25 Blues Slide Guitar Songs You Must Hear
Slide guitar – it’s sweet, it’s gritty, it’s sensual, it reaches right inside and grabs your innards. In the hands of an expert exponent, it’s a thing of wonder. And it’s got a long tradition in the history of the blues, reaching back to Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, when those glissando and vibrato notes were squeezed out by a penknife or a broken bottle neck caressing or, at times, attacking the guitar strings. It was the sound of the slide guitar that first alerted W.C. Handy to the blues when he heard the solitary guitar player on the station in Tutweiler, Mississippi in 1903 – “The effect,” he said, “was unforgettable.”
We’ve chosen 25 terrific blues songs that feature slide guitar, from Willie Johnson to Derek Trucks. They’re in chronological order so there’s no attempt here to judge these against each other. They’re just here for you to explore and enjoy – I hope they give you as much pleasure as I had in researching, choosing and listening to them. (actually 25 has become 26!!)
Blind Willie Johnson: Dark was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (1927)
Willie Johnson’s slide playing is widely admired. Ry Cooder said, “Blind Willie Johnson had great dexterity, because he could play all of these sparking little melody lines. He had fabulous syncopation; he could keep his thumb going really strong. He’s so good – I mean, he’s just so good.” Eric Clapton’s view was that Johnson’s slide work on It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine was “probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear.” So there’s a number of songs we could have chosen. We’ve gone with Dark was the Night, where Johnson’s exquisite slide playing takes you right into the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane, negating the need for sung lyrics, and is just augmented by Johnson’s moaning. [Check out our post about Willie Johnson here.]
Blind Willie McTell: Mama ‘Taint Long Fo’ Day (1928)
Willie McTell was an accomplished slide player as well as being an adept Piedmont style and ragtime finger picker and had a significant recording career in the 1920s and 30s. His 1928 Mama ‘Taint Long Fo’ Day lets you appreciate the depth of his skill and musicality.
Charlie Patton: Mississippi Boweevil Blues (1929)
Along with Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton was arguably the most important and formative voice of the early sound of the blues in the Mississippi Delta. He recorded Boweevil Blues in 1929 as “The Masked Marvel.” It’s primal blues, with one chord accompaniment, three basic notes in the vocal melody, and a high-note bottleneck accent after the vocal phrase, with the slide often finishing the last word in the phrase. Patton bewails the devastation caused by the invasion of the Boweevil beetle which fed on cotton buds and caused huge problems for the cotton industry and in particular for African American tenants.
Robert Johnson: If I Had Possession (1936)
Robert Johnson was hailed as the “king of the Delta blues,” and described by Eric Clapton as “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” His short life ended in 1938 at the age of 27, but his songs have become standards of the blues canon, and he’s recognized as an outstanding guitarist and a songwriter who pushed the boundaries of the genre during his lifetime. Despite that crossroads myth, Johnson’s prodigious guitar chops likely came from finding a tutor and working hard as a student. Guitar players still marvel at Johnson’s dexterity, the complexity of his playing and the intensity of his songs. He was a skilled slide player, amply demonstrated here on this 1936 recording. [You’ll find our piece about another Johnson song here.]
Muddy Waters: I Can’t Be Satisfied (1948)
The “father of modern Chicago blues” moved to Chicago in 1943 and began recording for Aristocrat Records, a newly formed label run by the brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. He recorded, I Can’t Be Satisfied and I Feel Like Going Home in 1948, both of which became hits, and the rest, as they say, is history. In the recording session for the two songs, they were preparing to wrap up, and Muddy asked if they could do the song without the piano. Leonard obliged and Muddy did the songs on the electric guitar, giving the songs a completely new feel. The single, with its raw electric sound and Muddy’s slide playing sold out on its first weekend. Buddy Guy said Muddy was “one of the slidingest people I’ve ever heard in my life. He got it from the Mississippi players playing the Saturday night fish fries, and he took it home.” [We look at another Muddy Waters song here.]
Elmore James: Dust My Broom (1951)
Known as “King of the Slide Guitar” and noted for his use of loud, reverb-heavy amplification, Elmore James is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the influence behind many rock musicians. That full octave slide riff in the opening to his 1951 adaptation of Robert Johnson’s I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, has become a classic riff. The song became James’s signature song and has been re-recorded many, many times, usually with James’s riff intact.
Mississippi Fred McDowell: You Gotta Move (1965)
Originally recorded by The Gospel Keys in 1948, McDowell’s version is the most famous and was picked up by the Rolling Stones and included on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album. Fred McDowell’s version is raw and bluesy, never misses a beat and has a nice slide vibrato. It was from McDowell that Bonnie Raitt learned her slide guitar. [More on You Gotta Move here.]
