasters.

Robert Johnson

Volumes have been written about Mr. Robert Johnson. The most famous and influential pre-WWII bluesman of our time used the neck of a bottle to create some of the least complicated, but ultimately powerful and soulful slide guitar licks ever documented. Having studied the music of Lonnie Johnson, Charley Patton, Willie Brown and Son House, Mr. Johnson developed a wealth of slide licks and invented countless 'traditional' walking bass lines. It has been said that Robert Johnson was the Jimi Hendrix of his day in that he revolutionized the way blues was played. Using an extremely economical approach, Robert Johnson recorded licks and slide parts that sound simplistic but are surprisingly difficult to emulate. And now your task begins.

I believe you'll be glad you introduced yourself to the fundamentals of blues slide guitar by playing along with The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson on Columbia Records (2K 46222)

Elmore James

Elmore James, a student of Robert Johnson, is undoubtedly the father of modern urban slide guitar. Using an open tuning, probably an open A, he influenced countless players with his frenzied but well articulated guitar wailings. Elmore's stirring slide work perfectly complemented his high piercing vocals and his guitar genius has made him the most imitated performer of what has become a familiar style of playing.

When he took Robert Johnson's "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and altered it to be "Dust My Broom", Elmore James made a huge mark in the blues. Nearly every blues guitarist can reproduce the slide licks from this tune impeccably. And I urge all you beginning and intermediate players to strive to do the same. You will build a solid foundation for all forms of slide playing. And once you've mastered this tune, move on to "Shake Your Money Maker", "It Hurts Me Too" and "The Sky Is Crying" which was covered by two Texas greats - Freddie King and SRV.

Check out the music of this great Blues Foundation Hall of Famer on: Elmore James: King of the Slide Guitar / Capricorn Records (42006-2) Whose Muddy Shoes / MCA-Chess Records (CHD 9114) Dust My Broom / Tomato Records (R2-70389) Let's Cut It: The Very Best of Elmore James / Flair-Virgin Records (2-91800) The Sky Is Crying: The History of Elmore James / Rhino Records (71190)

Hound Dog Taylor

Bruce Iglauer was sweeping floors in the record store where he worked when he got the inspiration to record Hound Dog Taylor. Alligator Records was born shortly thereafter and with his first album release in 1971, he found a wide audience by performing at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival. In the early days he could only get work by covering Elmore James tunes, but he learned his lessons well before branching out into his own style.

Hound Dog was a huge, six foot six gangly man with six fingers on each hand. The extra finger was worthless for chording or plying licks, but it was the perfect digit on which a slide could be placed. With this arrangement, Hound Dog could work miracles on his Space age-looking Dirango. This 'machine' had four or five chrome covered pickups and a slew of knobs and switches. Sitting behind his amplifier with this wild-looking instrument in his hand, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers lived up to their name.

While not the most precise player, Hound Dog always managed to ring an unbelievableably intense and powerful sound from his axe. While Brewer Phillips traded off playing bass runs or lead licks on his guitar and drummer Ted Harvey held down the rhythm, Hound Dog sent chills up his listener's spines with wild, searing slide machinations. I'm not certain which open tuning he used, but his rough technique does little to dampen the power and virtuosity of this great Slidemaster.

Hound Dog recorded a single, "Christine"/"Alley Music", for Firma Records and another, "Take Five"/"My Baby's Coming Home", for Bea & Baby Records in the early 1960s. But for some truly powerful sounds, check out like "Give Me Back My Wig", "She's Gone" or "Walking The Ceiling". They can be found on these Alligator releases: Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers (AL 4701), Natural Boogie (AL 4704) Beware Of The Dog! [recorded live] (AL 4707), and Genuine Houserockin' Music (AL 4727).

Earl Hooker

Earl Hooker, was one of the greatest, smoothest blues slide guitarists on the planet. It is no exaggeration to say that this student of Chicago bluesman Robert Nighthawk was a creative genius in every sense of the term. While I was recording the Doors' "Riders On The Storm" on my latest CD - Texas Thunder Blues, I was under the mistaken impression that I had invented a new musical style - slide guitar using a wa-wa foot pedal (which controls the output tone, allowing you to shift tonal quality from bass to treble using your foot). After a few months passed, the sounds of Earl Hooker playing a haunting blues using his wa-wa pedal drifted through my ol' brain. I had invented nothing. Like countless bluesmen before me, I had unconsciously recycled the workings of one who'd preceded me.

Mr. Hooker was one of the few front-men (term used for a band leader or performer who is the focus of the show) who seldom sang. Although his preference for instrumentals prevented wide commercial success, Earl Hooker enjoyed a relatively profitable regional career and made trips to Europe. One of a handful of bluesmen who had formal training in music, he played a variety of instruments, including a double-necked guitar that gave him the option of playing in two different tunings. After Duane Allman made the slide guitar widely popular, it was assumed that Earl Hooker would enjoy wide success. His unfortunate death from tuberculosis in 1970 prevented him from taking his immense talent to the world.

