Bottleneck Slide Guitar and the History of the Blues

The moody, haunting sound of slide or bottleneck guitar has become ever more popular in film soundtracks, television advertising and TV programmes. Think of the film Paris Texas and you will recall the eerie, plaintive sound of Ry Cooder’s famous accompanying soundtrack.

The origins of the slide style of playing guitar can be traced to a one-stringed instrument that originates from West Africa. This ultra-basic musical instrument developed, in America, into what is called a diddley-bow. This is a single-stringed instrument, usually home made, consisting of a wire stretched between two screws or pegs along a length of wood. The string is plucked while the pitch is established using a piece of bone, metal or glass. Some diddley-bows were made by attaching the single-string to the wall of a shack or house. Lonnie Pitchford, a Mississippi bluesman, was well known for demonstrating his diddley-bow which used two nails hammered into a beam that formed part of his front porch. The headstone of his grave is designed with a playable diddley-bow on its side.

It was in the Mississippi Delta region that the African influences on American music really took hold. Many emancipated slaves moved to the area after the American civil war bringing with them their love for rhythm, dance and accessible musical instruments, one of which was the diddley-bow.

Many have speculated that the Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues. The first documented blues tune was heard by WC Handy in either 1895 or1903 while at the train station in the town of Tutwiler, Mississippi. He is reported to have witnessed a poor black man in ragged clothes and worn out shoes playing a guitar by pressing a knife against the strings to vary the pitch, very much like Hawaiin guitarists would use steel bars. The tune the man played was a haunting and melancholy melody that made quite an impression upon WC Handy.

It was during the 1890s that some well known American folk-blues tunes are thought to have originated including “Joe Turner Blues” and “Frankie and Johnnie”. One well known exponent of the style who originated at this time was Charley Patton. His precise birth date is unknown but thought to have been between 1885 and 1892. He learned his musical skills from the people around him including one Henry Sloan who was a fellow resident of the Dockery plantation in Ruleville, Mississippi. Some say that Henry Sloan is actually the mysterious black slide guitar player who’d been heard at the train station in Tutwiler by WC Handy.

It wasn’t until 1929 that Patton was discovered by H.C. Spier, the white talent scout who famously auditioned notable blues performers in the back of his furniture store in Jackson Mississippi. In June of that year he recorded 14 tracks for Paramount records including the well known blues classics “Pony Blues,” “Banty Rooster Blues,” “Bo Weavil Blues,” “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues” and “A Spoonful Blues”. Pony Blues with Banty Rooster went on to sell 10,000 copies making Patton a significant star for Paramount records.

Another fantastically influential blues man who made recordings for Paramount records in 1930 was Son House. His distinctive playing style, which featured a strong, repetitive, hypnotic rhythm, was to be enormously influential in forthcoming decades. His guitar playing was accompanied by his unique vocals which were derived from the laments and hollers of the chain gangs, probably influenced by the time he’d spent in jail after allegedly killing a man.

No discussion of the blues and bottleneck guitar playing would be complete without mentioning Robert Johnson, probably the most famous of the many influential Delta Blues men. He made a host of landmark recordings between 1936 and 1937 and his guitar playing skills and song writing talents have influenced countless thousands of blues and rock-and-roll artists in the decades since his untimely death at the age of only 27.

The bottleneck or slide guitar style is synonymous with the blues. It is a style of playing that enables notes to tremble, to sound uncertain, to sound like the human voice or someone crying. It’s a style of playing that doesn’t require any fancy or expensive equipment making it immediately accessible and appealing. The slide guitar sound is immediately engaging but at the same time can evoke feelings of sadness and melancholia. Slide guitar is what the blues is all about.