Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A Method for Achieving a Wine Bottle Guitar Slide

A Method for Achieving a Wine Bottle Guitar Slide

Shawn Hudgell

The purpose of this article is to provide individuals interested in crafting their own wine bottle guitar slide with clues that can assist them attaining that goal. If you aren’t satisfied with commercial slides, and you always wished you knew how to make a wine bottle slide, this article is for you. But, let me say that this method isn’t safe, and it is fraught with hazards. Also, this isn’t religion. This is not the way, but a way. There are lots of other ways to produce this result. This is just the way I discovered.

Let me start by saying that none of this is exactly scholarly research. Most of my greatest guitar heroes are slide players. I totally dig Charlie Patton, Elmore James, Son House, Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Robert Johnson. They are my biggest influences. My favorite contemporary slide player is without question Kelly Joe Phelps. You can also sometimes hear Duane Allman or Muddy Waters coming from my room.

I have tried to understand slide guitar for years. I am a rotten guitarist, but my ears sure do envy that sound. I am not joking when I say I have bought at least 10 different slides trying to find that sound. However, about three years ago I heard an old interview recording of Fred McDowell recalling an incident in which he lost his slide and had to construct another while on tour in Europe. I wondered, “Why in the hell didn’t he just buy one?” I thought then that there must be a reason. His exact quote was,  “I knows hows to make’em! Dey won cut yo finger na nuthin.” His interviewer replied, “Sounds sweet.”

OK, so you must be wondering what I’ve learned since then. First to do this you have to decide a few things. The first thing is, are you a metal slide player, or a glass player. For me the answer hands down was glass. Then you need to decide what finger you are wearing your slide on. Now I am a fairly big guy, and for that reason my pinky was the best answer. However you should know that many artists wore them on different fingers. I chose my pinky simply because of the size issue, my research showed me that Fred McDowell for example can be found wearing his on his ring finger and pinky, Son House…pinky, Bonnie Raitt wears hers on her middle finger. As near as I can tell the bigger the finger is the more control you have, the smaller the finger is the more fretting you can do with the other fingers after the sliding action.

The next decision is what I consider the most critical and another good reason for making your own slide. You have to know your length. When you buy slides they all come in that one size fits all, but the truth is I’m sure my pinky is probably a little different from yours. The length issue is important because of two reasons, control, and playing style. As far as playing style is concerned I could kind of group it into music you mostly slide on six strings with, and music you mostly slide on one or two strings with. Fred McDowell’s slide barely extended to his second knuckle. Son House went all the way to the end. Will Ray had his “stealth” slide that was little more than a ring. For me it was a full length slide, but about 3 millimeters shorter than the standard store bought length. Why? Just being able to “hang on” to the end of the slide with my pinky presented a far greater measure of control.

Now the last design consideration is will the slide be flared or straight. If you look at wine bottles you’ll see plenty of both. I like flared, but I also have two or three in straight lengths as well. Here the best thing I can say is that I wear mine “upside down” or with the bottle opening going on my pinky first. As for me this is the best option because it sort of corresponds to the curvature (radius) of the fret board. It is just as possible that a straight one might be better if I had a different guitar.

The You Tube videos showed me a lot of things. Some guys were essentially breaking a bottle and smoothing off the sharp edges on a concrete sidewalk. My father gave me my first myth in this whole bottle breaking saga. He, “knew for a fact,” that a scored (one cut with a glass cutter) that had a string soaked in kerosene (for a cooler slower burn) would result in a hot “fault” that when immersed in cold water would allow the bottle to break in a controlled fashion along the line of the fault or score. What resulted was a jagged uneven break. I tried this method five times. What was worse was the glass had “crazed” cracks that ran throughout the end of the attempted slide. Worse the glass took on a smoky carbonized color. It was a disaster. I tried five times. I even used different diameters of string and alcohol as a fuel. I achieved the same failure each time. However, there are lots of video that demonstrate this technique that have a pretty close to acceptable result. I’m not saying this can’t be done, there are many methods, but I couldn’t reproduce the results.

The next you tube video that did offer me some good information was a German guy (I think) who employed a hammer and a long screwdriver to make two cuts. It was this video that made me realize I had to make two cuts, because the lip of the bottle was essentially wasted space that hampered what little control I had. You can buy wine bottle slides but they always have that end on them. Some guitarists want to show that wine bottle lip off, but not me. However, for me, there just wasn't enough safety equipment on Earth to attempt this method.

So this finally gets us to what I am doing and what has worked for me many times. On my way home from work one day I noticed some tradesmen laying ceramic tile. They were laying these huge tiles the size of a pizza box. Now one guy was using a traditional cutter and breaking the tiles on an acute edge with his hands. He was pretty macho! But his buddies were making really complex angled cuts with a cutoff saw. So I figured that an abrasive slowly applied could be controlled. I was right.

So here is the method I use. I bought a tungsten carbide hacksaw blade. It works flawlessly. However, it is not as easy as just mounting it in your hacksaw frame, and mitering your cuts. Your control goes out the window. So here is what I do…

First I pick my bottle and find about two hours that I can work undisturbed. Making these things makes a sinister sound and it attracts people with all kinds of questions. You might imagine me explaining playing a guitar with a wine bottle. Anyway, when picking a bottle always use a cork top wine bottle. I have found two with a sort of off center hole, that results in the sides being a little thick and a little thin on two areas of the slide. This is to say the least desirable. Stay away from screw top bottles. Beer and whiskey bottles didn’t work for me either.