Son House: Death Letter Blues (1965)
House’s 1965 performance was on a metal-bodied National resonator guitar using a copper slide. Death Letter Blues is a revision of House’s earlier recording My Black Mama, Part 2 from 1930. The guitar playing is raw, almost rough, but the passion of the performance and the subject matter make listening to it a dramatic experience.
Johnny Winter: Broke Down Engine (1968)
Winter was a Grammy winning inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame, the first non-African-American performer to be inducted, and one of the first blues rock guitar virtuosos. His version of this Blind Willie McTell song appears on his album The Progressive Blues Experiment from 1968. Winter is probably better known for his high energy electric blues rock guitar, but he played this song on a resonator, with an approach that has echoes of Robert Johnson.
Allman Brothers: Statesboro Blues (1971)
The Allman Brothers’ 1971 concert at New York’s Filmore East is legendary, and the album represented the band’s commercial breakthrough. This cover of Blind Willie McTell’s famous song opens the set and showcases Duane Allman’s fabulous open-E slide playing. His approach to the song is clearly modelled on Taj Mahal’s1968 version of the song.
Rory Gallagher: McAvoy Boogie (1972)
Rory Gallagher never attained star status in his short life (he died aged 47) but he is a cult figure in the blues-rock world because of his incredible guitar skills – he was, for example, voted Melody Maker’s 1971 International Top Guitarist of the Year, ahead of Eric Clapton. Gallagher’s McAvoy Boogie was in honour of Gerry McAvoy, a great Northern Irish blues rock bass guitarist. Recorded around 1972, the song appears on the DVD, Rory Gallagher, Ghost Blues: The Story of Rory Gallagher and the Beat Club Sessions. Gallagher was equally at home on electric, acoustic or resonator guitars, and on McAvoy Boogie he lets loose on his Fender Telecaster.
Ry Cooder: Feelin’ Bad Blues (1986)
Multi-Grammy award winner Ry Cooder has been making music and recording for the past 50 years. He’s a songwriter, film score composer, and record producer. A multi-instrumentalist, he is maybe best known for his slide guitar work. Rolling Stone magazine’s ranked him eighth on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Feelin’ Bad Blues is on his 1986 Crossroads album and is an instrumental slow blues, which demonstrates Cooder’s exquisite slide technique and emotive playing. [Check out our post on Ry Cooder here.]
Eric Clapton: Running on Faith (1992)
Clapton originally recorded this on his 1989 Journeyman album, but we’ve chosen the Unplugged version of 1992, where Clapton plays a wooden resonator. He’s played a lot of electric slide during his career, but this performance puts the musicality of his skill in the spotlight, as well as his excellent vocals. [Check out our appreciation of Eric Clapton here.]
Bonnie Raitt: I’m In the Mood (with John Hooker) (1991)
Bonnie Raitt has won 10 Grammys and sold millions of albums. The same year as her big 1989 breakthrough with Nick of Time, she recorded this duet with Hooker, which was included on Hooker’s album The Healer. Playing her Stratocaster with the slide on her second finger, and picking with her fingers, Raitt gets the right amount of sass and moan into this reprise of Hooker’s 1951 hit.
Joanna Connor: Walkin’ Blues (1992)
Joanna Connor is so much more than her self-description as “that middle-aged lady with the scorching guitar.” She’s a tremendously talented and original guitar player, whose incredible slide guitar, complete with mushy guitar-player face from 2014 has been seen by around 1.5m people. She is a guitar-playing tour de force. Walkin’ Blues from her second album aptly illustrates her jaw-droppingly good slide guitar. [You’ll find a review of Connor’s Rise album here.]
Bryn Haworth: Will You Be Ready (1995)
Bryn Haworth is an outstanding slide guitarist and songwriter from the UK who has been making records and performing for the past 50 years. He’s appeared on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test and the John Peel show, was a major figure in the explosion of Jesus Rock in the 1970s and 80s, and been the guest guitarist on many albums by rock and folk artists. [Don’t miss this great interview with Bryn here.]
Kelly Joe Phelps: When the Roll is Called Up Yonder (1997)
There’s scarcely a better acoustic slide player on the planet than Kelly Joe Phelps, aptly demonstrated by this superb old hymn which appears on Roll Away the Stone. At this stage in his career Kelly was playing slide on a lap steel guitar. By 2012, he had moved to a more regular bottleneck slide style – and produced similarly outstanding playing on Brother Sinner and the Whale. Check out the interplay between the slide guitar and Kelly’s vocals in this song, particularly in the chorus. Quite remarkable. As for the beautiful solo… [More on Kelly Joe Phelps here.]
