‘Slides’, ‘Steels’ & ‘Tone Bars’ are a fundamental part of Weissenborn playing and your choice of slide is important in many ways.
With slides there are no real boundaries between Weissenborn, Dobro or Lap Steel. They work on all playing mediums and are interchangeable as you see fit, so don’t be mistaken into thinking they are weissenborn only slides or dobro only slides, they all work the same. However that being said some products and bars that are more popular with weissenborn players than others and we will cover them all in this article.
I think it's also important to emphasis that slides, steels and tone bars are personal choices and most intermediate and advanced players have literally tried them all on their playing journeys at some point to finding that perfect “for them” slide. Sometimes the tonal and ergonomic differences are minute and almost immeasurable to the human eye and ear but to the player they feel like putting on a glove that fits their hand perfectly. So i would suggest that you should endeavour to try other peoples slides if you get the chance and experiment with different slides even if to just confirm you already have ‘your’ own perfect fit.
Later in the article we will see most of the popular slides that are on the market right now being used by TWiE followers.
No.3 - Comfort & Grip
No.6 - End Contours
Ben Harper Signature Slide (Dunlop)
Holding a heavy small object clenched between your fingers for long periods can have painful and detrimental long term effects. RSI or “Repetitive Strain Injury” is not pleasant and there are ways to prevent this from occurring. Obviously weight is a key issue here and it’s a fine balancing act between ‘Mass = Sustain’ which is good and ‘More Weight = potential uncomfortable painful side effects with prolonged use’ which is obviously not good. There is a tipping point to be observed. There are very heavy slides out there in the market and as a rule i would say they are deigned for lap steel or pedal steel and aren’t really necessary for weissenborn playing as a rule. So if you are of a smaller stature or slightly fragile in your hands and grip then the design of the slide with regards to affordable grip present is an important factor to consider. Most slides offer contoured sculpted sides (or rails) to offer you comfortable indentations to place the sides of your fingers holding the slide (these also help sweaty hands hold onto the bar). The rails help you lift the bar up and drop it down quickly without the fear of losing control of the slide and dropping it. These contours are also slightly different from slide to slide and are subjective to the person holding it whether they feel more or less comfortable. While we are the subject of grip there are slides on the market which have brass/steel basses and exotic wooden handles (Shubb GS-1). There are also some custom slide manufactures that drill hole in the side of the bar to help grip too.
Lap Dawg (Dunlop)
So what’s with the different shaped ends to all these slides? A fundamental part of the slides design along with its sculpted sides (or rails) is the tips of the slide. Look closely and you will see some with a rounded 'bullet’ style nose and some with ’slanted’ acute angled noses, why? well the main reason is for flexibility in playing styles and the mechanics of those playing styles.
’Slanted” ends are there for one purpose and that’s to assist fast and accurate ‘Hammering On & Pull Off’ manoeuvres. ‘Hammering On’ a string and then pulling off quickly requires the end of the slide to be flat and sharp because you have a tiny space between adjacent strings to hit quickly, if it were rounded these manoeuvres would be less accurate resulting in the slide literally sliding off the string into the string above or below and making for bum notes. Having the flat end angled assists this accuracy as it prevents accidental contact with the string above or below the string you’re hammering onto to, its pure mechanics really but try hammering on a string quickly with a bullet nose slide as see what i mean.
“Bullet” ends are designed to assist you gliding the bar over strings with easy and less resistance. If you were using a slanted end to continually side the bar back and forth over multiple strings (Hawaiian music is a good example) you would end up catching strings with the sharp slanted end occasionally. Playing styles and choice of musical style normally dictate what contour you gravitate towards. A lot of slides offer both a ‘bullet’ and a ‘slanted’ end to cover all basses and therefor offer cross market appeal.
Length is a very important factor in slide choice in my opinion. Some people have big hands some people have small hands and this is probably a fair equation to work out in choosing what is suitable for you. Some slides are noticeably shorter than others and this is something that is important in how you hold your slide. Some players naturally fit the slide into their palms and butt it right up inside so its pushing against the inside of their clenched hand, other hold the bar further forward with just their fingers without using the inside of their hands as a ‘back stop”. This then relates to what length bar you will need to feel comfortable in your hand. I for one have to have the bar pushing inside my hand (i use a Shubb SP-2) as i feel i can keep the bar more stable, but players like John Wilde for instance (who uses a Lap Dawg) hold the bar much further forward with just their fingers for grip which gives them more flexibility and freedom of movement which to them is more important than that stable feeling i prefer, ‘horses for courses’ as they say here in England but it shows there are no ‘one slide fits all’ answers here. Length can also become a factor in the style of music you play. Traditional Hawaiian music calls for lots of barred chords and slants which you need a long enough bar to safely cover all 6 strings (sometimes 8 or 10 strings on some lap steels or pedal steels) particularly when you slant as the bar effectively has longer distances to spread over. Some people feel shorter bars are harder to barre all 6 strings at once as a beginner and so slightly longer bars are more comfortable in achieving that consistently. Be aware that most bars which are longer will also be heavier and therefore effect comfortability which we will come on to next.
