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How to Play Slide Like Muddy Waters

Published: Fri April 17, 2009  News Feed

Few sounds speak the deep language of blues more eloquently than the whinnying slide guitar of Muddy Waters. So learn how to play Muddy Waters-style!

Muddy Waters

Buddy Guy describes his former mentor on the Chicago blues scene as “one of the slidingest people I’ve ever heard in my life. He got it from the Mississippi players playing the Saturday night fish fries, and he took it home.”

Waters, who was born on April 4, 1913, was a powerful singer and player. His slide style was particularly fierce and riveting, built on a backbone of country blues and fleshed out with the rich distortion made available by the evolving amplifiers and guitars of the day.

Slide was essential to many of his early recordings including his 1948 hit “I Can’t Be Satisfied” for Aristocrat, the label that became Chess Records. “Mean Red Spider,” “Louisiana Blues” and other slide colored classics followed. In 1954, when he cut “Hoochie Coochie Man,” a song that’s part of the book of virtually every blues band, he’d acquired the first of the iconic guitars associated with his career: the 1952 Les Paul Goldtop that generated his trademark big, buzzing tone. Later his primary instrument became a red Fender Telecaster.

Waters’ slide playing remains profoundly influential. Winter, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons and Keith Richards stand among his most prominent disciples. But from 1973 to 1980 guitarist Bob Margolin stood on-stage next to Waters as his primary guitar foil.

“I can’t think of anybody heavier and deeper,” Margolin says. “A lot of his guitar style comes from the fact that he transformed Delta blues from acoustic to electric guitar. He played simpler than a lot of Delta players. He liked a very distorted sound, and he’d dampen it with his hand a little and use the volume control on the guitar. His slide playing in standard turning, or open A or G, was just devastatingly powerful. I’ve seen him on-stage with Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and with a slide and his Telecaster he could kick anybody’s ass.”

Get That Tone!

Muddy slides

To get started on Muddy’s trail you’ll need a solid body guitar with good sustain, an amp with enough hairy distortion to get into the right tonal zone, and, of course, a slide. Waters used a metal slide on the pinky of his left hand, and generally it seemed a tight, small fit, like the pinky slide that, for example, Dunlop offers today. That allows maximum control of the slide, which Waters needed since he made his slides ride the strings hard. A tight slide also permits more control over slide effects like hammering and fretting, although those weren’t a big part of Waters’ playing.

Regardless of tuning, Waters preferred playing single notes with his slide, but to get that real Delta-via-Chicago sound, you’ll need to try open A (E-A-E-A-C#-E) or open G (D-G-D-G-B-D). Try the latter first, since it’s more widely used and will permit you to tap into Keith Richards’ “Brown Sugar” vibe as well.

Another essential aspect of Waters’ slide sound is finger picking, which allowed him to get deep tones as well as searingly bright lines. A great example of a song featuring both is “Sail On,” a/ka “Honey Bee.” Typically Waters started the tune with bold, deep lines and built its solos around screaming notes, so it’s a great entry point.

Try placing your slide on the 10th fret of the high B and D strings in open G and sliding – sharp and fast with some serious pressure on the strings — up to the 12th fret, and when the sound you hear coming from your amp starts zeroing in on Muddy’s, then vibrate the slide over the 12th fret moving your wrist quickly left-and-right. Start with one string at first, and then build some simple melodies by playing off both.

Waters’ slide vibrato was truly extreme — manic, but controlled. That’s why it’s so exciting. And Waters, like his earlier Delta influences Son House and Robert Johnson, and like most Delta players, almost always slid up the neck and moved down only for radical sonic effect. Also, practice hitting notes accurately with your slide. To get deep into the Mud zone your intonation has to be spot on. Slide can be forgiving in the intonation department, because of its voice-like qualities, but Waters played slide like a rattlesnake — moving fast, with deadly accuracy. So the bar’s set high. Now, go for it!

[originally by Ted Drozdowski, for Gibson.com. Read more Muddy Waters tone tips here]

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