Is there anything more satisfying than hearing a talented slide guitarist letting rip up and down the fretboard?
For an instrument that’s so heavily dependent upon shredding scales and fancy chords today, it’s amazing that slide guitar still manages to blow the minds of listeners almost a century after being popularised by the American bluesmen of the early 20th century.
Today, we’re raising the action of our guitars and tipping our hats to Southern guitar culture to check out the 15 greatest slide guitarists of all time, diving into some of their most seminal solos as well as the gear and technique that’s helped them along the way.
- Slide guitar was pioneered by acoustic blues players like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson in the early 1900s.
- The style began firmly intertwined with Southern rock, blues and country with the arrival of the electric guitar and the sheer talent of players like Duane Allman, Muddy Waters and Ry Cooder.
- Slide icons today include Bonnie Raitt, Blake Mills and Derek Trucks.
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The undisputed GOAT. In his all-too-short career as a guitarist, Duane Allman took slide guitar and flipped it straight on its own head with his session work in the late ‘60s and the subsequent release of the first Allman Brothers Band record in 1969, with his uncanny style blowing the minds of his fans and contemporaries alike.
One such fan was none other than Eric Clapton, who invited Duane to perform lead guitar on his 1970 LP Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, with his slide work on the album’s title track being considered by many to be the greatest of all time.
Robert Johnson wasn’t the first bluesman to pick up a slide by any stretch, but his supernatural talent with guitar in hand is certainly enough to convince you that he was.
The Delta Blues legend can be heard donning the steel finger in many of his coveted recordings, but his devilish slide work on ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ is just something else entirely, with Johnson utilising a boxy Gibson guitar tuned to some godforsaken open tuning to unleash his maddening chops.
As the guitarist for The Doors, Robby Krieger’s talent tends to get overshadowed by the iconic status of Jim Morrison and the band’s prolific keys player Ray Manzerek, but make no mistake: Krieger certainly knows his way around the fretboard.
Supposedly, Morrison was so smitten with Krieger’s slide playing that he wanted the guitarist to play slide in every single Doors song, and when you hear the way he glides between the notes on ‘Been Down So Long’, it’s easy to tell why.
Without a doubt the most mind-blowing slide player of the modern era, Derek Trucks shot into the spotlight as a child prodigy, touring alongside the likes of Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers Band before he was even able to legally drink.
With SG in hand, Trucks has totally redefined slide guitar for the 21st century: whether he’s performing with his wife Susan as the The Tedeschi Trucks Band or busting out a mean lead to the delight of BB King and John Mayer, Trucks’ slide work is just simply sublime.
Another uncanny slide player to rose to prominence alongside the Allman Brothers Band before achieving further attention as the shredder for jam band sensations Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes’ gritty yet soulful playing embodies everything that makes Southern Rock the phenomenon it is.
A prolific session guitarist and proponent of nutty open tunings of all kinds, you’d be hard pressed to find a player who plays slide quite as clean as Haynes does.
Often appearing for eye-popping slide moments on iconic records from the likes of Captain Beefheart, Rolling Stones and Neil Young, Ry Cooder is one of the most respected slide guitarists of his era.
Known for his virtuosic fusion of single notes and chordal slides and his penchant for playing quirky, homemade ’Coodercaster’ guitars, Cooder is also a killer vocalist, and the way he hits his notes while singing has seen him become the envy of many a bluesman.
Over the entirety of her five decade career, Bonnie Raitt has consistently churned out some of the smokiest slide licks heard to mankind.
While she might be better known nowadays for her gut wrenching ballad ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’, Raitt’s prowess on the fretboard is something that rarely fails to impress onlookers, making use of an array of open tunings and vintage instruments to achieve her distinctively full-bodied blues tones. Underrated as all hell.
Elmore James was the first Chicago bluesman to be dubbed ‘The King Of Slide Guitar’, and it only takes one listen of ‘Dust My Broom’ to hear why.
Initially learning how to play slide guitar on a one-stringed diddley bow as a teenager, James would achieve acclaim among in the 1950s as one of the first electric blues guitarists, installing two hot-wired DeArmond pickups in his acoustic and driving it into a driven valve amplifier to create a nasty tone that inspired everyone from Muddy Waters to Keith Richards to follow suit.
Blind Willie Johnson
Born in 1897 and only recording a scant 30 songs before passing away in 1945, Blind Willie Johnson is one of the most mysterious and talented blues pioneers of the 20th century.
Although his work was sorely slept on at the time, Blind Willie Johnson’s mind-blowing chops would receive mass attention when released on Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music in 1952, with his slide playing on ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’ inspiring budding bluesmen the world over and even being sent into space as part of the 1977 Voyager probe space mission.
I wonder if there’s any aliens out there bumping Blind Willie Johnson from their flying saucers…
With his flowing white locks, distinctive tattoos and Gibson Firebird in hand, Johnny Winter made quite an impression when he burst onto the blues scene at the tail end of the ‘60s, and retained that status until his passing in 2014.
Many of his best known tracks, such as ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Dallas’, showcase Winter’s inane ability on the slide, and the respect bestowed upon his name by the likes of Muddy Waters, Billy Gibbons and Dr. John really just speaks for itself.
Speaking of Muddy Waters, how could anyone forget this Chicago trailblazer? Although he started out on acoustic, it was with Muddy’s transition onto the electric that captivated the music world, with the hulking bluesman using a slide alongside open G tuning on many of his greatest tracks, including ‘Mannish Boy’ and ‘Honey Bee’.
Waters was also noted for his immense vibrato, and was famous for rolling up the volume knob prior to his solos to create eardrum shattering levels of distortion to cut through the mix and write himself into history.
Upon replacing Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones – a noted slide impresario in his own right – at the age of 20, Mick Taylor’s slide technique saw him become known as the most gifted instrumentalist to have ever played with the Stones, and proved vital in the recording of classics like Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers.
While his rivalry with Richards would later see him quit the band on a full-time basis in 1974, Taylor’s talent as a solo artist has seen him surpass the shadow of his prior group and become a legend in his own right.
He’s certainly not a household name, but I can guarantee you’ve definitely had the pleasure of hearing Bloomfield play before – his mitts are all over Bob Dylan’s Highway 51 Revisited and Janis Joplin’s swan song I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, and was even onstage with Dylan during his infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival set.
Listen to him tear up the slide on his Janis collaboration ‘One Good Man’ – I guarantee you’ll never hear another tone quite as cool as this.
A cult sensation in Southern circles, few guitarists coaxed such a tone out of their instrument like Lowell George did. After enjoying a stint playing with Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention, George would form Little Feat in 1969, forging a raucous sound based around blues, country, funk and rock and bolstered by his sensational slide work.
Despite living a fast-paced life and dying at the age of 34, George’s legacy is upheld by hundreds of loyal fans who continue to sing his praises today, giving him the props he well and truly deserves.
Dubbed by many of his contemporaries as one of the most unique guitar virtuosos of the modern era, Blake Mills’ talent on the fretboard is barely comprehendible. Although his recent solo recordings are far more experimental and understated, it was Mills’ earlier works that really put him on the map as a slide player, namely through his ludicrously impressive work on ‘If I’m Unworthy’: a sheer masterstroke of modern blues fretwork.
Famous for his ‘Coodercaster’ style guitars and tendency for playing through old valve film projectors, there’s no denying that Blake is one of the most exciting guitar players of the digital age, and we can’t wait to see where his career takes him.
Looking to learn some slide guitar for yourself? Here’s five lessons to get you started.