By Fred Sokolow
Using a bottleneck or slide is one of the most soulful, bluesy things a guitarist can do . . . when it’s done right. Slide sounds great when you’re playing the blues, or gospel music, but it also works wonders in country music or rock. It was inevitable, given the current popularity of the ukulele, that folks would start trying their hand at slide uke. The good news is, just about everything that can be done on slide guitar can be transferred to the ukulele.
If you’re game to try it, here’s how to get started:
There are lots of possible approaches to slide uke, but the most pressing is making the decision to retune or not to retune. It’s possible to play slide either way. Old-school slide players usually tune to an open chord, partly because you get a nice droning effect when your instrument is tuned that way, but also because it’s less demanding than playing in standard tuning.
Start in an open tuning, simply because it’s easier. You already have enough to think about, handling a slide for the first time, without making things more difficult on the fretboard. More good news: You only have to retune one string. There’s a useful open-C tuning in which you tune the first string from the standard A down to G.
Do that now, and when you strum across the open (unfretted) strings, you’ll hear a C major chord.
A lot of playing in this tuning involves barring across all four strings with the slide, playing major chords like the top line of chord charts (below).
Some players use the slide exclusively (without fretting with fingers), while others play licks and chords with the slide and with their fingers. You can play the chords you already know in standard my-dog-has-fleas tuning, if you make adjustments for the first string. The bottom line of the chords below are some easy chords to get to know.
The next issue is what to use for a slide. This is strictly a matter of taste—your local music store (or online retailer) should have a variety of slides. I prefer a thick glass slide, big enough to span all four strings, but some prefer a slide made of metal, ceramic, or plastic. Real bottlenecks often have a curvature that doesn’t match a flat fretboard, which can create problems, so watch out for that. A slide doesn’t need to be very tight, since gravity is on your side—your finger holds it on. That opens up another can of worms: which finger?
How to Use the Slide
Opinions abound. Some put the slide on either the ring finger, the index finger, or the middle finger (Bonnie Raitt uses the middle finger). Most prefer to wear the slide on the little finger, because it leaves the rest of your hand free to form chords.
Here are some other pointers about handling the slide:
- Go lightly. If you press down too hard on the strings, you’ll hear the slide drag over the frets.
- With the slide on your little finger, you can dampen the strings with your ring finger, behind the slide, to cut down on unwanted noises.
- Vibrato is an important part of slide playing. It’s that wobble you get by shaking the slide on a sustained note, to imitate the vibrato of a singing voice. It’s all in the left hand. To get vibrato on a string, anchor your left-hand thumb against the back of the neck, and shake your hand from the wrist.
- To get the right pitch with a slide, fret a string directly over the fret wire, not between the fret wires as you would normally.
- Intonation (getting the right pitch) is all-important. Theoretically, it’s easy. All you have to do is listen while aiming for the right note, and if you overshoot or undershoot, adjust the slide up or down with a little vibrato.
Now, Let’s Play Some Tunes!
“Betty and Dupree” is a traditional 12-bar blues. Here’s a simple strumming backup to it, to get you used to using a slide. Using open-C tuning, the F chord is a barre across the fifth fret, and the G is at the seventh fret. In this accompaniment, you slide up to each chord from one or two frets back. There are also a few very simple fills—melodic phrases that fill the gaps in the vocal line.
(Be sure to listen to the sound files before attempting to play the tabbed-out songs.)
“Betty and Dupree”: Backup
“Betty and Dupree”: Solo
Here’s a solo for “Betty and Dupree.” A lot of the melody notes are in the barred chords. The fills are a little more elaborate.
“John Henry”: Solo
Here’s a country-blues version of “John Henry.” It’s almost all one chord: