Slide guitar is a guitar technique that involves sliding a hard object against the strings to produce a mournful, almost singing sound. It has long been thought that the slide guitar technique evolved from the Diddley bow, a one-stringed instrument originating in West Africa, which was later brought to the American South via the slave trade and adapted into a six-string guitar. Other blues historians believe that the slide technique came from Hawaiians who played the steel guitar (Port, 2017).
Blues folklorists have long believed that the slide technique evolved from the one-stringed instrument used in West Africa called the Diddley bow, which also used a sliding technique. Knowledge of the Diddley bow was brought to North America via the slave trade and passed down through generations until it appeared in the South in the 1930s. Since the Diddley bow was an underground instrument at the time, it is difficult to believe that such an instrument could have influenced local musical styles on such a grand level (Port, 2017). A more credible theory is that blues slide guitar was inspired by the technique used on Hawaiian steel guitars.
(Fig. 1: A one-stringed Diddley bow made out of a cigar box)
The origin of the Hawaiian steel guitar is credited to a group of Hawaiian musicians who have been overlooked in American music history. Even early blues stars like Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson admitted their slide guitar techniques were influenced by Joseph Kekuku, the Hawaiian who invented the Hawaiian steel guitar playing style (Shah, 2019). Joseph Kekuku’s invention later evolved into the modern slide guitar techniques known today. There are various creation myths, but all of them involve a young Kekuku and a stroke of genius. The story goes that he was walking along the train tracks in Honolulu while carrying an old Spanish guitar. He picked up a long, rusty track bolt off the ground, which slipped from his hand and rubbed against the guitar strings to produce a pleasing tone. He was moved by the beautiful, singing quality of steel striking against steel. After practicing with the metal bolt, he experimented with other objects, such as the back of his pocket-knife and the back of his steel comb, eventually settling on a polished steel bar, similar to the ones used today (Shah, 2019).
(Fig. 2: Joseph Kekuku playing the Hawaiian Steel Guitar)
A guitar neck is divided by frets that define where one note ends and another begins. The slide technique bypasses this order, allowing the player to drift between notes to create an eerie, metallic wail. Kekuku then took this steel bar sliding technique a step further. He decided to tune the guitar to an open chord, raise the strings high above the fretboard, and run the steel bar over its strings. Furthermore, instead of holding the guitar up against his chest, he laid it across his knees. This slide technique added a new dynamic to the sound and could make any basic acoustic guitar sound differently than the sound it was designed to produce. Soon Kekuku’s steel guitar musical style was widely adopted in the Hawaiian islands, and because of its mournful, almost "bluesy" quality, it was used for songs that expressed longing and pain (Payne, 2022).
Around the turn of the century, Hawaiian steel guitar players started touring the mainland United States. By 1916, their music was outselling all other recorded genres in the country. In the American South, for instance, Hawaiian steel guitarists traveled with vaudeville shows and played on the streets to advertise their upcoming performances. They also played in more progressive theaters that welcomed both white and black audiences. Despite their growing popularity, the Hawaiian players were barred from white-owned hotels in the South because they had brown skin. This forced them to stay at boarding houses where they mingled with black travelers and shared their guitar style with blues musicians (Shah, 2019).
(Fig. 3: Slide guitar players often used glass bottlenecks or a metal pipe to get the mournful sound)
Regardless of whether the modern slide guitar was adopted from the Hawaiian steel guitar or the African Diddley bow, the general idea was universal: find a long hard object that produces a sustained sound when it is rubbed along the strings. The mournful sound lends itself very well to the blues, whose subject matter often speaks about hardships and longing for a better life. Over the course of a century, the sound evolved and helped define the music we recognize as the blues.
Shah, H. (2019, April 25). How the Hawaiian steel guitar changed American music. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-hawaiian-steel-guitar-changed-american-music-180972028/
Port, I. (2017, June 16). That winsome moan. Oxford American. Retrieved from: https://main.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/1166-the-winsome-moan
Payne, R. (2022). History and origin of the slide guitar in the blues. Guitar Noise.
Retrieved from: https://www.guitarnoise.com/lessons/slide-guitar-history/
Cover Image, [Bottleneck slide]. (2021, July 30). Acoustic Guitar. https://acousticguitar.com/slide-masters-6-guitarists-who-play-bottleneck-style-in-fresh-and-unexpected-ways/
Fig. 1, [Diddley bow]. (n.d.). WorthPoint. https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/vintage-folk-art-cigar-box-diddley-1869995968
Fig. 2, [Joseph Kekuku]. (n.d.). El Sur Records. http://elsurrecords.com/v-a-hawaiian-steel-guitar-classics-1927-1938/25/11/2019/
Fig. 3, Godwin, N. (n.d.). [Slide guitar]. Guitar World. https://www.guitarworld.com/lessons/how-to-play-slide-like-the-worlds-greatest-players