Let It Slide

Today's most familiar musical instruments have each evolved, sometimes over centuries, often changing size, shape and even the material from which they are made, leaving earlier incarnations behind to period-instrument groups or pawn shops. But each time someone tinkers with the guitar, a new and separate instrument is born that carries on a separate life. 

Take the so-called slide guitar… Although the original acoustic slide guitar looks like a guitar, it's played in a completely different manner from the standard method of playing the guitar. Instead of being positioned with the strings and sound hole facing away from the player toward the audience, it is held face up horizontally in the lap. Rather than the fretboard being fingered with the left hand (or right hand if you're a lefty), some form of wedge is used to slide across the fretboard. Most often this is a specially-made metal bar called a slide, but in the good old days, or even nowadays in a pinch, a shotglass would work just fine! 
And, as the instrument evolved, it developed into an instrument as different from the guitar as a piano is from a harpsichord. Instead of a hollow wooden body with a round sound hole directly underneath the playing area of the strings, most slide guitars feature an internal resonator that further amplifies the sound of plucking the instrument. To further confuse its pedigree, there are whole host of slightly different instruments that are all basically "slide guitars": the steel guitar (named after the material its body is made from); the Hawaiian guitar (after one of its supposed birthplaces and the subsequent musical style it spawned there); the Dobro (a proprietary eponym deriving from the brand name of one of the earliest manufacturers of the instrument, John Dopyera and his brothers, who had formerly developed this type of instrument for National Guitars, another early manufacturer in the 1920s); and, perhaps the most accurately-named ampliphonic, resonator or resophonic guitar (which is what's so special about it, since after all, you could slide on a normal guitar if you really wanted to and many guitarists do from time to time although it doesn't quite sound the same). Got all that?
The distinctive sound of the slide guitar has provided important contributions to many different kinds of music in the United States, from blues to bluegrass to country to, yes, Hawaiian music although Hawaii was technically not a state when the Hawaiian music craze reached its peak in the late 20s and early 30s. And, like everything else, just as the slide guitar evolved from the guitar, still other instruments have evolved from the slide. The electric lap steel is a solid-body instrument that replaces the resonator with an electric pick up and raises the strings higher from the nut of the guitar. It's essentially to the original acoustic slide guitar what a solid body electric guitar is to an acoustic guitar. On the other hand, the electric pedal steel guitar, the instrument which gives the sound of Nashville its characteristic twang, is an even further evolution of the lap steel idea with tons of additional strings and sustain pedals. The table-sized instrument is still played basically like a slide but it hardly resembles a guitar at all. 
The original slide guitar and some of these latter-day relatives are the focus on tonight's slide guitar summit, revealing the extraordinarily wide range of this instrument, which in the hands of today's players continues to evolve…
Cindy Cashdollar, the first of the four modern-day sliders on hand tonight, creates her own brand of eclectic contemporary folk music on the original acoustic form of the instrument. Cindy explains her passion for the original slide: "I fell in love with the acoustic slide and steel guitar because of it's sounds, textures, and chameleon-like ability to fit with just about anything." Chameleon-like is probably the best way to describe Cashdollar's career which in addition to an eight-year stint with the Grammy Award-winning Asleep At The Wheel, also includes appearances with artists ranging from Peter Rowan and the Cajun band Beausoleil to Bob Dylan and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane. She recently released her solo debut CD, Slideshow.
Experimental downtown jazzer Dave Tronzo takes the slide into a very different aesthetic milieu. Creating a unique array of sounds on both acoustic and electric instruments, Dave also turns all-sorts of extra-musical ingredients into exciting new musical vistas, even upon occasion using a Styrofoam cup for a slide… "I am a confirmed modernist so that makes me a slide guitar modernist!" boasts Tronzo. "Especially in my solo work, I take the approach of blending modern improvisation tactics with modern jazz structures, extended slide sound techniques, some soulful 'slide singing' over a folk music foundation. The compositions are a blend of originals with side excursions into known cover material."
Much older jazz styles, blues, Hawaiian music, calypso and roots musics from Okinawa and West Africa are just some of the traditions that inform the music of Bob Brozman, arguably today's greatest musical historian/archeologist of the slide. "I travel the world in search of interesting colonized guitar cultures. I am looking for certain universal desires and esthetics common to all colonized people. In other words, I will be vigorously and passionately playing blues and rhythmic music from all over the world, on 5 different guitar-family instruments. I am not the one say whether it is good or bad, but I guarantee it will be interesting and heartfelt!" Bob's most recent CDs include a collection of his experiments with a real-time sampler and an album of duos with Hindustani slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya.
You might think the quaint sound world of the slide might be far removed from the musical imagination of Daniel Lanois, a creator of distinctive ethereal electronic soundscapes who has been described in Rolling Stone magazine as "the most important record producer to emerge in the Eighties." Yet, in addition to his legendary collaborations with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Jon Hassell, and U2, among others, Lanois has been been releasing critically acclaimed intimate solo albums featuring slide since 1989 and is a self-described passionate lap steeler. "The steel guitar is my forever transcending companion. I look to it for light. I look to it when I'm hungover. In the end, it never lets me down. And I will not let it down in this lifetime." Tonight, Lanois makes an all-too-rare solo appearance on the instrument.
Frank J. Oteri is a New York based composer and the editor of the American Music Center's Web magazine
This essay originally appeared in the program booklet for “Let It Slide: Masters of the Slide Guitar,” a February 3rd, 2004 NYGF concert featuring Bob Brozman, David Tronzo, Cindy Cashdollar and Daniel Lanois.
photo: Slide1.jpg
photo: Slide2.jpg
Cindy, Bob and Dave join Daniel Lanois in an
impromptu encore of You Are My Sunshine.
photo © Glyn Emmerson.
photo: Slide3.jpg
David Spelman and Cindy Cashdollar perform
their arrangement of “Hard Times Come Again
No More” as an elegy for Robert J. Harth, the
artistic director of Carnegie Hall, who died a
few days earlier.
photo: Slide4.jpg
Daniel Lanois listening to playbacks in the 
WNYCbroadcast booth.
photo: Slide5.jpg
John Schaefer and David Spelman listening to
Daniel Lanois and Jeff Doctorow jam at the
after-party in Merkin Hall’s art gallery. photo
© Glyn Emmerson.
Bookmark and Share