Derek Trucks has said that he plays on a guitar that’s not setup particularly differently than normal and I’ve watched Joe Bonamassa play annoyingly perfect bottleneck on a Blue Collar guitar that I’d set up to be pretty slinky.
However, most of us aren’t Derek Trucks or Joe Bonamassa. Most of us will probably benefit from a little setup adjustment to make things easier.
First a slight disclaimer: This isn’t a ‘how-to’ post. I’m discussing some setup changes but I’m not going into detail on how to carry out those changes. There are some links to more information and perhaps I could recommend an excellent series of setup guides: Sketchy Setups.
String Action and Nut Height
The most obvious thing that most slide guitars will need is an increase in action. If the strings are too close to the frets, you’ll probably get clunking and general nastiness when you play.
However, rather than just increase the action by raising the bridge (or shimming the saddle on an acoustic) it’s probably more important to consider the nut.
Assuming your nut is well cut, your strings are probably pretty close to the first few frets. Raising the action at the bridge will have minimal effect down the nut-end. You’ll need to either replace the nut or remove it and place a shim underneath.
Personally, I’d shim/raise the nut first and then look at the action. You might find the new nut height will give you enough clearance that you don’t need to touch the action. If you do, just raise it up a bit until you can play without fret clunking.
Some techs will slacken off the truss rod to give a bit more relief but I’ve never found that to be absolutely necessary. If the string height at the nut and the saddle is correct, you shouldn’t need more relief because you’re not actually fretting. If anything, I’d go for a straighter neck.
Your strings are most likely set up in a ‘radius’ that follows the fretboard. This means the middle strings are higher off the guitar body than the outside strings (although not higher off the frets because the fretboard is radiused).
Because a slide generally has a straight edge, some argue that setting your strings so they’re in a straight line is best for slide playing. Certainly, this is a reasonable argument.
However, many players have no problems at all dealing with the radius. And, since flattening the string heights is not easily reversible on many guitars (any without individually adjustable saddles), I’d advise you to see if you can handle the radius before you commit.
If you’ve got a Les Paul, or an acoustic, or anything you can’t easily change each string’s height, try playing with the existing radius before you start filing saddles.
All that string height changing might have left your pickups a little far away. Raise them up if necessary but (as always) beware of putting them too close. Too close and the magnets can pull on the strings and cause weird tuning and noise issues.
This is a bit less cut and dry. Intonation adjustments are made to compensate for the sharpening that occurs when you fret a string.
But you’re not fretting strings.
Of course, you are pressing the bottleneck onto them and it’ll take a bit of practice to get your pressure right. If you’re just starting slide, setting intonation might be tricky for you.
Just go through the usual intonation steps but, instead of fretting at the 12th, that note will be played with the slide. That should get you pretty close to where you need to be.
I should note, for completeness, that one argument for getting rid of the radius is to even out any inadvertent sharpening when you ‘barre’ it across multiple strings. Again, this is a reasonable argument.
However, here’s thing thing I’d say about intonation in this context…
You’re playing slide guitar.
Don’t get too hung up on things.
Unless you’re sitting in to play a little bottleneck with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, you probably don’t need to lose too much sleep over the intonation.
Until you’re a frickin’ genius of the slide guitar, your bottleneck pressure and placement are much more likely to make things sound out than your intonation will.
Far be it from me to advise people not to sweat a particular setup step but — again — remember: you’re playing slide guitar. You’ve heard the saying ‘close enough for rock and roll’?
While not absolutely necessary, I’d recommend trying a heavier set of strings for slide playing. Personally I feel like it makes for a bit more ‘tone’ and a bit of a better behaved setup. Not essential but, if you’re playing lighter strings right now, try popping on a heavier set and see how you get on.
What if I want to fret the guitar too?
If you want to fret and slide, you might need to make a few compromises. High action and nuts make slide easier but fretting harder. Experiment a little to find the right balance.
The Bottom Line
If you’re like most players, you want to set up that ‘beater’ guitar for slide. Great. That’s perfect. Go for it and don’t sweat the super-fine details too much.
If you ask me, slide guitar’s supposed to be crusty as hell. Give your axe a few simple tweaks, grab that bottleneck, and let slide!