No.4 - Material
Other Slides & Steels to consider....
Latch Lake Broz-O-Phonic Hawaiian Tone Bar
By Aron Radford
No.5 - Tone Bar, Slide Or Steel?
As mentioned earlier Steel and Brass are by far the best and most commonly used materials that slides are made from. That old “Mass = Sustain, Volume & Tone” equation is simple physics and is to be duly noted here. However some slides are not made from these two materials for various reasons. Now I am not an advocate of these ‘alternative slide materials' for weissenborn playing as a rule as they simply don’t cut the mustard tonally for me, with the possible exception of glass. Glass on steel strings does sound very pleasant indeed when played on a 6 string resonator bottle neck style. The steel body of the guitar does tonally sit well with a glass slide playing the strings but on a wooden bodied weissenborn it’s not really the same effect. Glass is inherently ‘whinny’ and ‘thin’ sounding and so on a weissenborn doesn’t emphasis the lush bass and mid tones very well, the sound ends up being very high pitched and lacks long sustain and long sustain as we know opens ups complex harmonics. Other materials I’ve seen slides made from are aluminium which is a lot lighter than steel or brass so guess what?…..(you know the equation by now) and it’s also a softer metal too which leads to scratching of slide surface which isn’t good at all. And as for ceramic slides, why? just why? novelty value i suppose. I have used one on a weissenborn and it was horribly scratchy and didn’t glide at all well and weighed next to nothing and so i would recommend staying away from this material as far as serious weissenborn playing and recording goes. Out of ALL the players I have interviewed NONE of them use anything other than Steel or Brass, enough said. There are also slides which offer wood/metal combo’s (Shubb’s GS-1 for example). Once again some of the weight has been sacrificed but the wood handle often has a pleasant warm ergonomic feel in the palm of your hand which is pleasing and comforting to some people.
Shubb GS-1 slide
Tone Bar, Slide, Steel? whats the difference? sometimes the phrases are (rightly or wrongly) are used to describe each other in the media and even amongst players but here is what i define them as;
“Tone Bars” are in the main solid cylindrical bars of steel, brass or glass (with most often a chrome plated exterior on the metal ones) with a 360 degree ‘bullet’ style tip at one end and a flat 90 degree cut other end. They have no contours or grip designed into them and are perfectly round and are very heavy in the main when compared to normal slides or steels. These are most often used in lap steel or pedal steel playing and offer the player flexibility in executing forward and reserve slant manoeuvres easier. Glass tone bars are quite common too for lap steel or pedal steel guitars but not really widely used for weissenborn as the norm.
“Slides or “Steels” are contoured bars with sculpted sides (or rails) and semi bullet nosed at one end and slanted 'angled' flat contour on the other (perhaps double slanted at each end also). these are more commonly used amongst Dobro and Weissenborn players.
No.1 - Weight, Mass, Volume & Tone
The Top 10 'Slides’ on the market today (in order of popularity) amongst TWiE Weissenborn playing members (FB Poll Conducted 4/5/16).
So the laws of physics and mechanics say (if the guy writing them was a lap steel player you understand) … “Mass = Sustain, Volume & Fullness Of Tone”
Weight definitely equates to more volume and sustain (fact) which is a fundamental requirement for most players when we boil it down to the core functions of a slide or tone bar. Most slides or tone bars are made of polished stainless steel or brass often with a chrome plated surface for very good reason, i.e. if offers the best ‘mass to size ratio’. You need something small enough to hold in your hand comfortably and be able to control and at the same time have lots of mass to give you the requisite sustain and volume. No when you move away from heavy steel or brass things change quite noticeably and in my opinion not always for the better. Other materials such as glass, wood/metal hybrid, aluminium and ceramic offer less mass and therefore less sustain and volume and they also effect the tone in very noticeable ways, which is something you don’t want to be forsaking for cosmetics or novelty value. The only real exception to this statement in my humble opinion is glass but we will come on to that a bit later. So to conclude if you are a beginner to slide playing make sure you buy a stainless steel or brass core slide as a starting point and you can’t go wrong.
Stevens Steel Slide
Paul Beard 2010 Tone Bar
A beginners guide to "Slides, Steels & Tone Bars"
The fundamental 6 things to consider when buying a slide;
No.2 - Hand Size, Holding Style & Length
Scheerhorn Stainless Steel
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