The Fastest Way to Start Playing Songs, Part 2: Slide Guitar

Last time we talked about how you can pick out melodies on your own without any instruction. But what if you want to play some campfire or other songs? Chords are a must. But what’s the fastest way to learn some basic chords?

Enter: Slide Guitar.

Slide guitar is not often taught to beginners, but it’s one of the easiest and fastest ways to play simple chord progressions. To play slide guitar you need three things:

1. A slide. This can be a “bottleneck”, which fits on one of your fretting-hand fingers, or a slide that you hold with your entire fretting over the strings. You can find them online, but I would recommend visiting a shop to see which sizes fit, feel, and sound best.

2. A guitar with strings high enough above the fretboard that you can place the slide on the strings and strum without too much buzzing. Most guitars (especially acoustic guitars) are close enough. Not so much with electric guitars designed for shredding. If your guitar’s string height (called “action”) isn’t high enough, it can sometimes be adjusted.

3. An open tuning. Open tuning means that instead of having the strings in “standard” tuning (EADGBE), you would tune them so that if you played all of the strings open (without fretting any of them), you’d be playing a major chord. For example: If we started with a guitar in standard tuning, and then tuned the 3rd string up a half-step, and the 4th and 5th strings both up a whole step, you’d get the following tuning: EBEG#BE — which is just a really big E major chord, so we call it “open E tuning”. There are many open tunings to choose from, and any will work for our purposes here.

How to play chord progressions using slide guitar

So you’ve got your slide. Your guitar’s action is high enough that there’s no major buzz when you use the slide. You’ve tuned to an “open” tuning. Now what?

Without too much effort, you can now plan literally hundreds of songs. Many folk songs, pop, rock, blues, country, and other modern and classic songs contain only a few chords, and we’ll be dealing with the large number of them that only contain 3.

Here they are:

Chord #1: Simply strum all of the open strings.

Chord #2: Place your slide on the strings at the 5th fret, right above the fret wire. Strum.

Chord: #3: Place your slide on the strings at the 7th fret, right above the fret wire. Strum.

These chords may already sound familiar to you, because they are used in so many well-known songs. You’d be surprised how many classic and memorable songs are only 3 or 4 chords. Don’t believe me? Check out the Axis of Awesome’s “Four Chord Song” here.

If you buy a book or search online for folk and kids songs in particular, many of them contain only 3 chords. Here are some of the most common combinations you’ll find:

A-D-E (or E7)

D-G-A (or A7)

G-C-D (or D7)

C-F-G (or G7)

E-A-B (or B7)

Each of the chord progressions above starts with a different chord, but they all work the same way.

Let’s say you tuned your guitar to “open A”. If you strum the strings without fretting any of them, you’ll play an A major chord. If you place the slide over the 5th fret wire and strum, you’ll be playing a D chord. And if you place the slide over the 7th fret wire and strum, you’ll be playing an E chord.

That’s nice if you’re playing a song with those chords, but what if you want to play a song in another key? What if you want to play a song that has C, F, and G chords in it?

Simply substitute. Treat C as though it’s an A (remember, all open strings), F as though it’s D (5th fret) and G as though it’s E (7th fret).

Confused yet? Here’s another way of thinking about it. Here are those chords again:

A-D-E (or E7)

D-G-A (or A7)

G-C-D (or D7)

C-F-G (or G7)

E-A-B (or B7)

Think of the first chord in each set as chord #1, the second chord in each set as chord #2, and the third chord in each set as chord #3. Simple enough so far?

Let’s say our guitar is still in open A tuning, so our easy-to-get-to chords are A, D, and E. But we want to play  a song with the following chord progression:


By looking at that list of the sets of chords, we can see that the chords in our song, G, C, and D, are one of the sets. G was chord #1, C was chord #2, and D was chord #3. That means I could think of that song like this:


So if our guitar is still in open A, and our easy-to-get-to chords are A (#1), D (#2), and E (#3), we can fill those chords in for the numbers above. That would leave us with:


The song will be in a different key, but you’ll still be able to play it using your trusty 3 chords.

Here are a few examples of songs you can play in any open tunings—I’ll notate them based on what fret you’ll place the slide on:

  • My Best Friend’s Girl:      0-0-0-0 0-0-0       5-5-5-5-7-7-7-7
  • How’s It Going to Be:      0—0—0—0   7-7-5-5—
  • Takin’ Care of Business:   7-7 7 7-7   5-5 5 5-5   0-0 0 0-0-0 7-7 7 7-7
  • Blowin’ in the Wind:    0 0 0   5  5 5   0 0 0    5 5 5   0 0 0   5 5 5    7 7 7   7 7 7
  • Baba O’Reilly:     0—   7-5—    0—   7-5—

And many more. Check out a book of folk and kids’ songs for an endless supply of 3-chord songs that you can easily play with an open tuned guitar and a slide.