Rory Block: Cross Road Blues (2006)
Rory Block is one of the world’s greatest living acoustic blues artists. Her talent has been recognized many times by WC Handy and Blues Music Awards in the US, as well as gaining accolades and awards in Europe. She has won Acoustic Artist of the Year in the 2019 Blues Music Awards. She’s done a number of albums paying tribute to the great blues guitarists of the past, and her 2006 Lady and Mr Johnson sees her taking on Robert Johnson and delivering the songs such that they take on new life, and at the same time showcasing Johnson’s outstanding guitar expertise. Block plays Cross Road Blues on her Martin guitar with incredible attack, accuracy and groove – quite wondrous. [Check out our great interview with Rory here.]
Johnny Dickinson: Ocean Blues (2006)
Northumberland-born slide-guitarist/singer/songwriter, Johnny Dickinson sadly passed away in 2019. He was widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s finest exponents of acoustic slide guitar. And a thoroughly nice guy. Ocean Blues, from 2006’s Sketches from the Road is a fine example of Dickinson’s technique and musicality.
Brooks Williams: Amazing Grace (2010)
Brooks Williams is one incredible acoustic guitar player. He’s a gifted songwriter and singer too. His versatile guitar chops include some tasty slide playing. You’ll scarcely hear a better version of Amazing Grace than Brooks’s from his 2010 Baby O! album. Playing the strings on either side of the slide and moving masterfully all round the fretboard, Williams coaxes each ounce of bluesiness from this old tune. [Check out our interview with Brooks here.]
North Mississippi Allstars: Let It Roll (2011)
Luther Dickinson is a guitarist, songwriter, singer and record producer who grew up in the hills of North Mississippi. Influenced by R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, he and his brother formed the North Mississippi Allstars. Their 2011 album, Keys to the Kingdom, features Dickinson’s characteristic raw singing style and his style of electrified, fingerstyle slide guitar that he calls Modern Mississippi. It’s sounds traditional but bang up-to-date all at once. [Check out our interview with Luther here.]
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Midnight in Harlem (2011)
When you see Derek Trucks live, you’d be forgiven for calling him the world’s best living electric slide guitarist. His guitar and slide just seem to be part of the man. Trucks was something of a child prodigy, playing slide from a young age and by the age of 13, he had shared a stage with Buddy Guy. He was a guest musician for several years with the Allman Brothers and has toured as part of Eric Clapton’s band. The fabulous band formed with him and his wife, Susan Tedseschi, released Revelator in 2011 which features a cover of Mike Mattison’s Midnight in Harlem. It’s quite wonderful, as much for Tedeschi’s vocals as for Truck’s slide work. But his slide work is top drawer and we like the live version on Everybody’s Talkin’ from 2012.
Keb’Mo’ & Taj Mahal: Diving Duck Blues (2017)
There may be better examples of Keb’ Mo’s slide guitar style, but this duet with blues legend Taj Mahal from their excellent 2017 Tajmo album is one of the most enjoyable. Mo’s metal resonator slide playing accompanies Taj Mahal’s rhythmic acoustic picking, rather than taking centre stage. But, of course, it’s the combination of these two wonderful artists playing together that is best of all. [Check out our piece on Keb’ Mo’s Put a Woman in Charge here.]
Sonny Landreth: Key to the Highway (2017)
One of the world’s best, but most under-appreciated guitarists, said Eric Clapton of slide guitar specialist, Sonny Landreth. Landreth has incredible slide guitar technique, able to play notes, chords and chord fragments by fretting behind the slide while he plays. As with nearly all these artists, it’s hard to choose a song from Landreth’s considerable back catalogue, but his version of this blues standard normally credited to Big Bill Broonzy, on his 2017 Live in Lafayette, is a real treat.
Larkin Poe: Mississippi (2018)
Larkin Poe are the Lovell sisters from Atlanta, Georgia with a unique blues-based Americana rock. Adept at taking traditional blues and bringing them bang up-to-date at the same time, the pair are exceptional musicians, wonderful singers and high-powered performers. Both terrific guitarists, it is Megan who is the slide guitarist, trading licks with her sister. Standing up – and occasionally walking through the audience – she plays her lap steel guitar with incredible energy. Mississippi from 2018’s Grammy nominated Venom and Faith album evokes the spirit of the Delta while channelling a modern, fresh approach to the blues. Superb. [Be sure and check out our great interview with Larkin Poe here.]
Martin Harley: Roll With the Punches (2019)
When it comes to slide guitar, England’s Martin Harley really is the business. With eight albums to his credit, he delights audiences wherever he plays in the UK and US with his hugely enjoyable brand of Americana and blues. His Roll With the Punches from 2019 finds Harley with a new, more electric sound, now coaxing those trademark slide guitar licks from an electric guitar rather than simply the Weissenborn lap steel he is usually to be seen with. The title track showcases his great slide technique and is just a great song – so positive: “don’t let nobody drag you down, keep your head high, put your good foot on the ground.” [You’ll find our review of Martin Harley’s Roll with the Punches here.]