Listen to and accompany this musical genius on: Two Bugs and a Roach / Arhoolie Records (D 324) Blue Guitar / P-Vine Records ( PCD 2124) Play Your Guitar Mr. Hooker! / Black Top Records (BT-1093)

Muddy Waters (McKinnley Morganfield)

To get an education in how the Delta blues migrated to and transformed itself into the early Chicago blues, listen to the early recordings of Muddy. In an Austin club recently I was surprised to hear Guy Forsyth do a very close rendition of Muddy's "Can't Be Satisfied". Guy stated that he'd worked years to reproduce this song, and with a National steel hollowbody (electrified) sitting in his lap and a chrome slide on his little finger, Mr. Forsyth accomplished what he'd set out to do so long ago in Kansas City. I have not been so fortunate, although I do a solid version of "24 Hours" with all it's wonderful slide fills.

Muddy Waters primarily used a Telecaster in standard tuning when I used to see him playing the Illinois college circuit, and by the time he rocked the original Antone's on Sixth Street in Austin he was no longer playing guitar. Many years after his auto accident, the pain in his "joints" convinced him to put-up his Tele. Eventually, before his death, Mr. Morganfield did resume playing, but I was not fortunate enough to witness him in the final days.

When I saw him at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Fest in the early 70s, Muddy Water's electrifying single-note slide runs were still flying from his guitar. With the slide on his little finger, the father of Chicago blues effortlessly drove the crowd berserk. To see what I'm talking about, investigate on of these:

The Complete Plantation Recordings / MCA-Chess (CHD-9344) The Best Of Muddy Waters / MCA-Chess (31268) Rare and Unissued / MA-Chess (9180) Fathers and Sons / MCA-hess (2-92522) Trouble No More / MA-Chess (9291) Complete Muddy Waters / Charly Records (3)

Duane Allman

More so than any other contemporary slide guitarist before or after him, Duane Allman popularized blues and blues/rock slide guitar. With his Gibson Les Paul with two Humbucker pickups tuned to an open G, the primary lead guitarist for The Allman Brothers Band scorched his way across America. Often playing in harmony with Dicky Betts, Duane pumped the high-energy screams of his guitar through one or more Marshall amplifiers until even the Heavens must have been moved.

Any modern bluesrock slide player worth his or her own weight would be wise to pay homage to Duane Allman. And the guitarists-in-training out there would be wiser still to spent as much time as is necessary to learn the rudiments of blues slide as taught by 'father' Duane. And, it won't hurt your gigging career one iota to have a number of the more bluesy Allman Brothers' tunes under your belt. They nearly always warm up the crowd and often pull the dancers right up out of their chairs.

Begin your education by spinning these: The Allman Brothers Band / Polydor Records (833 653-2) Idlewild South / Polydor (833 334-2) At Filmore East / Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs (UDCD 2-558) Eat A Peach / Polydor (863 654-2) The Fillmore Concerts / Polydor (324 517-294)

Johnny Winter

Since I've written at length about this great bluesman in Part Four: Modern Electric Blues GuitaristsI'll be fairly brief concerning one of my main musical heroes. Major concerns are being raised regarding his health and I wish him well.

When I first saw Johnny Winter at Chicago's Kinetic Playground in 1969 or 70, he was playing his signature blues tunes on a Stratocaster, but it wasn't long before you never saw him without the Gibson Firebird sporting two single-coil pickups. He was amazing. I had never seen anyone switch that easily between "pickin' " and "slidin' ".

It was only recently that I learned the secret of his endless sustain. The 'boy from Beaumont' was using a thick metal socket wrench on his "pinkie" finger while plucking with a thumb pick and a finger pick with his right hand. This combination produced sparks throughout Johnny's career

On the acoustic numbers from his first two albums Mr. Winter has used either a National tricone or a National singlecone steel-bodied guitar - the "cone" being a round resonator that acts much as the cone of an amplifier speaker and actually amplifies the guitar's metallic biting tone. I love his acoustic work and have only recently learned that Johnny was born and spent a good deal of time in Leland, Mississippi while growing up. It shows! I've heard a number of acoustic blues performers do a great job in the unelectrified realm, but nobody else pumps out the grit and raw soul like the cross-eyed albino from East Texas.

