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I cannot play sliding on the fretboard well. What should I do?

Sliding is a fantastic articulation that all guitar players should have in their arsenal. Other names you might come across for this technique, or at least to describe it, would be glissando ‘or ‘gliss’ for short) and also portamento. The idea is much the same, and describes a smooth transition from one note to another without any extra pick attack. Please note, playing ‘slide guitar’ is a different playing style altogether, and typically requires your guitar to be tuned differently or set-up up to accommodate the difference in playing style. 

One of the most famous slides of all time would be the big slide Eddie Van Halen plays at the start of the hugely popular ‘Eruption’. You will find slides everywhere!

Guitar playing is entirely subjective and individual to each musician, so as for why one should ‘slide’ on the guitar, there’s no real reason to do so. However, much like bass frequencies in a mix, you will notice a significant difference when it’s not there. Personally, I see this as something else to push your phrases, and playing in general up another level - everyone should learn how to do this! Let’s explore some ideas.

Common Issues When Sliding

As discussed in my blog post about pain in the fingertips when playing (see this link for the post itself), one of the common issues I have found on student’s guitars in the past is strings that are old and have started to deteriorate. If the strings are rough, you will struggle to slide comfortably and with any semblance of ease. It could be that the friction prevents you from reaching the target note, or that the discomfort becomes too great and you simply stop. 

The other main issue is where you may find yourself sliding well, but either falling short of the target note or, alternatively, sliding a little too far - this is never more than than a fret or two, but is noticeable nonetheless. It really sticks out when someone slides, stops at a certain point and then moves up the final fret in order to get to where they were supposed to be. It’s like getting off the bus one stop before you get home and then getting back on the next one that comes along!

One additional issue, which is something I have only experienced on the rare occasion with students and never personally, is sliding without knowing where you are actually supposed to stop. Sliding up or down and fading out is a specific technique that you may come across, but in this scenario we might hear someone ‘fishing’ for a note; you could hear some aimless wandering trying to find a good note to land on.

What should I do?

Let’s tackle the first common issue - old strings. There’s no special trick here, change your strings and get some help if you need it. Try to only buy good quality strings from a store or respectable online retailer (yes - counterfeit strings do exist!). Guitarists are notoriously picky when it comes to what strings they like to use, but any of the big brands will do just fine until you start to figure out what you like and don’t like. The smoothness of new strings makes it easier to play the guitar anyway, but sliding is more comfortable and the tone is also improved. 

Many beginners, or those just trying out sliding on the guitar for the first time, are relying on blind luck for the accuracy of their slides. This doesn’t really bode well, and persistent failure can dishearten any budding musician. Fortunately, I have noticed a consistent issue for all of my past students that have faced this. It is natural for you to follow your finger as it slides, so you’re watching it move rather than where it is going and that always seems to be the case. You don’t really need to do that, as anyone can slide their fingers up without looking. The trick is to look at where you are going, focus on that one point and it is more than likely going to be the final resting place for that phrase - it really is that simple.

I would recommend trying to slide from the 5th fret of the B string, to the 12th fret on the same string, making sure to always focus on that 12th fret. Can you do this ten times in a row without making a mistake? If so, brilliant! If not, you have a goal to work towards. Now try it in reverse, something even I find a little more difficult. Also, pay attention to your speed here, too fast could pose a problem and moving too slowly defeats the purpose of the exercise in the first place. You could also try this with some other fingers, on other strings and varying lengths of slide. 

It goes without saying that you should know where you are sliding to. Try to establish the target note by ear if you have no tablature or sheet music in front of you. This step is really easy to understand - I hope! There is a simple exercise you can do to improve your sliding over a shorter distance. Most learners are familiar with at least one or two different scales, and it is recommended for intermediate students to learn these scales horizontally over one string too! You could practice sliding between each note of a scale over one string, this is a very easy thing to try if you know where those notes are. This could be expanded further, if you’re feeling brave enough? Instead of moving up the scale stepwise, which is to move to the very next note in the scale, you could skip over the note and therefore increase the intervals you are sliding - this is a cool melodic idea that helps break up the shapes of scales too. 

The C Major scale uses the following notes:

C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C 


1 - 3 - 5 - 6 - 8 - 10 - 12 - 13 

(frets on the B string)

You could use the idea we just discussed, and slide through the notes in the order below instead. It helps extend the pattern too!

C - E - D - F - E - G - F - A - G - B - A - C


1 - 5 - 3 - 6 - 5 - 8 - 6 - 10 - 8 - 12 - 10 - 13

(frets on the B string)

When you do this, try and only hit the string once throughout the whole exercise; keep the slide going through the entire example. Moving forward, you could try picking each new note when you are sliding in an ascending fashion, or maybe even every new note - it’s worth practicing all the permutations you can.

As alluded to earlier or, there is a variation of the sliding technique whereby you slide and almost ‘fade out’ the note. The solution here is to release the pressure that your finger is putting on the string gradually as you move along. It could be that you use this to lead into a big chord (see ‘Eruption’), or possibly combine with another slide for an interesting effect.

As with anything relating to the guitar and learning to play, don’t rush things. Take it easy and see where you can get to, whilst enjoying the process of pushing those boundaries and improving your skills as you go. Using articulations such as slides can be compared to using certain spices whilst cooking your favorite meal - a little bit goes a long way and can really improve something, but if it’s dont incorrect or you use too much, there can be a negative effect. 

In an effort to passively practice this, and make you more comfortable with knowing how and when to use sliding, try to identify how and when the following guitar players employ this technique.

BB King - The Thrill is Gone (Live at Montreux, 1993)

Yngwie Malmsteen - Arpeggios from Hell (this one has Japanese subtitles!)

John Mayer - Slow Dancing in a Burning Room (Live in LA)

George Benson - Give Me the Night



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