So then get out your tungsten carbide blade. Wrap one side for hand comfort if you wish. Buy a small bottle of bottled water in a plastic bottle. Drink the water; you don’t want to waste it, because the bottle is what you need. Fill it up with tap water, and make a pinhole (I use the awl on my Swiss army knife) in the cap. drop in a few drops of dish soap. You will also need a roll of electricians black tape and three nylon wire “stay tyes” or “zip ties.” You will need a round “chain saw” file.

Use safety equipment. Protect your eyes, skin, and lungs. If you use a water bottle most of the particulate risk is negated. The real safety issue comes in touching your face or using the bathroom before washing your hands carefully. Eating is the same. Don’t do this near your dogs. The effluvium looks like milk.

OK, so the first cut you will make is the cut where the lip is, thankfully the lip is one source of the guide to miter your cut. Use the nylon wire tie to guide the other side. Now I know what you are thinking, if you have one solid side why worry about the other? Surely my hand is steady enough to make the cut. It is heartbreaking thought when the saw blade goes skating across your slide scratching it all to hell.

Even though you are going to wear a dust mask, you must use the water at all times. If you do not, the cut glass particles are active and fly everywhere. Also, the more particulate matter literally floats in the air for you to breathe. So wetting it traps the material in a fluid state not allowing it to do nefarious deeds to your health. Adding a few drops of dish soap also acts as a lubricant.

So make the first cut by slowly scratching until you get a cut the width of the saw blade, about one-two millimeters deep. Wet the bottle and the blade liberally. The zip tie will serve as an excellent guide until you get to its protruding lock. Then you simply spin the tie a bit allowing clearance for the remainder of the cut. Then stop. Remove the zip tie and take out your round file. This is important. It took me five bottles to figure this one out. As you draw your blade to and fro, the carbide blade catches the edge of the already cut lip on the outstroke, and “flakes” large, thin, sharp chunks out of your slide. We combat this by beveling the cut edge with a round file, slowly and often. After you have a good bevel dry the thing off and wrap the slide with black tape up to the edge of the beveled cut. Try as you may you could still flake the slide a bit. As it is thin and sharp, and in your hand, you are cut before you are aware. The electrician’s tape catches these flakes. Also if your blade goes skating across the slide the tape will prevent the nasty scratches.

After the bevel is made with the file, it is quite simple to continue cutting with your blade. Remember to wash the bottle often. You will know when the slurry starts to become “thicker.” You will cut for an extended period of time. You may become bored and disenfranchised with the whole process. You may think the cut is so deep it has to break straight now. Three of my bottles would argue that point. It breaks unevenly on the inside of the bottle. It also flakes on the inside. Take your sweet time.

Now when you near the end of cutting the whole end off the sound “thins” somewhat sounding a little more tinny. You will soon emerge through the glass wall on the inside. As you can imagine the whole thing is paper thin now, so a good hearty cut destroys the whole thing. So when you hear this sound go slow. Make tiny slow cuts until you emerge. When you first break through to the other side a small ovoid hole appears. Stop.  Find another location and do the same. The reason why is, the first emerging holes are small. The larger the hole becomes the more “grabby” it becomes. So if you make a cut it holds on and you cut the whole end of in one stroke chipping ad flaking the inside. Your goal should be to make as many of these ovoid holes as possible while keeping the end attached. Finally it will be time to make the last cuts.

The last cuts are not difficult. You simply go to the areas that still connect the bottle. Cutting through them is easy because they are now impossibly thin and are near to the same size as the corresponding hole. Just go slow until it falls off. At that time take your round file and smooth the inside. These edges are crazy sharp. So do both your slide, and the waste product, because I promise you someone is curious about what you are doing and will sift through the recycling bin to discover your secrets. Just file the circumference and it won’t be a worry.

OK. So hopefully you have an idea of the length of your slide. For me it was the length of my pinky from the web of my finger to just a millimeter or two shy of the entire length of the finger. This gives me just a bit of fortuitous hangout control. Too short and you slip off the large “E” string. Too large and you clunk around when you play. So when you know you just mark the length and make your second cut in the same fashion. There are two exceptions though. The first is if you are cutting a flanged bottle. It is very hard to make the zip tie stable on that acute angle. Here just over wrap with electrician’s tape until you have a hard edge and it does the same thing. It just takes more time.

The other exception is the surface below where you are working. If you are working above a hard surface such as concrete, the effects of gravity on your new slide when you make that last cut are very disappointing.  Work on grass or a rubber matt of some fashion.

To finish the slide simply sand with varying grades of wet dry sand paper with water until it is smooth. Be careful not to sand the inside because that makes for a bad visual effect as well.

So in closing, if you are impatient, or are prone to cut corners do not attempt this project. The glass is crazy sharp, and will cut you. The particulate glass is dangerous both dry and wet. Use safety equipment. Wearing gloves is advisable until you get the feel of the wet glass. Eye protection here is obvious. However if you are patient you can measure your desired finger, and cut yourself a custom slide to best any commercial product bought off of the shelf.

1 comment:

  1. So are you basically saying we need to drink lots of wine? I don't play much slide, but I have a glass one that came with an early issue of Total Guitar. I heard that someone offered to make them without realising how big a job it would be. I assume there are ways to do this on some sort of machine in less time. I admire your dedication and your slippery finger ;)