Johnny Winter Lesson: Slide Riffing in Open A Tuning

From the Archive: This column was originally published in Issue 53 of Guitar World Acoustic. The audio examples in this lesson were performed by Guitar World's Jimmy Brown.

I’d like to acquaint you with some great slide licks I like to play in open A tuning.

These riffs and runs are super-versatile. You can use them to hop up your own blues pieces, employ them as solos in a classic blues song or even just entertain yourself with them on a back porch in the middle of a scorching heat wave.

Before taking on the licks, let’s take the time to briefly discuss the proper slide-playing technique. The slide should sit with even pressure across the strings, parallel to and directly above the indicated frets.

If you wear the slide on your pinky (like I do), lightly rest your index, middle and ring fingers across the strings behind the slide (toward the headstock). Muting the strings behind the slide with your fingers like this will help eliminate unwanted string noises and overtones.

Now let's look at open A (low to high: E A E A C# E). In this tuning, the low E, high E and A strings remain at standard pitch, while the D, G and B strings are each raised one whole step, to E, A, and C#, respectively (FIGURE 1).

FIGURE 2 shows the single notes that are most often used in open A tuning licks and solos played within the first five frets. These notes are all derived from the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G), and in this example the scale is spread across two octaves.

You’ll notice some of the notes are indicated twice, on two adjacent strings. This is because they are commonly played in more than one position. Practice playing these notes, first without the slide, then with it, ascending and descending until you’ve memorize their locations on the fretboard.

Now let’s play some licks using these notes in this position. FIGURES 3a-e illustrate a handful of open A slide licks that I use all the time; many of them are staples of the “country” blues style.

You can hear me play licks along these lines on my recordings of songs like “Come On in My Kitchen” (Best of Johnny Winter), “Feel Like Going Home” (Muddy Waters: Blues Sky) and “Sittin’ in the Jailhouse” (Johnny Winter: A Rock N’ Roll Collection).

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