Often the best things in life are simple, and that applies to playing North Mississippi open tuned slide guitar. Energizing that style, or any other, with soul is something you can’t get from lessons ― except maybe life’s ― but I can set you on the musical path with just a couple tips. And maybe even show you how to pull the sound in some unconventional directions that’ll encourage you to apply your own special sauce to the hill country diet.
I play North Mississippi hill country rooted music with my group Scissormen, flying the flag for hypno-drone blues in the U.S and abroad. And the three songs that’ll illustrate the points in this piece are from Scissormen’s brand new CD Luck in a Hurry. Now here are the basics.
1) Tunings: Forget D-A-D-G-A-D and all that other “fancy” stuff. That’s for guys like Sonny Landreth. In hill country, tunings come plain vanilla. Open D and open G are the most common. Queen of North Mississippi blues Jessie Mae Hemphill favored open D major (D-A-D-F#-A-D) for much of her music. When sliding, R.L. Burnside preferred open G major (D-G-D-G-B-D), which ― like many bluesmen before him ― he called “Spanish” tuning.
Hit the open strings of a guitar in open D and the attraction’s obvious ― an ominous low-end growl that sustains even on an acoustic guitar. And, as Ben Harper fans know, the simplicity of the tuning allows all sorts of slide acrobatics, from shimmering full chord sustains to graceful leaping triads. For an old-school dose, check out Scissormen’s “Mattie Sweet Mattie,” which owes a thematic debt to another great North Mississippi slider, Fred McDowell.
Open G isn’t much trickier, but the Keith Richards axiom applies. As he so elegantly put it, the basics are “five strings, three chords, two fingers and one asshole.” Hopefully you’ll get more than two digits involved, because triads and other more complex chords are a simple but beautiful way to decorate movement within the ol’ I-IV-V. But you will want to avoid that low G string until you have some command of the tuning lest you drop some unintentional atonal bombs.
2) Muting: Don’t do it. Sure, that’s not what your teacher or any of the manuals will tell you, but those manuals weren’t written in juke joints reeking of sweat and moonshine. Most old-style bands in North Mississippi and the upper Delta were just one or two guitars and drums, like Burnside’s outfit and the Jelly Roll Kings. And that means you’ve got to make plenty of noise to fill up space and get cosmic ― get those lows sustaining, those highs creating clouds of overtones. That’s where the hypno-drone magic occurs, along with parking on the I chord as long as you dang please.
3) Finger picking: This is essential. There are great plectrum slide players out there, but the meaty tones and versatile attack that is part of North Mississippi blues’ expressiveness requires the fingers. If you’re a pick picker, don’t worry. Finger style will come if you work at it.
4) Sliding: Some will tell you to only slide up the neck, but in North Mississippi anything goes. This style’s not about precision or formality. Like all great blues, it’s about telling a story with words and sound. It doesn’t matter what kind of slide you play either ― glass, metal, ceramic. Experiment with them all and find what sounds best to you through your amp and guitar. I would recommend a slide that’s tight on your finger, however. That means you’ll need only one finger to wield it in a steady and accurate fashion. And I’d suggest wearing a slide on your pinky or ring finger, so it can be used for fretting, too, and effects like hammering while you play chords or single notes.
Listen to this version of “Death Letter” from Luck in a Hurry and you’ll hear a lot of what I’ve mentioned: low growling sustained open D chords, sliding up and down the neck, slide hammering on the G (IV) chord, rumbling clouds of overtones and distortion ― all aimed at capturing the drama of Son House’s amazing lyrics.
5) Bring your own game: What made Burnside, Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, and earlier blues artists from the Mississippi hills great was originality ― the way they infused the music they inherited from others with their own personality. That’s the same reason why Waits and Dylan are tops. Real artists always bring themselves to the game. So why shouldn’t you? Check out “The Devil is Laughing.” It’s based on an open G riff I copped from R.L., but inspired by a story I heard in the hills of Pennsylvania when I was growing up. And since my own earlier musical roots are in rock and improvisation, there’s a big Les Paul/Mesa-Boogie/Marshall cab tone and chromatic wildness in the slide breaks inspired by another influence, the free-jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock.
And now it’s in your hands ― or, maybe, on one of your fingers.