His genius can be heard on: The Progressive Blues Experiment / CEMA Special Markets (57340-2) The Johnny Winter Story / P-Vine Records (PCD 1611) Johnny Winter / Columbia Records (CK 9826) Nothin' But The Blues / Blue Sky Records (ZK 34813) Guitar Slinger / Alligator Records (AL 4735) Serious Business / Alligator (AL 4742) Third Degree / Alligator ( AL 4748) Scorchin' Blues / Columbia Records (CK/CT 52466)

Sonny Landreth

When I heard Sonny's National steel slide playing on the most recent Junior Wells album (Come On In This House, as well as Everybody's Gettin' Some), I had to take my hat off to this newcomer to the blues. His tones were slick but emotive, subtle but powerful. His Louisiana-influenced licks demonstrate his virtuosity and he credits Robert Johnson as his main influence. He's discovered a technique of playing fretted notes behind and with the slide, using his fingers at the same time as the "bottleneck" (slide). Sonny is a player to watch.

Check him out on: Blues Attack (released in 1981) Back To Louisiana Outward Bound (released in 1992) South of I-10 (released in 1995) Slow Turning (John Hiatt) Sense of Place (John Mayall - 1990)

Ry Cooder

Mr. Ry Cooder, while not a bluesman in the traditional sense, certainly has at least one foot firmly planted in our favorite musical style. Perhaps it's the glass slide on his little finger and the use of his bare fingers (sans any sort of pick or plectrum) that takes the listener back to the glory days of pre-WWII down-home blues performed on a National steel or wooden-bodied acoustic instrument.

But whatever his secret is, I can easily get pulled into his musical world, fighting the dual urges to both listen intently to his technical prowess and to let my right brain take over and float over the Delta or Louisiana on a smooth-flowing raft of rythmes and musical undulations. These days his primary instrument id a Gibson Roy Smeck model from the 1930s. Since it was designed for "lap-style" playing, in which the instrument is actually held in the players lap, while the slide is a solid tube of metal held in the palm of one's left hand, taller frets have been added to allow fingering and addition to Mr. Cooder's economical, straight-to-the-heart playing style. Ry also performs on his 50s Martin 000-18 which was probably used for the theme to the movie, Paris Texas.

For a closer inspection check out any of his many fine releases.

Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt's deceivingly simple slide guitar phrasings are true genius. This lady says more with her Stratocaster than most of us every will. With a glass slide on her number two finger, Ms. Raitt invokes the smoothest, yet subtly intense, sounds that I've ever witnessed. Learning at the feet of Son House as well as a handful of other acoustic blues legends, Bonnie has taken the roots of blues slide guitar into the modern world.

When I first saw her playing her acoustic behind Sippie Wallace, it was only the youth in her voice that distiguished the fine blues lady from her mentors. Remember, what sounds simplistic or easy to emulate on recordings will undoubtedly be very difficult to reproduce. It seems to be the rule in music that those licks or phrases that seem so uncomplicated ultimately turn out to be the most difficult for another guitarist to play.

Be sure to practice along with this fine performer on: Bonnie Raitt / Warner Brothers Records (1953) Give It Up / Warner Brothers Records (2643) Takin' My Time / Warner Brothers (2729)

Roy Rogers

My Danish friends would be sorely disappointed if I left out one of the most technically proficient slide players of the modern era. Roy tours regularly in Denmark where he is extremely popular. Known primarily for his marvelous production skills on John Lee Hooker's latest releases (The Healer and Mr. Lucky), Mr. Rogers is also a fine musician and provided a solid backing behind "The Hook" for a good many years.

I don't profess to know a thing about his tunings or how he gets such great sounds from his electrified Martin (with a pickup mounted in the round opening), but I know from personal experience that he knows his stuff. If you haven't heard this cornerstone of the West Coast blues scene, pick up:

Slidewinder / Blind Pig Records (BP 72687) Blues On The Range / Blind Pig (BP 73589) R&B (with Norton Buffalo) / Blind Pig (BP 74491) Chops Not Chaps / Blind Pig (BP 74892) Travelin' Tracks / Blind Pig (BP 5003)
thanks ya'll,

Lightning Red has been playing blues guitar for over 40 years. Although he credits Luther Allison with showing him some "serious licks", he also cites B.B.King and Buddy Guy as major influences. After moving from the Chicago area to Austin, Texas in the mid-seventies, Red began absorbing the state's rich blues heritage and was a favorite of Houston legends Joe ‘Guitar’ Hughes and Milton Hopkins. When Jimmie Lee, Kim Wilson and Stevie Ray Vaughan were unknown club performers honing their craft, Red was there listening closely and witnessed their rocky rise to stardom.

He also performed locally and played on stage with W.C. Clark, Omar, and "little" Charlie Sexton, Marcia Ball, Willie Nelson and a host of legends. His music has an original sound and is a blend of Chicago and Texas – Texicago blues. Red tours the world with the acclaimed acoustic duo LZ Love & Lightning Red, and with his own electric band. Often seen performing at blues festivals, he gets accolades and widespread airplay for his songs and legendary guitar skills.

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