by Dave Keneston
When the editor of Old School Record Review asked me to write this article I was somewhat reticent because I feel my strengths are more geared towards interacting with someone one on one or in a small group. However, my love and near ridiculous obsession with the sweet singing sound of slide guitar quickly squashed any notion I had of backing out. I just had to let y’all know about some of the most hair raising, spine chilling, divine and demonic songs featuring slide guitar.
You see, slide guitar has the ability to express emotion in such a unique way. You have the most delicate, melodic slide work of George Harrison juxtaposed to the roaring roadhouse blues of Johnny Winter. We can also compare the early, simplistic acoustic slide work of Robert Johnson to the thrillingly complex heights of electric slide being explored currently by guys like Derek Trucks and Sonny Landreth.
I can’t help it, slide guitar just fucking hits me in my gut; it can awaken the primal beast in me or make me cry. No other technique comes close to evoking the same range of emotions for me. Maybe it’s different for you, but god damn I love it.
Alright, it’s time I stopped waxing poetic about how much I love slide and just give you the goods. Here’s part one of the countdown.
10. “Shake Your Moneymaker”- Elmore James
Recorded in 1961, this tune embodies Elmore’s classic style made famous by his playing on “Dust my Broom.” James puts together a real boogie blues stomper, yet James does not go over the top with his slide work. He plays for the song and answers his vocals with tasty retorts throughout. When he takes his solo, he develops a theme and outlines the chord changes very simply but all while maintaining the bounce and rhythm to keep you tapping your feet. James’s work included “Done Somebody Wrong” and “One Way Out” which both became well known Allman Brother covers where Duane Allman continued the evolution of slide to previously unseen peeks.
9. “Congo Square”- Sonny Landreth
From his 1985 album Down in Louisiana, this songs features an open D minor tuning which I believe help give it that spooky, swampy sound. Based on an area in the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, this song just oozes dark, supernatural deliciousness. The tones and vibrato technique from Landreth on this track are exquisite and worthy of a study in themselves on how to approach slide guitar. I just want to drink some voodoo potion and dance around a bonfire when I hear this song. Please check out some of the live versions on YouTube; they really highlight what Sonny can do when given the freedom of performing outside the constraints of the studio.
8. “I Don’t Know What You Come to Do” –Robert Randolph and the Family Band
Robert Randolph is a Pedal Steel Guitar player, as opposed to the rest of the slide men on this list who primarily play bottleneck style. So, instead of using a glass or metal tube he uses what’s known as a tone bar to slide across the strings. Most people associate pedal steel with country or bluegrass music, but there is also something known as “Sacred Steel” within many African-American Pentecostal churches. This is where Robert got his start and then incorporated blues and funk into his playing, creating a sound all to his own. This song has some of the dirtiest, funkiest slide licks I’ve ever heard and the bassline just happens to be outrageously sick to boot. The band plays this song as a closer many times to bring the house down with a stompfest crescendo. If you don’t want to shake your moneymaker to this number, you are whiter than Jim Gaffigan. This song is pure fun, and Robert’s leads are perfect examples of what a creative mind plus passion can produce. The live versions online are tremendous. In fact, the version in the YouTube link below has several of the band members taking turns on different instruments within the song. This band is crazy! Watch them and get the fuck up and dance in your living room! Hell, get up and dance in your shitty cubicle while you’re at it.
7. “You Got to Move” – Mississippi Fred McDowell
Recorded in 1965, this song is actually an old spiritual with it roots firmly planted in slavery. The meaning can be interpreted in several ways with the freedom of death and fleeing slavery being two of the most popular meanings attributed to the song. Although the Rolling Stones version recorded six years later is more famous, McDowell’s is the most authentic and evokative. What kills me about this song is the haunting slide line being doubled by the vocals. This tradition in slide playing, along with call and response phrasing are hallmarks of the style that really make these songs feel like coming home. The blues scale is so familiar sounding and comforting. The most simple licks and riffs somehow resonate deeper than any blistering Hungarian Minor run Yngwie Malmsteen and his ilk ever could hope to conceive. Songs like this are part of a collective American Heritage that can put “that old feelin’” in your heart and cross racial and cultural boundaries.
6. “Catch Hell Blues”-The White Stripes
Jack White’s slide playing alternates from crisp, well articulated arpeggiated riffs to screaming, snarling savagery and back. This use of dynamics is brilliant and gets me pumped every time I listen to this song. The riffs are so driving and raging at times I can’t help but think Jack’s mindset was “Yeah, that’s right… I’m playing this guitar like a mean motherfucker, what are you going to do about it? Oh, nothing? That’s what I thought, so just shut the fuck up and listen to me rock my balls off!” Did mention the riffs are badass? It’s just one of the many reasons this track off 2007’s Icky Thump is my favorite Whites Stripes song.
Well, that’s part one of the countdown of my favorite songs featuring slide guitar. I hope you dig these tunes as much as I do. I can’t wait to show you my top five. It was brutal trying to pare down my favorites and unfortunately, some cool tunes did not make the cut.
Here are a few honorable mentions that kick ass:
Earl Hooker-“Blue Guitar”
Robert Johnson- “Come on in my Kitchen”
Derek Trucks Band- “Preachin’ Blues”
Seasick Steve- “Dog House Boogie”
North Mississippi Allstars- “Mean Old Wind Died Down”
Lynyrd Skynyrd- “The Ballad of Curtis Loew”
Check back next week (Friday 2/7) for the rest of the countdown. In the mean time, here’s a Spotify playlist to hold you over.