Want to play 3 string slide guitar?

The 3 string slide guitar
--a brief tutorial in the form of a FAQ page--


How did you come up with this idea?


Easy to answer this one:  I didn't.  Homemade instruments have been around for a long time.  Anywhere people didn't have enough money to buy an instrument, they came up with a way to make what they wanted out of what they had.  I base my instruments on the cigar box guitars that have been around since at least the 1800s in the USA.  They have traditionally had between 1 and 4 strings and instead of having frets like their more expensive counterparts, they were traditionally played by sliding a bottle, lipstick tube, back of a jackknife, or pretty much anything hard that was handy across the string to get to the note the player wants.  Nowadays, there is a movement of musicians and listeners drawn back to these simpler instruments.  I build my instruments out of common materials that strike my fancy.


I have no idea how to play this thing.  Where do I start?


You start with playing a melody on one string.  Start with playing on the thinnest string (which we refer to as the 1st string).  For this style of playing, you can use bare fingers instead of a pick.



Here are some basics on using a slide:


  • To change the note a string plays, you press the slide against the string just hard enough to get the note to sound. Pressing too hard can sometimes throw you out of tune.
  • Drag one of your fingers behind the slide to get rid of unwanted sounds.
  • If you are playing notes on the first string only, tip the slide up slightly so it doesn't drag on the other strings.
  • Muting strings is a big part of playing slide. Part of controlling the sounds your instrument makes is being able to silence the sounds you don't want to hear.  Most important for you right now is to rest the thumb of your picking hand on the second and third strings to keep them from sounding while you play notes on the first string.  When you want a note to stop ringing on the first string, rest your picking finger on the string. 
  • For now, always slide up to the note you want to play. Part of what people love to listen to when they hear slide guitar is the way it mimics the human voice, easing into each note and giving music more personality. Sometimes it's a haunting quality, other times quirky and playful.


There are lines cut into the side of the neck facing you.  They mark where the notes of the common 12 note scale used in western music are located on the string.  The trick is to position your slide even with these marks to hit the right note.  It takes practice and you have to use your ears to get you the the right spot on the string.  Your ears are your biggest asset when finding a note.


Once you get the the note you want, don't just leave the slide still.  Use a subtle movement of the wrist holding the slide to give some motion to your music.  Remember, you're going for the sound of the human voice and there's always a little bit of movement in a sung note.


Now, you know enough to be dangerous.  I suggest you give the song “Happy Birthday” a try.  The first two notes are actually on the open string—you leave the slide off the string.  Then you gently dip the slide onto the string and find your way to the next note.  You will find the markers very helpful in getting to the right notes.  You will also notice that some of the lines marking the notes have a black dot in the middle.  They come in very helpful when you are going higher up the neck and need a quick reference for where to stop.  If you're having trouble finding the next note, don't forget the open string.  It gets used more than once in “Happy Birthday”


After you master one song, try more on the first string.  You will be surprised how fast you are able to figure out new songs after a while.  Not every song will begin with the open string, but a lot do


For visual learners who are probably sick of reading at this point, check out these videos--they are really good ones to start on (the rest of you can keep reading if you like--there's a bunch of cool stuff here):


I want to play with other people.  How do I play chords?


You can strum chords with a pick or use bare fingers.  If you are playing with other people, be sure you are all in tune with one another.  We are going to be tuned like this:  1st string (the thinnest) is a G, 2nd string is a D, and 1st string (the thickest) is a G.  Chords are simple for you and your 3 strings.  From this point on, I am going to refer to the markers on the side as frets.  Each fret represents a change of one note in the scale.  Playing the chords is as simple as strumming all 3 strings together.  The following table shows where your chords are located—numbers of frets with stars by them represent frets with a black dot marker.






G# or Ab




A# or Bb






C# or Db




D# or Eb






F# or Gb




G# or Ab




A# or Bb


All of these chords are neither major nor minor; they will work with someone else playing either one.  Remember to slide up to your chords just like you do with single notes.


Muting is just as important when strumming chords.  The two basic techniques you are going to need are:


  • Muting with the strumming hand to stop chords from ringing.
  • Removing the slide from the strings and using another finger from that hand to mute the strings while you strum, creating a percussive effect.


What about playing the blues?


Once you develop the basic techniques of playing the 3 string guitar, you can try to tackle some blues.  For this tuning, the blues scale notes are on the open strings, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 10th frets.  The 12th fret is the same note as the open string, but one octave higher.  It comes in handy frequently.  Stick to one string at first, then practice moving from string to string.  Start out with a sparse, conservative style.  It's better to hit 3 sweet notes at the right time than 30 messy notes that don't sound even close to musical.  There are plenty of good video lessons out there. 


Where can I learn more about 3 string guitar?


The internet.  There are tons of resources out there.  Here are the ones I have found to be very useful and have plenty for everyone from the beginner to the pro:


  • https://cigarboxnation.com/ they have been around since the beginning of the cigar box guitar revival in the US.  Lots of free and useful info.
  • https://shanespeal.com/home--2 Known as “the King of the Cigar Box Guitar”, Shane Speal is a fountain of knowledge and his free lessons are awesome.
  • http://www.justinjohnsonlive.com/ A roots music genius.  Lots of great free lessons on his site.  I recommend Justin Johnson's DVD.  He's a good teacher and will give you some awesome material to work on.  You can also watch him playing one of my pizza box guitars.



I've got an electric 3-string.  What kind of amp should I use?  Do I need to buy a tuner?


An amp designed for electric guitar.  I prefer simple amps.  They either sound good or bad.  Buy one that sounds good with your guitar.  The more bells and whistles on an amp, the more time you will spend having to figure out how to make it sound good. 


If you have a smart phone, there are a wealth of tuner apps for free or for really cheap.   If not, there are a lot of clip-on style tuners that do a great job and are still economical.  You can come pick one up in my shop if you like.  It's better to have a tuner than not.  Remember:  1st string (the thinnest) is a G, 2nd string is a D, and 1st string (the thickest) is a G. 


What about if I need new strings?


Eventually you will need to replace you strings.  You will know they need replaced when they either just don't sound right, turn black, or break.  I use the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings from a light gauge electric guitar set for my 3 string guitars.  I recommend taking your guitar to a local music store to have the strings changed.  You will need to tell them how it is tuned.  They will quickly figure out the most appropriate strings they carry.  Let them know that the scale length is 24 inches so they know where to set the bridge. 



Incidentally, on my hand-built 3 strings, if you ever bump the bridge (L-shaped piece of aluminum that holds the strings up off the neck—located on the body near where the strings come out of the wood tailpiece) out of place when you are playing, just move it back to 24” away from the nut (the threaded rod that the strings cross over at the headstock of the guitar).  If the bridge is not placed in the correct position, the markers for frets will not be in the right place and playing in tune will not be so easy.  As a general rule, bridges won't move due to the tension on the strings; but, as a parent, I can say some of mine have moved under mysterious circumstances when I wasn't around.


In conclusion:


I have given you the basics you will need to play some music and have fun.  3 string guitar can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.  I hope you have as good a time playing your instrument as I did making it.