You'll find Roy Rogers' new Split Decision near the top of the blues charts, and Rogers himself on the short list of contemporary slide guitar royalty. After a stint in John Lee Hooker's Coast to Coast Blues Band in the '80s, Rogers emerged as a roots music star in his own right and has released nearly 20 albums that explore all aspects of slide playing over their course.
Rogers is known mostly for playing acoustic guitar, but Split Decision dives into the electric realm, too. It's his most textured and rockin' disc since 2002's Slideways. "I wanted to go for an edgier sound, with more distortion on some of the songs," Rogers says. "I really enjoy being able to delve into both electric and acoustic guitar sounds, and when you play in open tunings the possibilities are limitless."
With his 30-plus years as a slider, Rogers has a laid-back perspective on the technique. So we asked him to share some tips on how to come to grips with playing slide guitar in open tunings.
- Know the Angles: "Your slide should be held at a right angle to the neck, perpendicular, because that will help you play in tune over the frets. So don't hold your slide hand at other than a right angle. And you don't have to push down hard on the strings. You don't want the string to hit the fret. You should take the action up a little bit at the bridge, too."
- Vary Your Approach: "You want to practice approaching the slide in a number of different ways. You want to slide down and up to notes, and you want to hammer on the notes. And when you slide up or down to the note, make sure you end up right over the note. And when you wanna hammer on the note, like the eighth or tenth fret, just place the slide right over the fret and start. That's all good practice for pitch. It's all about pitch, really. You can get all the in-between tones, and you can get away with playing a little flat sometimes, but never sharp."
- Start Simple: "Using open E tuning [E-B-E-G#-B-D], where you have the root on the sixth string, start real slow and try to add improvised slide notes. Keep it very simple, adding slide notes during the course of a 12-bar blues, and then speed it up as you become more proficient. Go chord by chord and it's real simple. This helps you build feel. Its great to be able to play fast licks, but it's meaningless unless you know where to put them. And always start slow enough to play in time. If you can't make a change or lose the beat, you've gotta go back and start slower."
- Think Chordally. "Try the Elmore James chordal approach — 12th fret, then the fifth fret for the four, and the seventh fret for the five. There's no need to include the fifth and sixth strings to make the chord. Play those changes and get used to the way the basic chords sound using just those four notes on the high strings. Generally you don't need all six strings because you're pedaling the bass or hitting it in another manner. Six notes can be tonal overkill. Most of the classic blues guys played the bass note, often with the thumb, as a pivot note. They weren't using the low strings for the chords. And remember to keep your slide right over the fret, even though in normal guitar playing your finger falls behind the fret."
- Play Something Sweet. "Try a simple tune. ‘Walkin Blues' is simple enough. It's a riff that incorporates slide and non-slide playing. It's in open E. Playing off the third fret of the fifth string, which is the flat seven, you state the signature riff and add a slide in the riff. It's not all slide. Combining slide and rhythm playing is what it's about. And it's always good to be able to play a tune you know."
- A Bonus Tip: "The most important thing to remember is to always have fun. Don't let it become laborious."