Do you remember the big breakthroughs?
“For me, it was about finding other people that played. I was lucky enough that my dad knew musicians in town who were willing to hang out and give me a lesson or two. The first time I met a guy who played in open E [E B E G# B E] it opened doors.
"I remember a lot of the sounds I heard on the Elmore records and the Duane stuff just didn’t sound right in standard tuning. When he tuned the guitar up to E, it seemed like it was all right there. I think those things were the big building blocks.”
What were the challenges of playing slide at the start?
“I think the hardest thing about slide is the thing that I probably didn’t even think about, which is intonation. Y’know, keeping it in tune. That’s really the whole thing with slide. To me, it’s a lot like singing. You can go after all these runs, but unless you’re hitting the notes and sliding into them the right way, and the inflections are right, then you lose the whole purpose.
“For me, I think the intonation was the part that came somewhat naturally. I think it was from listening to the way my dad would talk about music, saying how it’s so much more powerful when you see a musician play one note correctly, as opposed to just blazing all over the place. That was a big point. Substance over flash.
"But slide is a frustrating instrument when you first jump on it. If you get 10 people and show them how to play a scale, and they fret it properly, then it’ll sound pretty good. But if you get 10 beginners with a slide... it can sound pretty damn rough. That scares people off early on. The learning curve can be a little bit steep.”
What material do you prefer your slides to be made from?
“When I started, it was always a metal slide. Then somebody hit me to the fact that sometimes with electric, glass is a little sweeter, not as sharp and grating on the ear. Have I tried a knife or bottle? Oh yeah. All of that. Wine bottles. Steak bones.
"I remember reading Robert Palmer’s book, Deep Blues, about the Deep South backwoods Delta players, and how they would use anything. Butter knives. Lighters. Bones from meat. Whatever they had layin’ around. Over the years, you try all of it, just to get a different sound.”
Are strings much of a factor?
“Yeah. I don’t think you can go too light: it’s a lot harder to make a note sing out. But with all the gear stuff, you’ve gotta find your sound. I remember, not long ago, playing with Billy Gibbons and thinking how great his tone was – then realising he plays the lightest strings humanly possible. Before that, I was always of the mindset that the heavier the strings, the better the tone, period.
"So I’d hate to tell somebody not to keep searching, but for me, I’ve settled on DR strings, 0.011 through 0.046. So it’s 0.011, 0.014, 0.017, 0.026, 0.036, 0.046, a hybrid of different sets. That’s just come over the years. In the beginning, it was just buying packs of strings and realising, y’know, ‘I don’t like the way this third string feels’. Just over years of touring, you find what feels good. I do like a heavier string at the top. You can dig into it, be a little physical with it, without losing the tone.”