Back when I used to play some guitar, slide was the one thing I could do reasonably well. One significant reason for this was that my weak fretting-hand fingers were relieved of the duty to hold down strings. The more important reason, though, was that it was a sound that I loved. The irony of being a pianist is that the instrument is particularly ill-suited to getting the crying, vocal sounds that I love as much as practically anything in the sonic world. I still bust out the slide from time to time (the one way I can play guitar without hurting myself) and fantasize about being able to reach a fraction of the heights represented below.
Note that this list is specifically for slide guitar solos. There are of course many great slide/bottleneck/dobro performances that don’t include solos (Robert Johnson’s recordings come to mind, as do Muddy Waters’, as do many of Jerry Douglass’ contributions to Alison Kraus’ band).
1. Duane Allman: “Statesboro Blues” (by the Allman Brothers)
For anyone but Duane to top this list would be as ludicrous to me as having a list of early jazz trumpet solos not topped by Louis Armstrong. That’s how long a shadow his playing casts over the broader world of slide guitar, at least in my opinion. I could do a top 10 list of his best slide solos, but for now we’ll stick with this one, probably the gold standard for blues/rock electric slide guitar. The way he makes his guitar cry here makes it not only my favorite slide solo but one of the musical performances that has most influenced me in my Quixotic quest to get expressive vocal sounds when I play the piano.
2. David Lindley: “Running on Empty” (by Jackson Browne)
One of the important slide guitar/lap steel soloists in modern pop/rock music, Lindley has had a long and varied career (I encourage you to check out his lap steel playing on the “A World Out of Time” compilations, in which he and Henry Kaiser went and collaborated with a host of musicians in Madagascar). His melodic sense and extraordinarily nuanced articulation are very well represented on this track. Maybe this choice is a cop-out, since it’s such a widely-played song, but man is this a great solo (or 2 great solos, to be accurate).
3. David Tronzo: “Afro Blake” (by Slopoke)
I first heard Tronzo with John Hiatt’s band in the early ‘90s and he sounded very good, but I didn’t think much of it. Only later did I discover that this cat actually played jazz with slide guitar, and I might add ridiculously well. Unless I’m missing something (and if so, somebody tell me!) his style is really unique and he’s pretty much the only person credibly filling that niche. He has put out several excellent records with his trio, but I have a fondness for his edgy soloing on this tune with Michael Blake, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wolleson.
4. Bonnie Raitt: “Valley of Pain”
This track from the Silver Lining record, aside from being a great song, shows the evolution of her style from acoustic bottleneck blues mama (I love that too, though there are few guitar solos to speak of from her early era until the Taking My Time record, and in that case they’re played not by her but by Lowell George of Little Feat fame) to assertive electric slide soloist. There is a rawness to her tone that provides an interesting contrast to the smoothness of Allman and his followers.
5. Joe Walsh: “Victim of Love” (by the Eagles)
This is a good test of my honesty. I am not a particularly big Eagles fan, and have become less so as my tastes have evolved away from the “classic rock” that was ubiquitous on the radio in my youth (sorry also to Steve Miller, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, the Doobie Brothers, Foghat, Boston and various other “70s bands” for whom I still hold nostalgic affection but . . .). That said, Joe Walsh’s slide solo on this song from the Hotel California album is virtually perfect by my definition of what slide guitar should be on a rock song. There is an emotive, wailing quality to the phrasing in the spirit and aesthetic of Duane Allman, while the melodic choices fit perfectly into the “arena rock” framework.
6. Sonny Landreth: “Tennessee Plates” (by John Hiatt)
Sonny Landreth is a true innovator of slide guitar (I’ll spare you technical babble beyond pointing out that he plays chords by fingering behind the slide, which is a ridiculous and super-cool discovery) and a major stylist. When I was in high school I had the pleasure of hearing him with John Hiatt and the Goners and the textural depth he adds to that group’s music is just remarkable. I picked this as my favorite solo from his tenure with Hiatt’s band (and it’s a great one indeed), but his song-based contributions are just as good.
7. Derek Trucks: “Sahib Teri Bandi/Maki Madni”
In spite of having logged many Grateful Dead shows, I’m not much of a “jam band guy,” and Trucks (both with his own band and as a latter-day Allman Brothers member) has a particularly high profile in that world. But holy cow can this guy rock the slide! He has also shown the capacity to adapt his playing to a pretty wide range of contexts, with this exotic performance providing a strong example. Honorable mention here goes to Warren Haynes (I nearly included his solo from the Allmans’ “Seven Turns,” which I listened to a lot in high school) on the “modern-day Allmans” tip.
8. Elmore James: “Pickin’ the Blues”
Is it sacrilege to put Elmore James so low on the list? As the formative influence on electric blues/rock slide players, I’m not sure how to rank him, and I suppose the fact that I love Duane Allman more is not that different from being more moved by Clifford Brown’s jazz trumpet solos than by Dizzy Gillespie’s. Anyway, the roots of most of the solos on this list can be traced back to Elmore. While I particularly love his obligati on classic tunes like “Dust My Broom” and “The Sky Is Crying,” this instrumental track is just one long solo. It’s simple and melodic, but it’s deep.
9. Ry Cooder: “Inside Job” (by Little Village)
This is the third John Hiatt collaborator out of the 10 spots on this list – the man clearly loves him some slide guitar. Cooder’s talents are as broad as the range of contexts in which he has chosen to apply them. This is one of the more mainstream rock contexts for his soloing, but that don’t bother me none. One doesn’t think of him as a catchy pop/rock stylist, but he wears that hat as well as any, and his expressive phrasing is well-displayed on this track alongside fellow Little Villagers Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. (Note – I probably would’ve taken the same group’s rendition of Lowe’s “Crying In My Sleep,” based on hearing the group live in the early 1990s, but there are no “legit” recordings of this – worth looking for on YouTube, anyway).
10. George Harrison: “Day After Day” (by Badfinger)
Perhaps not a virtuoso like many on this list, Harrison (like Bonnie Raitt) gets extra credit for having a very personal and expressive sound and for having an impeccable melodic sense. Nowhere are these things in greater abundance than on this classic cameo with Apple Records signees Badfinger. Harrison’s opening riff is perhaps the song’s most identifiable fingerprint, and his mid-song solo provides a great variation on that theme.