For many blues fans, there’s no better way for a new song to introduce itself as part of the genre than to incorporate slide guitar. The sound of slide with its bending notes and vibrating twang is quintessentially blues. Most blues artists incorporate this style in their work at some point, though there are clear standouts.
The slide guitar’s origin story is disputed, though many credit its beginnings to Joseph Kekuku, who is said to have developed the playing style with a railway spike he found while living in Hawaii in the late 1800s. The use of slide guitar picked up in the mid-1900s as blues, rock and country recording artists alike deployed the style it in recording studios and before live audiences. Today, any guitar player can stop by their local music store and pick up a slide made of glass or metal. Some even carry the names of artists included on the list below.
So which blues artists play slide guitar best? We have identified our top 10 and encourage readers to chime in with who they would pick.
10. Son House
Known by blues fans as Son House, Edward James House Jr. was born in Mississippi in 1902 and began recording in the early 1930s, though his work was relatively unknown until the 1960s. Decades later, House is remembered as one of the Delta blues’ leading figures whose playing style is said to have been an early source of influence for Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. In old video footage of House performing one of his most popular songs, “Death Letter Blues,” his playing style seems to involve most of his upper body as he strums forcefully and speeds his slide along the guitar neck. It’s a style some aspiring guitarists continue trying to replicate by noodling on their own or by turning to the many instructional videos available online.
9. Ry Cooder
In addition to working as a solo blues artist and frequent blues collaborator, Ry Cooder’s slide guitar mastery became sought after in the film industry during the 1980s and 1990s. Cooder, who was born in California in 1947, contributed pivotal tracks for the 1986 movie Crossroads inspired by the life and legacy of Robert Johnson. Cooder also crafted scores for several other films, including Paris, Texas and Primary Colors. As studio footage captured for the recording of his 2018 album The Prodigal Son demonstrates, the confidence Cooder brings to his playing is also fun to watch as he zips his slide down his guitar neck.
8. Johnny Winter
Blues legend and occasional Muddy Waters collaborator Johnny Winter shone whenever he was gliding a slide along a guitar. Born in Texas in 1944, Winter began releasing albums as a blues artist from the late 1960s through 2014, the year of his death. Winter’s energetic playing style, which was often speedy, showed how deftly he handled the slide, as seen in his live 2012 performance of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” on The Late Show with David Letterman and as heard in his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
7. Robert Randolph
There can be no list of slide guitar players without mention of Robert Randolph, who first became aware of his instrument of choice—the pedal steel guitar—while attending church as a kid growing up in New Jersey. It’s a complicated instrument that Randolph has championed, bringing it into his best performances with Robert Randolph & The Family Band. As seen in music videos for songs like “Amped Up,” Randolph has full control over his pedal steel and uses it to seamlessly weave in the slide sound. As Randolph told Blues Rock Review back in 2019, he aspires to keep both his pedal steel ancestors and future performers in mind while playing in the hope that his music can inspire others to carry the tradition forward.
6. Bonnie Raitt
Born in California in 1949, Bonnie Raitt started gaining attention for her skill playing slide guitar when she began releasing records more than 50 years ago. From her early 1971 cover of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues”—which made Blues Rock Review’s list of the Top 10 Bonnie Raitt Songs—to her Grammy Award-winning 1989 album Nick of Time, Raitt is one of the genre’s clear slide masters. She uses the slide expertly to revive blues classics and creatively transform songs like her cover of the John Hiatt-penned “Thing Called Love,” which softens under her treatment of the material without losing its power. To watch a live performance of Raitt playing slide guitar is to watch one of the blues genre’s very best at work.
5. Sonny Landreth
Known as the “King of Slydeco” for his blending of slide-heavy blues and zydeco, Sonny Landreth is another artist who demonstrates with each new album release his continued mastery of the slide guitar. Born in Mississippi in 1951, Landreth has essentially made the slide part of his onstage uniform, as his live video for “Blues Attack” shows. As Landreth told Blues Rock Review during a 2015 interview, playing slide guitar helped him figure out what style of music he most wanted to explore. “Growing up, I did feel very comfortable playing a lot of different styles of music,” Landreth said at the time. “But then I realized, when I got into slide guitar and the finger style approach, that gave me a way to take all that in and crystallize it into a unified sound.”
4. Muddy Waters
Born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi in 1913, Muddy Waters established himself as a memorable slide guitar player on his way to becoming the “Father of Chicago Blues.” Four decades after his death, nearly every Waters song could be considered a blues classic. Even so, there are a few popular standouts when it comes to his use of slide guitar. On “Honey Bee,” Waters’ slide kicks into gear during the song’s guitar solo, sending the notes wailing as Waters plays in tandem with accompanying piano. On “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” Waters deploys this genre indicator right away, with his slide coming into the mix as soon as the song begins.
3. Derek Trucks
Born in Florida in 1979, Derek Trucks is viewed by many as today’s slide guitar hero. He’s left several top blues and rock performers stunned by the skill and tone of his playing, which he gives the appearance of doing with ease. These days, Trucks most often performs alongside his wife, fellow blues guitarist and singer Susan Tedeschi, for their Tedeschi Trucks Band. He previously played as part of the Allman Brothers Band and has cited the group’s late founding member, Duane Allman, as a key influence. But one of Trucks’ best-known slide guitar songs is a track he performed with his own Derek Trucks Band for their 2006 album Songlines: “Sahib Teri Bandi.”
2. Duane Allman
Few guitarists have been as prolific with the slide style as Duane Allman, who was born in 1946 in Tennessee. Before a fatal motorcycle crash cut his time leading the Allman Brothers Band short in 1971, Allman became known for his instinctive playing style and seamless use of the slide. The twang feels natural in his live performances of “Statesboro Blues” and “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” both of which can be heard on the Allman Brothers Band’s 1971 live album at the Fillmore East. And let’s not forget Allman’s vital slide guitar contribution to “Layla” by Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos. More than 50 years after his death, Allman remains one of blues’ top slide players.
1. Elmore James
When Elmore James was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, it was said that every player who uses a slide “owes a debt to Elmore James.” Born in Mississippi in 1918, James released most of his recorded material with his backing band, the Broomdusters, in the 1950s. Slide-filled songs like “Dust My Broom” and “The Sky Is Crying” have since James’ death in 1963 become blues classics, with many artists later releasing their own recorded versions. From his mastery of the slide guitar to the enduring nature of his songs, it makes sense that James is known as the “King of the Slide Guitar.”