Kelly Joe Phelps Slide Lesson

Issue 239

by Orville Johnson

Fans of your slide playing will be glad to hear you’ve picked it up again. Why did you give it up for a time?

PHELPS: The reason I put the lap-style down is fairly simple. I just lost interest in it. My first record came out in ’94 but I’d been playing that style since ’91. I loved it for the time I did it, but I started to get bored with it. My whole thing for the 40 years I’ve been playing is that I enjoy learning. Even when I was a teenager and I would figure out a Chet Atkins tune, I loved learning the tune and being able to play it, but I didn’t really want to keep playing the tune. I just loved figuring things out. Sometimes a learning process like that only takes a year or two, sometimes it takes ten. I started playing the slide in 1991 and essentially put it down in 2001 and that’s a pretty long time to be trying to play guitar with only one way to get the notes out. And I gave it everything I had during that time.

Kelly Joe Phelps Ex. 1-2
Click to enlarge.

It seemed perfectly organic to me, both that I applied myself so intently to it and that I came to the end of it. I found things that I love in there. And I realized there are a lot of things I wish I could do but can’t, because of the limitations of that approach to playing. What I was looking at was continuing to do this only because people like to hear it, but I didn’t want to do that. The dishonesty of that is what stopped me. And musically, I was just tired of it.

What rekindled your interest?

PHELPS: I think the simple answer is that I missed the sensation and the sound of a slide, and I figured I’d been away from it long enough that maybe I’d feel positive about it again. So, when I started working on this new material, I got out my lap slide and thought I’d write some songs with it, but after about three days I realized, “I don’t want to do this! What am I going to do now?” I’d monkeyed around with the bottleneck style but hadn’t really applied myself to it. I had built up this thing in my head that maybe I wouldn’t be good at it. But I remembered when I started the lap thing it wasn’t all that easy either. I worked really hard at it and got to a good place. So I thought, “I can do that again.”

What is attractive to you about the bottleneck-style slide?

PHELPS: The more I’ve played around with it, I’ve realized that the limitations I felt with lapstyle slide just aren’t there. I started realizing how many more ways there are to use a slide and your fingers at the same time, like fretting behind the slide. You can do melodic and chordal things that way. That was the start of this world opening up to me.

There are things about it in my head that I’m working on at home that I can’t do well enough to put into performance yet, but little things are showing up. For example, I use the slide on my little finger and it’s a fairly heavy bronze slide. If I roll my hand over just a little bit across the fingerboard and get the bottom part of the bar away from the strings and use just the tip of it, I can work it like a dobro bar, playing single notes with open strings on either side. But it’s really hard! A tiny movement can make or break it—it’s a real tricky thing.

The opening lick in “Talkin’ to Jehovah” sounds like it includes some of your new techniques.

PHELPS: This is one of those things I’ve been working on with the combination of fretting and slide [Example 1]. I slide up to the third fret on the top two strings [measure 4], and I do this lick with the index finger fretting the second fret and first fret, with the slide sliding up to the third fret on the third string [measure 7]. There’s a pull-off with the slide, and then I grab the fourth string with the second finger, then back to the third string sliding five, three.

If I’m going to do a lot of fretting and slide at the same time, the big thing I’m working on is to not let the slide bar come away from the string. Keeping it close when you’re not using it makes it easier to drop it in. The bar itself is fairly heavy and if you get too far away from the string you’re not going to be able to get back in time. And the weight of the bar can cause it to slam against the string and make noise, but if you keep it nice and tight and close it really helps your touch. It helps if you imagine what your finger feels like touching the string rather than your slide bar.

You play a rumbly sounding octave lick in this one, too.

PHELPS: It’s a cool sound [Example 2]. I’m using that open second string as a kind of rhythm [rhythmic drone], almost like you use the fifth string on a banjo. And when I go down to the sixth and fourth string pair I move the open string down to the third, picking it with my middle finger.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar Issue 239

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