Thursday, May 20, 2021

Slide Guitar: A Guided Musical Tour

Son House - blues legend
For brevity, we'll do a VERY condensed origin & history of slide guitar, and then a short list of a handful of "modern era" (1955 to now) popular songs featuring slide guitar.

If you find you really enjoy the sound of various slide guitars, I strongly suggest a deep dive into styles and eras touched on below!

Its sometime post 1800 and European sailors have been visiting the Hawaiian Islands for a couple of decades. At some point, they bring ashore an instrument very much like the modern guitar (which was first made in 1850, but there were a variety of similar instruments - some called "guitar" and others bearing different names).

For reasons unknown, the islanders dislike the standard tunings of the 5-string and 6-string instruments, and re-tune them to open chords (they called it "slack-key", as they tuned strings down to achieve this, and we now refer to this as "open chord" tuning). At some point, someone laid a piece of metal across the strings to play it....sliding the metal across the strings. One story is that it was a man named Joseph Kekuku and that he picked up an old rusted bolt and on a whim, applied it to the strings of his "Spanish" guitar. Whatever the truth, the "steel guitar" is officially born.

Fast forward not so many years later and, as the story goes, Joseph Kekuku leaves his native Hawaii and, in 1904, begins playing vaudeville shows in the US. Kekuku is the man credited with introducing the slide guitar to the US and, by extension, the world. Another Hawaiian steel player, Sol Hoʻopiʻi, is credited (1919) with being the man who influenced the Mississippi blues players.

The only issue is that W.C. Handy reports first hearing a blues guitarist in 1903 (pre-dating both the above gentlemen) at a train station. Quote: "As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable."

Note Handy credits the Hawaiian players, but the time-line is slightly amiss. The phonograph was invented in the 1870s and phonograph record were sold as early as the 1880s, so I suppose that is a possible source prior to Kekuku migrating to the continental US; or perhaps Handy's date is off by a year or two; or laying a a knife blade or bottle neck or some other hard surface on the no-fretted, one-string Diddley Bow instrument (made with a cigar box and a wire from a screen door, tuned with a screw) seemed obvious to musicians in the Mississippi Delta.....but whatever the case, I will leave this historical oddity for others to work out.

Acoustic Blues
OK, now we're down to brass tacks! 

On the timeline, one has to mention Henry Sloan (born 1870) as one of the first real blues men, as well as the man who taught Charley Patton, a legendary blues figure and slide guitar player (and often called the "Father of Delta Blues"). Patton later traveled & performed with the now equally iconic blues men Tommy Johnson and Son House, the latter of who displayed a far more aggressive slide approach than Patton or Johnson. Other notable slide players were Blind Willie Johnson, Tampa Red, and Kokomo Arnold.

This brings us possibly the man considered by most to be the King of the Delta Blues, Robert Johnson (who was greatly influenced by Son House and learned from Ike Zimmerman). Johnson is often considered to be the most important blues musician (and slide guitar player) ever, who influenced every blues & rock guitarists who followed.

Suggested listening: 

"Dark Was the Night,Cold was the Ground" - Blind Willie Johnson
"Death Letter Blues" - Son House
"Crossroads Blues" - Robert Johnson (this is the song re-worked as "Crossroads" by Eric Clapton)

Electric Blues
Early blues electric slide players included men like Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker (who learned from Nighthawk), and Homesick James (Williamson), as well as better known names like Elmore James and Muddy Waters. These amazing stylists had direct impact on the next generation of players like Ry Cooder, Mike Bloomfield, and, of course, Duane Allman.

Suggested listening:

"I Got to Move" - Homesick James
"It Hurts Me Too" - Elmore James
"I Can't Be Satisfied" - Muddy Waters

Non-Blues Musics
In addition to the Hawaiian style players and blues players, there were players of slide (traditional guitars, resonator guitars, lap steels, and later pedal steel) who played a variety of other styles of music, like bluegrass, country, western swing, southern gospel, honky-tonk, and more. 

Players of interest include Jerry Byrd, Bob Dunn, Bob Wills, Don Helms, Darick Campbell, and more...including Josh Graves, a man we'll see below.

Post-Elvis (a.k.a. - the Modern Era)

Let's just dive right in with brief bios and our suggested listening!

The man credited with introducing the Dobro (resonator guitar) to country music was bluegrass great Josh Graves when he joined Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1955, and had a major impact on the work of Dobro masters Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes.

"Hear the Wind Blow" - Foggy Mountain Boys
"Sleep Walk" - Santo & Johnny
"Wabash Cannonball" - Roy Acuff with Bashful Brother Oswald

Folk players like John Fahey also employed slide guitar to great effect, and rock players drew from the aforementioned electric players to inject rock music with an entirely new edge.

"How Green Was My Valley" - John Fahey
"Statesboro Blues" - Allman Brothers
"I Wanna Be Your Man" - Rolling Stones

Many rock players started experimenting with slide by the 1970s, from Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin to everything touched by Joe Walsh (James Gang, Eagles, & solo), and there were new blues players keeping the tradition alive, like electric blues stylists Bonnie Raitt and George Thorogood.

"Move it on Over" - George Thorogood
"The Joker" - Steve Miller Band
"Slow Ride" - Foghat

Hair metal took over a large chuck of the airwaves and MTV video rotation, and many 80s guitar heroes experimented with slide, from Mick Mars (Motley Crue) to Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi), while bluesmen like Johnny Winter and Roy Rogers continued carrying the torch, and others (like Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour) continued to experiment with lap & pedal steel that they first explored a decade earlier.

The 1986 movie "Crossroads" starred Ralph Macchio (with Steve Vai as the devil's guitarist), and the movie features a soundtrack with amazing slide parts played by Ry Cooder and Arlen Roth.

"Let the Music Do the Talking" Joe Perry/Aersosmith
"Look Over Yonder" Roy Rogers
"Sally Mae" John Lee Hooker

1990s & 2000s
The last few decades has been good to slide guitar. Whether it was featured in music by superstar Ozzy Osbourne (listen to "No More Tears" with Zakk Wylde on guitar) or Jack White's work in the White Stripes and solo or the continued rise of Dobro icon Jerry Douglas (with solo albums as well as his work with Allison Kraus and others), we also saw a relative onslaught of incredible slide talent, like Rob Ickes, Ben Harper, Eric Sardinas, Ian Thornley, Keb' Mo', Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Robert Randolph, and many more, including a string of successful tribute albums from Blues Award winner Rory Block.

There was also a Robert Johnson tribute concert filmed in 1999 and documented for the film "Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson" that featured an stunning assembly of talent, including performances by Gov't Mule, Guy Davis, Rory Block, Chris Whitley, Roy Rogers, Sonny Landreth, Keb' Mo', and more. This is a MUST SEE event.

In recent years, we've seen the emergence of even more talent, like Abbie Gardner (who is a solo artist and also plays with Red Molly) and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe, as well as a new wave of Diddley Bow and Cigar Box Guitar players.

"Preachin' Blues" - Larkin Poe
"Terraplane Blues" - Rory Block
"Break It Slow" - Abbie Gardner

No comments:

Post a Comment